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Shades of Gray

February 5, 2011

One of the mythic structures that shapes narratives about this conflict is that it is divided into anti-Mubarak protesters, a rainbow coalition of all walks of Egyptian life bravely defying the tyrant, and pro-Mubarak hired thugs, lobbing stones and Molotov cocktails and abusing journalists.

But the truth on the ground seems to be much more complex. While there are members of every part of Egyptian society among the throngs in Tahrir, the protesters do not represent the whole of Egyptian society. And many people who agree that Mubarak should go are tired of the protests and the protesters.

When the uprising started Aline, a wealthy Egyptian student studying abroad, posted to her Facebook page “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” The next day, as the protests swelled, she posted “Yalla Misr!” (Go, Egypt!).

But by Wednesday she had shared a statement by an Egyptian friend, a fellow former student at Egypt’s most expensive private school saying that as Mubarak had agreed to step down, appointed a vice-president and it was time to stop.

“I know everyone of you loves his country EGYPT, but you are not helping the situation by spreading hate and more protests” the statement said.

Aline’s family derives most of its considerable income from tourism. They must worry daily not only about the collapse of their income but, with security having collapsed, the risk that their facilities might be looted.

It is not only the rich who are unhappy. There are middle class shopkeepers who are angry because their shops continue to be closed because of the protest.

Many of the working poor are unhappy with what is going on. They are extremely vulnerable to the economic and social costs of the uprising, and they are culturally conditioned to look to a strong paternalistic leader who will care for the country and who is understood to be greater than they are. This is reinforced by state television, which is the only media to which most of them have access.

Thus some of my young Facebook friends from rural communities like Siwa were posting pro-Mubarak photos by Jan. 26, and there was a story told on Al-Jazeera about the working man who came down to Tahrir to protest for Mubarak, prompted by what he saw and heard on state television, but when he got there and began talking with people decided to join the protest.

Thus while there are plenty of working poor in the crowds, there are also many who are unhappy with the continued chaos. I’m struck by the story told on NPR by the blogger “Arabist” about his argument with his garbage collector or stories told me by friends whose neighbors went door-to-door urging people not to attend anymore protests

Even some members of “shabab Facebook”—the young, educated social media-savvy people who are said to be the core of the uprising may get tired.

One young Egyptian woman wrote me that she and a friend joined the Friday, Jan. 28 protest, shouted ant-government slogans, and were tear-gassed by Central Security police and spent hours hiding in buildings as they tried to make their way home.

But after Mubarak’s second address to the nation on Feb. 2, her friend decided to join what Al-Jazeera, CNN and others called the “pro-Mubarak” protesters in Mohandiseen. Yet he was not become pro-Mubarak; he simple felt that the protesters had made significant political gains and should stop demonstrating.

My informant also got a call late one night from another friend who had spent three days camping out in Tahrir now pleading with her not to go into Tahrir again. It is now time to think and plan and write, she said, not demonstrate

However real their facts, and however good their reporting, journalists are storytellers, and their stories often reduce real world complexities to simple binary accounts between good guys and bad guys, for example.

The problem is that framing the events in Egypt as a battle between pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak groups marginalizes many Egyptians from all classes whose social actions and political stances don’t fit neatly into either of these categories.

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