CAIRO - It just happened one day, without prior notice. On Jan. 26, Moheddin Marwan lowered the iron curtain of his grocery store at lunchtime. When he came back to work the next day, he just stood there petrified, as motionless as the new barricade that blocked the access to his shop.
Stacked up like Lego bricks, the concrete blocks literally cut Cairo"s Sheikh-Reyhan Street in two – erected by authorities to protect official buildings from protesters. As if the center of the city wasn’t disfigured enough after two years of clashes between protesters and police forces.
So the man with a salt-and-pepper beard who protested against Mubarak and voted for Morsi, this 49-year-old grocer from the corner store, rolled up his sleeves, moved the Coca Cola crates in the back of his shop and unlocked the emergency exit door. In a matter of minutes, the “Marwan passageway” was born.
“I wasn’t going to just let my business die like that! One more wall won’t stop the violence. It just poisons Egyptians’ everyday life. Instead of fixing the problems, the government creates new ones!” says Marwan. The sound of footsteps on the asphalt interrupt him. A herd of suits, satchels on their shoulders, flows into the store only to come out the other way. It’s 2 p.m., the end of the workday for public administrations. “That will cost you five gineihs (70 cents)!” jokes Marwan, pretending to be a customs official.
“Why not? You should put up a toll, just like the Suez canal!” answers one of the suits. “I could make a fortune out of it! More than a thousand people go through my shop every day to bypass the barricades!” says Marwan. “The thing is, this hole in the wall is all that’s left of the spirit of the revolution – solidarity between Egyptians.”
Cairo's graffiti artists relentlessly cover up the new barricades - Photo: Gigi Ibrahim
For a long time, the shopkeeper believed in the revolution. In January and February 2011, he was standing in Tahrir Square, unafraid of the police’s bullets, shouting “erhal” (“beat it”) to Mubarak. His 19-year-old son Muhammad even lost his voice because of the tear gas. “When he started talking again, he sounded like a little girl. The gas had created an infection that we were never able to cure,” he says.
Then, during the June 2012 presidential elections, this fierce opponent to Ahmed Shafik, whom he considers to be “a remnant of the former regime,” voted for Mohamed Morsi: “Not because I like the Muslim Brotherhood, but because he seemed like a nice guy.”
"We'll blow it up"
Now, he’s angry at everyone: the government, for “chasing after its own interests,” but also the protesters, “overly excited youngsters who are acting like hooligans and who make our lives miserable.” The father of two was used to waking up at 5 a.m. to open his store until 11 p.m. But now he’s having problems making ends meet. “The breach in the barricade saved me but my benefits plummeted. After 2 p.m., clients are scarce. When there are demonstrations, I have to close my shop.”
He’s not the only one to criticize the new concrete barricades. In the maze that the center of Cairo has become, cafés don’t have enough clients and taxis barely manage to zigzag through. Everyone has to be resourceful to find ways around the new situation. Like this woman with a scarf who proceeds to climb the blocks behind Tahrir Square, with her heels in her hand. Or this group of insubordinates, who recently managed to bring down one of the barricades – oblivious to the police’s tear gas. The next morning, the wall was back up again. Relentless in their defiance, Cairo’s graffiti artists were already busy covering it up with anti-Morsi graffiti.
These concrete blocks are now part of Cairo’s inhabitants’ daily lives. So much so that singer Youssra El Hawary composed a song about it – within 10 months, her song El Soor (The Wall) had reached 200,000 views on YouTube and become one of the most popular songs of the post-revolution era.
To his surprise, Moheddin Marwan also became quite famous. One of the concrete blocks in front of his store reads “Marwan Passageway” in Arabic. “People like me because I refuse no one. The other day, someone even carried his bike across the shop,” he says.
However, being a good Samaritan earned him a visit from an Internal Affairs agent. “He came here and accused me of smuggling potential protesters. I told him: ‘What do you want me to do? Close my store indefinitely and starve to death?’ He then suggested that I file a complaint to the police. A complaint! Seriously! Nobody will listen. My patience has limits. If the wall is still here in the next few days, I’ll call my son and we’ll blow it up.”
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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