"Have We Gone Crazy?" Journey Inside Cairo's Violent Anti-U.S. Protests

A video still of protests this week in Cairo
A video still of protests this week in Cairo
Ali Abdel Mohsen

CAIRO - At this very moment, Americans are piling into movie theaters, cheering through their popcorn at the notion of the Islamic prophet as a goat-romancing child molester, and sending “The Innocence of Muslims” to the top of the box office charts. This evil must be stopped at all costs, or at least, “before the film is released in European cinemas,” urges Ahmed Ibrahim as, behind him, three of his colleagues collect rocks off the rubble-strewn street and dump them onto an improvised sling — a tattered and stained Egyptian flag.

Like the hundreds of young people surrounding him, 23-year-old Ibrahim claims to have spent the last three days hurling rocks at — and surviving lethal attacks by — the security forces that have not only “prevented the Islamic population from defending their honor,” but, worse yet, chosen to “align themselves with the American pigs, rather than remain loyal to their own religion.”

As the four young men each grab a corner of the cloth and rush off with a flagful of ammunition, they pick up on the chant roaring over the scene, a holdover from the 2011 revolution, mutated to fit the occasion: “The people say anything but the prophet.”

Misguided as their efforts may be — like most protesters at the scene, Ibrahim believes “The Innocence of Muslims” is a Hollywood production that, like any local or international film released in Egypt, and presumably elsewhere, passes through several rounds of censorship and receives official state approval from its own government before seeing the light of day — there is little doubt over the severity of the situation, and its potential fallout.

Already, yet another wall has been erected by security forces at the head of the street leading to the embassy in order to keep groups of Egyptians from murdering each other and deepening an international crisis, and the downtown stretch between Tahrir and the US Embassy is back to looking like a war zone, developments which don’t seem to have had any effect in sobering up infuriated protestors.

An apology and executions

“What do you mean ‘smart’ course of action?” one protester roars at Egypt Independent’s suggestion. “The film has already been made; it exists. Our only course of action is war, because this was an act of war.”

“This is our prophet, our religion. Or are you not Muslim?” he challenged.

“We want a formal apology from US President Barack Obama, we want the filmmakers executed, and we want all copies of the film destroyed,” another protester cut in. “All those tapes must be burned.”

As news of the film broke out earlier in the week, and furor over its content and the intention of its makers mounted, the Egyptian population — along with the rest of the world — held its breath in anticipation for Friday’s planned protests, which would once again test the bitterly strained relationship between protesters and police forces.

Despite promises by the Muslim Brotherhood — which had announced it would organize peaceful protests across the nation following noon prayers, but not in Tahrir or within the vicinity of the American Embassy, so as to avoid any altercations with security forces assigned with protecting it — the square was packed as noon prayers were set to begin, and protesters — already vocalizing their rage through chants — gathered to hear the imam vow that Muslims would soon “vanquish the cross-carrying armies as we have before,” a reference to the Crusades which was met with much cheering. No sooner had prayers ended than the crowd pulled together and announced it was heading to the embassy.

The procession was an unusual sight; approximately 300 individuals of all ages — including children — mostly dressed in rags or heavily worn shirts and galabeyas, carrying signs that either praised Prophet Mohamed or condemned the hypocrisy behind the American invention of “freedom of expression” — one memorable sign read, in English, “If America says they understand freedom of expression, they must be coooooool (sic) with us.”

Weaving in and out of the group, a smaller crowd of vendors did their best to sell “double-faced Prophet love cards” — laminated index cards that bore phrases from the Koran, and statements of adoration to the Prophet on either side. “You hang it from your rear-view mirror,” one vendor explained, “or wear it around your neck.”

The group marched slowly, waving flags — some of Saudi Arabia, others, black with the phrase “There is no God but God,” which they also chanted.

Mocking cries of “peaceful, peaceful” — used as a statement of intent by protestors in early 2011 — were made and laughed at as the procession passed Omar Makram mosque, where a few individuals attempted to dissuade them from continuing to the walled-in embassy, but to little avail. “You’re going to set fire to more police cars?” an older man shouted from his spot on the sidewalk. “Who do you think ends up paying for those cars? The Egyptian people can’t even afford to eat, but they’re burning their country down. I hope the Prophet had a sense of humor!”

Prayer time?

The stream of airborne rocks is endless, young men cheering every time the shattering of glass is heard, riding on each other’s shoulders to make their insults more audible, taking apart the neighborhood around them in the hopes that its broken pieces would serve as ammunition once they run out of rocks.

“What do these people know of the prophet?” sighs Farouk.

To his left, his colleague asks, “What prophet? You think any of these people care about religion?” He turned to Egypt Independent and added, “You’d think these were the most pious people on Earth, but we were here for dawn prayers and we can tell you not a single one of them stopped throwing rocks long enough to pray.”

Moments later, two teens rush past, carrying a child with blood spurting out between the fingers he has over his right eye.

“Good,” Farouk says. “Serves him right. I hope they all die. Those little kids are all hired to add to the chaos.”

When asked hired by who, Farouk shrugs.

A few feet away, 51-year-old Reda Mohamed is wandering amongst the rock-throwing youth, sharing words of encouragement. When asked how attacking the US Embassy makes any sense, he replies flatly, “It’s their embassy.” After listening to an extremely brief explanation of how unrelated the embassy remains to the filmmakers, Mohamed, without the slightest change of tone or expression, states, “It’s wrong to attack the embassy.” But then the conversation is interrupted by two younger men who claim the film was financed, in part at least, by the US government.

Two unfortunate foreigners

The crowd erupts shortly afterwards, its attention drawn to the two foreign men being quickly escorted from the scene by a small group of Egyptians. One of the men has had his green t-shirt torn; his left shoulder and part of his chest are exposed. Within seconds, hundreds of protesters have descended upon them, some laughing, others clearly enraged, thumping the foreigners on the head, piling on top of them and trying to wrestle them to the ground while bystanders shout for help and the prevalence of common sense. “You’re beating random foreigners, you dogs!” one woman in a burqa sceams.

For several moments, the foreigner men are completely obscured by a flurry of fists and bodies, until enough individuals come to their aid and manage to extract them from the cluster. The small group escapes and is chased out of sight, with those left behind clearly struggling to come to terms with what they had just witnessed. One woman breaks down into tears, men mutter in disbelief, and an adolescent admonishes nobody in particular, shouting, “I know those men — one is Italian, the other is Dutch. They have nothing to do with this, they’re not even Americans.”

“So what if they were?” one older man bursts, before repeating the question again at a louder volume. “Have we all gone crazy?”

An answer can be found at the wall, where Hassan Eid, a protester who claims to have been “suffering” at the scene “for the past 10 days” — despite the fact that the violence began on Tuesday night — continues to bark orders at his rock-throwing comrades.

“People who say this is crazy have no honor, or religion,” he asserts. “What is so crazy about protecting your honor, and protecting what is most sacred in all our lives? This is not crazy. This is a new age, under a new regime. And this is our new way of protesting.”

The full version of this article was published at Egpyt Independent

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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