Meeting at "the Corner" on 25 January
Mohamed Elmeshad

Almasry AlYoum / English Edition

I asked a friend about the 25 January protests, where I should be and when. He said “meet me at the corner, and we’ll go.”

That took me back. No one has told me to meet them at “the corner” in a while.

Street corners are places in Egypt most young men associate with their neighborhood. It’s the easiest place to tell your friends to meet you.

“The corner” usually needs no further adjectives or identifiers--if you’re talking to someone from your area. The innocuous phrase carries an undertone of being used between childhood friends who may move on to different paths in life and disparate fortune or diverging view points. The corner is not a restaurant someone might object to for being too dirty or too expensive. It’s also not a hang out or social scene that anyone in the group can claim has become too liberal or too conservative for their taste.

No, when I need to get back in touch with some of my childhood friends--who have all become wildly different--I meet them at the corner. There happens to be a kiosk by the corner, though it needs no mentioning. If anyone wants some soda or a Borio they just go get it, offer us some, and rejoin the conversation. There was Mahmoud, Yasser, Osama, Ahmed, Fady, Bibo, Misho, and Waleed. Sorry, no women. This was after all an Egyptian street corner.

We haven’t met in a while because our sporadic meetings have not been able to deal well with the different paths our lives have taken, and how living in or outside of Egypt has affected us all. Our corner-side debates turned into individual declarations of purpose. What’s frightening is that as these declarations take on a mutually exclusive tone that can live side-by-side with friendship, as we all know if they clash the cornerhood bond will definitely lose.

I’m writing this initially because of a corner conversation I had during the last parliamentary elections with Osama, who graduated from the military academy two years ago. He turned from Ahmed’s scrawny little brother, who’d get smacked for speaking out of turn, into a brawny man, groomed into a chivalric military prototype.

Despite his newly acquired reticence, we managed to have a decent conversation about politics, fraught as ever with tautologies. When it came time for me to ask about his own opinion his response was curious: “I can’t have a political perspective. I’m in the military.”

“I don’t get why you can’t be in the military and still have an opinion as to how best to manage the public resources of this country, facilitate development, handle foreign policy and ensure justice between the people. It’s just an opinion. You are a citizen alongside being in the military. I don’t get it,” I said.

“Look at it this way. If I’m on the battlefield, and let’s say for instance I am in the NDP, how can I fight knowing that the guy to my right is a Wafdist, and to my left is a guy from the Brotherhood? It can’t happen! We need to avoid all of this to be able to trust each other on the battlefield.”

I was dumbstruck. Not because Osama hadn't become as intelligent and worldly as I'd thought, but because of my brief glimpse of how easily a branch of the government believes Egyptians will forgo any notion of national unity and indeed turn on each other just for having a different political outlook.

The concept of feeling a sense of belonging and pride in being Egyptian has been so maligned over the 30 years since the Nasser era, when most of the country knew exactly what they meant when they said they’re Egyptian.

Has the sense of belonging and national pride been so shot to the ground that there is no overriding national identity that can contain differences in it? Notice the words he used when describing the catastrophe of a fictional battle scene, “I am in the NDP… the guy to my right is a Wafdist, and to my left is in someone from the Brotherhood.” He painted a mosaic without attempting to group them under an umbrella.

I get the sense that members of the executive branch of the government are taught to think that. The government is the government, while everyone else is just random groupings we have to deal with. It feels like the government benefits from this divisive multiplicity. After the tragic Alexandria church bombing that hurt me (and many people I know) in a very profound and personal way, the affirmation of Coptic-Muslim solidarity was so over the top and fake at times, that it felt like society had turned into a mosaic it’s trying to arbitrarily fit together again.

The crescent-cross logos coming out at every turn are an unfortunate illustration of that. I had to sit and listen to an artist deliberating how to best portray the crescent-cross symbol without undermining one or over imposing the other. “We need it to portray unity, you know? It has to portray Egypt, without upsetting one religion over another. It has to be both artistic, philosophical, and a rallying point.”

Really? I know he meant well, but…really? We’ve reached a point--I realized we reached it a while ago--where we have to figure out how to artistically blend the crescent and the cross together on every billboard and placard to symbolize our national unity now? Since when was the flag not enough? And I know the short answer for this is: stop being naïve.

Many people mean well when they call for national unity, but they must realize that the duality is having a reverse effect. Duality in itself is not the problem, it’s the sense of “otherness” that tends to be embedded with it here. Polemic takes away from the fact that change on the ground has to happen under the slogan: We’re fixing our country. We need to avoid: We’re one and the same! Really, I swear! There’s no difference between us. Look, I even have a Coptic friend, and have a cross and crescent symbol tattooed right above my bellybutton!

Coincidentally, I stopped seeing Fady and Bibo on the corner a while ago. “They’re always at their church or something,” Ahmed said.

Yes, we’re back to the corner analogy. It is supposed to symbolize how a sense of national (or geographical unity) was supposed to be something that bound people from the same hood or country.

That nostalgic faculty in us that reminds us of childhood times and places must have something to do with the sense of nationalism that is dying in so many Egyptians for so many reasons I can’t venture into here. To sum up, politics, religion and the government’s role are being bastardized to tear Egyptians apart. In my journalistic work, the terms “us and them” are used too often in different contexts, but the most common is between people and the government. This makes me conclude that someone high up must be benefiting from all the chasms in society. It takes the focus off how the government and security apparatus treat people as subjects for manipulation however they can.

This is where Tunisia can have an effect, and this is where we might be able to find our collective corner again. I’m not letting go of “the corner” analogy just yet! I’m beating it dead, like a suspect in an Alexandrian prison.

On 25 January, if activist groups come out asking for their rights, as the Tunisians did, people from the Wafd, NDP, Brotherhood will stand together on their corner with Copts, Salafists and secularists, knowing their differences but laughing about them; knowing that the true “other” is a government that has kept them from speaking their mind and achieving their potential for decades.

I guess in “the corner” the “other” would be our parents calling us at 3am after a night of chilling on the corner. Or the police who come to yell at us whenever we start a fire in an empty barrel.

25 January will most probably not lead to big sweeping changes--though I hope to God I am wrong about this.

My simplest hope is that it will provide a chance to reflect on why Egyptians don’t deserve to be subjugated by a government such as ours. Even if the protests fail to achieve the movements’ demands, I’d personally be very happy with a silver lining of realizing why we are attached to this large neighborhood and how it brings us together.