Samak Laban Tamerind à la Tahrir

Cairo, January 2012- I did not quite know what to expect, I left the dreams, the plans, the assumptions behind me and I just headed to the most famous square in the Middle East, where the blossom of freedom had inspired the entire world. I went to see Tahrir.

At first glance, I noticed very little graffiti (apparently all the ant-SCAF graffiti has been painted on). One lady was selling post cards, a mix of famous leaders from the brotherhood’s Hassan al-Banna to Nasr, and from Che Guevara to Saddam Husain. The entire place had a unique smell, not off putting, just different, a mixture of sweet potato, smoke, pollution, and even garbage, thankfully there was no tear gas!

Then, I stumbled into Sayyed, a middle-aged man with modest clothing, sitting on his bike carrying a sign with three words; Samak (fish), Laban (milk), Tamerind (Egyptian local drink).

“I was here from day one of the revolution, I helped this American journalist who was assaulted (I think he meant Lara Logan), and I carried many injured on my bike during Mohamed Mahmoud’s events. Now I’ve had enough and I don’t like what I see, they are abusing Tahrir, this is not the way it should be.”  He said.

My conversation with Sayyed turned into a lively and passionate discussion when a group of men joined in. They all acknowledged how the situation is confusing, and messy. They expressed anger at everyone; the army, the Islamists, the non-Islamists parties and the activists. “Every one has his own agenda, they do not care about this country any more, they only care about their own glory,” one young guy said.

However, when I asked what is the right way forward? the agreement quickly evaporated and was replaced with heated argument. Some including Sayyed want no more sit-in Tahrir, whilst others insist that demonstrations are the only way forward until the revolution achieves all the demands. Some expressed mistrust towards the Islamists, others expressed confidence in them. The heated argument become louder and louder. An old guy whispered in my ear, “no one wants to listen, instead, each one wants to impose his views. It is a dirty battle of ideas, a form of mental thuggery.”

The debate in Tahrir was indicative of the wider poisonous political environment in Egypt. Sayyed’s sign -Fish, Milk and Tamarind- (a statement commonly used in Egypt to describe a cocktail of unrelated and totally mismatching stuff) reflect the sour and even pathological relationship between the military council, the revolutionary activists and the new Islamic parliamentary majority.  

Tahrir has become the Avatar of the New Egypt that is constantly changing its colours, and style in order to reflect the post-uprising dynamics in a complex fragile political order. Currently, not just politicians are divided about the future of Egypt; ordinary Egyptians seem also divided about the best way forward.

Egyptians are torn between their long-term addiction to stability, and their newly acquired fascination with demonstrations. Both the Islamists and the Military Council are happy to exploit their dilemma for political gains.

Therefore, it is crucial for Egyptians to understand that fake stability is not sustainable, and it is about time to wean  “our daddy” out of politics simply because it is not a healthy relationship any more. On the other hand, activists need to understand that angry demonstrations without a clear roadmap is simply pointless. Slogans like “down with military rule,” and  “bread, freedom and social justice” are great but need to be coupled with a clear process of how, when and why.

If the 25th of January 2011 was about throwing Mubarak out of  power, 25th of January 2012 should be about the new constitution. This constitution is the key for throwing the military out of power, and the safety valve that can protect the new democracy from any tyrannic tendency by the new Islamic parliamentary majority.  It should help Egypt to develop a strong civil society with reforms in education, minority rights, freedom of worship and independence of religious authority. These are the kind of demands, which I hope to see on Wednesday.

Both the Military and the Islamists need to understand that the days of  propaganda, rhetorics and playing with emotions are long gone, and the society is the new big brother that is continuously watching them.

As Sayyed in Tahrir aptly explained, the current political cocktail is not harmonious with smelly fish, curdled milk, and vinegary tamarind. Now it is the time for fresh ingredients  and political maturity in order to demystify the foggy political sphere. Purging of the old  toxic system needs more than anger. It needs time, shrewdness and political resilience. The damage limitation of the dodgy transitional period should start right now.

About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
This entry was posted in Egypt. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Samak Laban Tamerind à la Tahrir

  1. Jon Goodfellow says:

    Thanks for another insightful post that helps build my discernment of what is really happening in a crux of the Middle East. I came across another insightful native observer of events there you might find interesting: . The author is another native Egyptian who is an economist and another keen observer of developments there. My own, perhaps naive Whiggish view of history, sees the Egypt of today optomistically as one of a people coming out from under a long historical shadow of oppression (both internal and external). Perhaps like Turkey forming a modern nation reconciling the best of its diverse Ottoman past while shedding the worst of Kemalism. At least that is what Akyol seems to be saying. Keep it coming from the Egyptian streets for the naive observers such as I.


  2. Yet another very good piece. Thank you. It is as you and Sayyed have said, “Samak, Laban, Tamerind”. In other words, it is “bazramit”! Bazramit is a Coptic words that is still used in Egypt of today: it means a meal that is made up of ten ingredients. The multiplicity of non-harmonious items in it makes it no meal at all. Such is Egypt’s so-called democracy. There are two toxic ingredients in Egypt’s bazramit which you and I know. But I am not telling here. The reader can work his mind!


  3. Jon Goodfellow says:

    Are you folks thinking of something like the modern analog to the historical Urabi revolt and the subsequent development of quasi-independent militias?


  4. Jon Goodfellow says:

    “Difficult to tell” is a good call. Everyone seems to worry about MB vs. Salafists vs. military (neo-Mamluks per your earlier post). As for “liberals”, Cairo is most definitely not Istanbul, according to an old UNESCO acquaintance there. But if you believe their spokesmen, the MB appears very pragmatic in political policy. There is an old Sufi saying I remember from Edirne: The most misled is the one who misleads others. My earnest hope is that Cairo doesn’t become like Beirut. I am going to Istanbul for an international public health forum later this year and have thought to visit Cairo as well as Sarajevo to renew old acquaintances. One hopes the Ibn Tulun and Muhamed Ali mosques would still tolerate an old Nasrani visitor 20+ years later. We are not all Salibis!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s