Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Forgotten

In the current zeitgeist of callous authorities and a suffering, discontented people, there is one liminal group that belongs to both government and people yet is spurned by both. A group literally quarantined in vast camps far away from vibrant city centers and sociable hamlets, yet crucial for managing and forestalling the kind of sociable traffic unsettling to the powers that be. A group made up of thousands of wretched, sun-baked Egyptians in fearsome black helmets and uniforms, festooned with the state’s insignia, carrying stinging batons and impenetrable shields, ready to put down all manner of disorder.

The Central Security Forces, Egypt’s riot gendarmerie, number anywhere between 350,000-450,000. They surely hail from the true underclass, the 3.1 percent of the Egyptian population living below $1 a day (as per the UNDP’s count). They’re the seemingly endless mass of black-clad humanity enlisted to separate small clumps of angry citizens from far larger masses of fearful, atomized citizens. Their kindly, bemused, open faces contort in fearful, alien grimaces as they mechanically obey the orders to beat and quell. Yet they gratefully accept water and refreshments from those very malcontents whom they’re charged with suppressing. They steal furtive smiles at the demonstrators’ piquant slogans and irreverent insouciance, straightening up quickly when the cocky officer walks by. They show a touching, chivalrous respect for a woman they don’t know, as they would treat a sister, but make no fine distinctions between men and women protestors, quelling both with equal ferocity.

These thousands of unfortunate human beings are the very sinews of Egypt’s police state, without which it would crumple like a rotting building. Their conscription calls to mind Muhammad Ali’s snatching of peasants for faraway schemes they did not understand. But Ali and his Egyptian-averse heirs at least turned repression into construction. The modern state has no such ambition. It seeks merely put-downs, abortion, disintegration, anything challenging its claim to supreme control. And it enlists the most hapless, most vulnerable Egyptians; isolates, trains, and cows them; and prompts them to see enemies in every corner and threats in every angry outburst. Does it handpick the illiterate so they can’t read protest banners or talk back to the officers? So we’re told. With a little less than half the population still illiterate, so we can believe. No praetorians, these.

Back in 1986, they mutinied when hit by the rumor that their term of service would extend from three to four years. They set hotels and nightclubs aflame and spread their rage outside Cairo before the army quelled their wrath. The army had also descended into the streets to prop up the regime when the 1977 “food riots” threatened to topple it, but the deciders-that-be reckoned that a special, more amenable force managed by Interior was better fit for the job. Hence the origin of Quwwat al-Amn al-Markazi, the Central Security Forces, who’ve since been dispatched from the center to the margins, from the cities to the villages and satellite towns where peasants and workers waxed defiant.

The men of the CSF still live in atrocious, sub-human conditions, their desolate camps deemed convenient sites for torturing dissidents and motley “terrorists.” Occasional palliatives and pathetic salary raises coexist with an iron-fisted discipline determined never to repeat the 1986 breach. We have no way of knowing the world of Egypt’s most wretched, save for rare peaks such as Ahmad Zaki gave us in his arresting performance in Atef al-Tayyeb’s masterpiece al-Bari’ (eerily, released in 1986). Though he was portraying technically a different kind of police figure, the equally hapless prison gendarme, the tragedy is no less profound.

I see the terrifying regalia of the CSF officer, bedecked in methodical weapons of mass suppression, and I behold the honest face of a poor, put-upon Egyptian, heir to decades of repression and humiliation, traces of dignity clinging stubbornly to the haggard features. I ferret for signs of a murmuring mutiny, but see only fatigue and quiet misery. I smile with a message of apology and sympathy, he smiles back guardedly and always bashfully. And so we pass our days, waiting for deliverance.