Terribly out of date (but it’s a snapshot of a moment so it doesn’t really matter), my 2011 essay on Egypt for Critical Muslim is now online. From today’s perspective March and April 2011 look like a golden age. Who would have predicted the wave of fascism currently overwashing the Sisi junta’s state?
Cairo felt different. Tahreer Square, of course, carried a new set of meanings. The traffic, the pollution, the Stalinist gloom of the Mugamma building – these had shrunk, and revolutionary grafitti, redignified national flags, and the endlessly various Egyptian people now dominated the eye. It didn’t feel the same either to walk over the Qasr el-Nil bridge, not after the glorious battle of January 28th. (I kept trying to work out where the police van was burnt.) And the streets were in fact cleaner, even that, in central Cairo at least. In ritual overcompensation for the years of filth, people had been observed during the revolution’s 18 days scrubbing the pavements with toothbrushes. A man in a café called Ali Jabr explained it to me: “The Egyptians used to hate their country just as they used to hate themselves. Anywhere you went in the world, the people thought the Egyptians were rubbish. And the Egyptians agreed. After the revolution we know we aren’t rubbish, so we pick our rubbish up from the streets.”
You know that something rare and powerful is occurring, something all-encompassing, not limited to a political or intellectual elite, when even a mobile nuts-and-seeds stall has ‘Social Justice’ stenciled on its side.
I visited in late March and early April. My plane to Cairo was a quarter full at best. The airport was almost empty.
The immigration guard peered long at me and asked if I was originally Iranian, prompting me to wonder if anything had changed at all. There were no pictures of Mubarak on the walls. That was a change.
Then the driver who took me into town. He addressed the revolution immediately. “Tell me congratulations!” he grinned. I did so. “We’ve finished with him!” he exulted. “We’re free!” Pictures of some of freedom’s martyrs swung from the rear-view mirror.
I asked who he wanted for president now.
“Whoever proposes the best programme. The personality isn’t important. The ideas are important, the policies. I’ll judge on that.”
Most of Egypt considered itself a potential winner, but the losers were visible too. There was the burnt-out frame of the National Democratic Party headquarters for a start, hulking over the river like a man shamed in the stocks. And the police, who I was told “are sulking.” Certainly fewer patrolled than when I had last been here, and those who did certainly seemed less sure in their swagger, as if they’d recognized themselves at last – poorly trained, underemployed, unloved.
The news on the cab radio as we drove from the airport: the Ministry of the Interior was burning, the fire blamed on police officers protesting outside for a pay rise and the prosecution of their corrupt commanders. But their undeclared demand was for respect. I saw a poster pasted anonymously to Nileside walls pleading for trust to be restored in the police “on the basis of mutual love, not insult… for there are many noble men in the police force.”
During the revolution, Mubarak’s interior minister Habib al-Adli (currently on trial) ordered the police to withdraw from duty at the same time as he ordered the prisons emptied. This was the regime’s apres-moi-le-deluge card, to demonstrate just how awful post-regime chaos would be. Marauding thugs, some with agendas but most opportunists, poured through the prison doors, picked up or were handed weapons, and swarmed the city’s neighbourhoods. The people formed Neighbourhood Committees in response, and defended their homes. As side-effect to the restoration of order, there was a degree of vigilante injustice. Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr, who writes for al-Masry al-Yowm and blogs at www.inanities.org, observed ten men beating up a fifteen-year-old, a suspect miscreant.
As well as withdrawing on orders, the police were often driven from the streets. Policemen begged residents in the towered apartment blocks around Tahreer for civilian clothes, and dumped their uniforms in order to fly. Police stations burnt all over the country. Even after Mubarak’s fall, a policeman was thrashed in Ma’adi, south Cairo, and his vehicle burnt, for brandishing his gun pre-revolution style at a man who’d transgressed traffic regulations.On March 5th the dreaded State Security Intelligence buildings were stormed.
Which meant Egypt had changed at street level. Authority in general was open to question.
A friend in Ma’adi detected several resulting, and contradictory, trends. The previously snooty, he noted, were now treating their social inferiors with exaggerated respect. Uncovered women were moving more pridefully than usual, as if they felt they owned the moment. Salafis appeared all over the place, comfortably frowning, as if they’d been hidden before.
The army was gently enforcing the curfew, from midnight to six am when I arrived, then put back to two. I contravened once, taking too long in a Downtown café. APCs blocked some main roads, but side roads were open. It was easy to take a taxi to my hotel.
I was there during a period of calm, but still the universities were demonstrating for the dismissal of pro-Mubarak teaching staff; still outside Maspero, the state TV and radio building, activists and media workers were protesting against an anti-protest law and demanding the sacking of compromised officials. ‘Sarkhet Namla’ or ‘An Ant’s Scream’ was showing at the cinema, a film whose plot eerily anticipates the revolution: filming finished in October 2010. At the Talee’a theatre ‘A Ticket to Tahreer’ was playing, billed as an ‘improvised documentary’ of recent events. Zamalek’s galleries displayed pictures of crowds and fists, flags and blood. The city was fuller than usual of intense discussion, and an atmosphere of disbelief, of expectancy. It was a healthy time.
And Egypt, lest we so suddenly forget, had been seriously sick. It seemed so stuck in its sickness that it would never get well. The sickness was political, economic, cultural and social. The country that had been the undisputed leader of the Arab world, the home of Um Kulsoom, Naguib Mahfouz, Saad Zaghloul and AbdulNasser, the seat of al-Azhar, had become a tragi-comedy. Tiny Qatar demonstrated more political pluck. At least a third of Egyptians were illiterate. Half lived in extreme poverty. The clerical establishment issued unintentionally amusing fatwas and justified the construction of an underground wall on the Palestinian border. Pollution, sectarian hatred and sexual harrassment were on an inexorable rise. The buildings collapsed, the trains caught fire, the ferries sank. Egypt was stagnant, the stagnant heart of a stagnant Arab world. That’s how it looked to the outside, and to many on the inside too.
And then the revolution.
To read the rest, see the Critical Muslim website.