The Egypt outside 'The Square'

(Originally published by Al Jazeera America.)

Until the 1800s, the land between the Nile River and Cairo's oldest settlement, a place called Al-Fustat, was a forgotten marsh.

Only during the final decades of the 19th century did Egypt's Ottoman khedives, its local viceroys, drain the swamp and begin to expand their capital in an obsessively European style.

Full of neatly radiating boulevards and named Ismailia in honor of the ruling khedive, a new quarter grew along the east bank of the river. A bridge, later named Qasr al-Nile, or Nile Palace, allowed tourists to cross between the burgeoning district and the pyramids to the west.

At the bridge's eastern end, where it met the outskirts of Cairo proper, Khedive Ismail donated a piece of his palace gardens to build a large roundabout named Midan al-Ismailia, or Ismailia Square.

When the British military arrived in 1882 to help put down a revolt against Ismail's son, soldiers commandeered a barracks in the square. It was there in 1946, as British influence in Egypt waned, that troops brutally suppressed a massive anti-British protest.

"When the demonstrators reached Ismailiya Square … four British army vehicles moved towards them and a barrage of machine-gun fire opened up," historian and activist Ahmed Abdalla wrote in 1985. Twenty-three people were killed and 120 injured. "The government disclaimed all responsibility and blamed students for allowing their 'peaceful demonstration' to degenerate into violence 'because of infiltration by a mob.'"

In early 1953, shortly after a cadre of Egyptian military officers overthrew the remnants of the old colonial order and set Egypt on a path to decades of autocracy, they renamed the roundabout Midan al-Tahrir: Liberation Square. Even then, the former marsh's mythology had begun to grow.

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What Megyn Kelly and jihadists have in common

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone. For those hoping to see progress toward human rights, justice and democracy in the Arab world in 2013, it's been a tough, bloody slog of a year. May the next one be easier on the region's civilians in so many ways.

Given the season, I wanted to flag a clever essay by my colleague Alia Malek, who took up the risible "white Jesus" claim made by Fox News' Megyn Kelly and dove into its serious and problematic implication: the erasure of Arab Christianity from both Western and Eastern popular histories:

By no means is Kelly’s apparent discomfort with acknowledging the Middle Eastern roots of Christianity the exclusive preserve of conservatives in America; it is shared by many Muslim radicals and not so radicals who proclaim themselves jihadists. Christianity’s origins — and the Arab Christians who still populate the region — are inconvenient to a narrative that places Christianity and its adherents in the West rather than the East.

Alia includes some fascinating history from the early-20th-century United States, when Syrians fighting immigration court rulings about their "whiteness" argued that their shared ethnic descent with the people of the Holy Land meant that the courts might as well be turning away Jesus himself. American judges didn't like the sound of that then, either.

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What values could ElBaradei mean?

One month after General Abdelfattah el-Sisi appointed him vice president - following the arrest of President Mohamed Morsi and forcible end of Morsi's government, Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei isreportedly in Vienna, his second home, having quietly left Egypt behind after resigning his position in the wake of the bloody clearing of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Cairo's Rabaa el-Adaweya Mosque, where several hundred protesters - some of them armed - died in a brutal police rampage.

ElBaradei was never a savvy politician. His cleverest move - returning to Egypt amid the broiling revolutionary fervor surrounding Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's downfall in Tunisia - could be argued as a lucky twist of fate. His persona, down to his very vocal pitch, was not built for populism. Those who observed his public appearances outside of Cairo said his aides connected better with the crowd. His climactic appearance in Tahrir Square during the 18 days ended with him surrounded by a mob, struggling to be heard through a megaphone. Many Egyptians regarded him as a half-foreign, too-liberal aristocrat who lived in Austrian salons. Others found ways to blame him, as chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for enabling the US-led invasion of Iraq.

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How the Brotherhood views the crisis

What follows is a brief Q & A, conducted today, with Abdel Mawgoud Dardery, a former MP from Luxor with the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party who previously served on a delegation to Washington, DC, and is a frequent voice for the organization in Western media.

Dardery, who is in Cairo during the ongoing crisis, warns that US support for the military-backed ousting of President Mohamed Morsi risks  damaging relations with the Muslim world and suggests third-country mediation for reconciliation negotiations. He says arrests of the Brotherhood's leadership has not damaged the movement's ability to coordinate its efforts. 

 

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How did we get here?

Families have stockpiled food and water, drivers have slept nights in petrol lines that snaked for city block after city block, and power cuts have rippled across the governorates and major cities. Half a dozen people have died in a spasm of violence that threatens to become a full-blown seizure when mass protests against President Mohamed Morsi break out today. Headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party have been attacked and burned throughout the Nile Delta, and his supporters’ rallies assaulted. Brotherhood toughs have banded together outside their offices wearing hard hats and makeshift shields and carrying homemade guns, ready to bludgeon or blow away what they fear is a coming wave of paid street thugs, the very embodiment of the counter-revolution.

Morsi’s opponents, sometimes backed by police, have also taken to the streets with firearms. Longtime revolutionaries uneasy with the violent omens and new, questionable allies have swallowed their hesitation and prepare to march on the presidential palace. As protesters sacked a Brotherhood office in Alexandria on Friday, someone in the crowd stabbed to death a young American teacher filming with his camera. In beleaguered Port Said, already subject to gun battles between citizens and police that killed dozens in March, a gas tank exploded at an anti-Morsi rally, reportedly killing one man and horribly maiming many more. Rumors flew that the protest had been bombed.

The country is gripped by expectant hysteria, like a Twilight Zone version of the hours before a World Cup final: nearly 90 million penned-in bystanders waiting on the opening whistle of a match to be played for keeps with guns and knives by partisans they hardly recognize as their own.

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