Best Defense

Letter from Cairo: A stroll through the ancient city in search of the new Egypt

By Emma Sky Best Defense roving Middle East correspondent The last time I was in Cairo happened to be on 9/11 when I was on a short visit to assess how to help build up the capacity of Egyptian human rights organizations. Everyone was glued to their TV sets, expressing horror at the fate of ...

Emma Sky
Emma Sky

By Emma Sky
Best Defense roving Middle East correspondent

The last time I was in Cairo happened to be on 9/11 when I was on a short visit to assess how to help build up the capacity of Egyptian human rights organizations. Everyone was glued to their TV sets, expressing horror at the fate of the people in the Twin Towers, and yet a sense of glee at the ‘come-uppance’ of the superpower. No one believed that the attack could have been conducted by Muslims. Conspiracy theories abounded. That evening, I took a felucca down the Nile. I thought things would never be the same. But I had no idea how America would choose to respond. It was all worlds away from my life and my reality. Or so I thought.

And so now, a decade later, I am back in Cairo for a five-day trip to get a sense of the country whose regime has been removed by the people themselves — rather than through external intervention. "The situation is much better since the revolution," my taxi driver from the airport tells me. "There is more freedom. No police knocking on doors in the night." He, like most people I meet, claims with great pride that he was in Tahrir Square on 25 January.

I soon discover that ‘more freedom’ has made demonstrations a regular part of life in Cairo. The Friday midday call to prayer summons me to Tahrir Square. Some Egyptians head into the mosque, while others sit outside. Across from the Mogama (the government building), some are already staking out parts of the square to set up stalls and hold their demonstrations. They kneel in unison, praying together. After the prayers are over, more people join the demonstrators. People wave flags, paint hands and faces with the Egyptian colors of red, white, and black, and chat happily. Despite the removal of Mubarak and his cronies, the crowd still chant the slogan so identified with the revolution: "as-shaab yurid isqaat in-izaam" ("the people want the fall of the regime"). Today, there are further demands. People are protesting rumors of an offer of amnesty to Mubarak in return for returning the money he took and an apology to the Egyptian people. People are upset that Suzanne Mubarak has only confessed to having a paltry sum of money — only $4 million in assets. She is fooling the Egyptian people. She should go to jail. So should Zakaria, Mubarak’s chief of staff. There are posters of Mubarak trying to run off with the wealth of the Egyptian people, of his whole Cabinet with vampire teeth in their mouths, and of Zakaria as a tortoise accused of "corruption, blood, and slow governance." Posters call for unity between Muslims and Christians — all are Egyptians. A bank employee tells me that an agreement between Hamas and Fatah has been reached because Mubarak is gone. He stated that Mubarak was America’s poodle, preventing Palestinian unity. The atmosphere in the Square is one of carnival. Different people take turns leading the chants. I watch mesmerized. A man with a beard — presumably from the Muslim Brotherhood — leads the crowd in their chants. All join in. Then it is the turn of a young clean-shaven man. I move towards another area. A young woman, wearing a baseball cap with keffiyah round her neck, is standing on a platform singing before a crowd of young women. She shrieks the lyrics, inviting the woman to shout back. "She is no Fairuz," I mutter. And those around me laugh. What she lacks in musical talent, she makes up for in enthusiasm. There is plenty of good humor in Tahrir Square.

I piece together through numerous conversations that Egyptians had not planned to have a revolution when they had congregated in Tahrir Square back on Jan.25. They had come to call for the interior minister to step down, to complain about the secret police making arrests, to demand a higher minimum wage. They had chanted the same slogans as the people in Tunisia calling for the fall of the regime and for Mubarak to get on a plane like the Tunisian President Ben Ali — but they had not really meant it. When some protesters were killed in Suez, those in Tahrir Square decided to continue going to the square in order to honor their memory. Family members urged them to come home, to stay out of trouble, their voices had been heard, enough was enough. But Mubarak did not respond in the right way. He dispatched thugs to the square. His speeches to the nation came too late, had the wrong tone, and showed he was totally out of touch with public sentiment. All had the opposite of the intended effect: public anger increased and more people came to the square. So from 2 February onwards, the protesters had begun in earnest to demand that Mubarak should go. The Muslim Brothers manned the barricades pushing back the police, protecting the protestors and providing basic services. And thus the relationship between the Ikhwan and the secularists developed through a common cause.

As the sun sets and the call to prayer blares once more across Cairo, I walk down the Corniche towards the Television Building, the Mispero, where the Copts are demonstrating. The central police, dressed in black are blocking the traffic from driving down the Corniche and some Christians insist on checking everyone who wishes to walk down the street. I join the woman’s line, get patted down, and my bag searched. A couple of hundred Christians have gathered. Some are holding big crosses. Some are lying on rugs on the ground. The area smells of urine. And there is none of the festive spirit of Tahrir Square. I take a photo. Two people come over and try to stop me. They ask me what I am doing here. I explain that I am visiting Cairo to see the country after the revolution. They ask me if I know why they are demonstrating. I respond that I believe it is because they are Copts, they are angry with the Salafists, and their church was burned down. They tell me that things were much better under the old regime. Never had a church been burned down before. Since the fall of the regime, they claim that seven churches had been burned down. They are scared. They ask me to let the outside world know. They complain that the army does nothing to protect them. I point out that there is a heavy police presence at either end of the Corniche protecting their demonstration. They tell me that the head of the military, General Tantawi, is in bed with the Salafists. Others tell me that members of the old regime are trying to create problems between Muslims and Christians to show that things were better before, and that they are needed again.

The day before, I observed a demonstration near Tahrir Square of around a hundred bearded men, holding up posters demanding the release of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman. Police and the army ensured that the crowd cannot move any nearer to the US Embassy. I asked the demonstrators about the Sheikh. They told me he is a blind old al-Azhar sheikh, who was "handed over by Mubarak to the Americans," and has served 18 years in solitary confinement in United States. No one mentioned that he was jailed for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

For now, the military is running the country. It remains a highly respected institution although the head of the Army, General Tantawi, is not liked and is regarded as too close to the old regime. As long as their vested interests remain protected, the military appear willing to "manage" the country through the interim stage but not to "rule" it.

Driving through town, I pass the Ministry of Interior and numerous police stations which were trashed during the days of the revolution. Police are now back on the streets but in smaller numbers. So used to living within a police state, Egyptians are now nervous about increased crime and lawlessness. They complain of "fawda" (chaos) as traffic is more congested with less police to control it. It was in Egypt that I first mastered the art of jay but I am now out of practice. A traffic policeman enjoys helping me cross the road. He tells me that Egypt will be better after the revolution. He stresses that there is no problem between the people and the traffic police — it is the secret police that are hated. They have been disbanded at least in name.

At the Rifai mosque near the Citadel, I sit drinking tea with the caretaker and some of his friends. The caretaker explains in an animated fashion, whirling around and chanting, that five days before there had been a celebration of Sufi saints at the mosque. One of the friends is a policeman and I ask him how he feels about the revolution. He tells me that he took off his uniform and went down to the square to call for the toppling of the regime! He has photos which he wants to send to my phone by Bluetooth and is amused that I do not know how to use Bluetooth.

In Tahrir Square, Mubarak’s National Democratic Party building was gutted by fire during the revolution. Amazingly, the Mogama building still stands. About 20 years ago, I remember seeing an Egyptian movie "irihab wa’al-kabab" (the thief and the kebab) about how a man who had been trying unsuccessfully for weeks to complete paper work in the Government Building ends up taking people hostage there. Everyone wanted to know what was the big political statement he was making. There was none. He was hungry and wanted a kebab. And justice.

I wander down Talaat Harb street in Down Town Cairo, passing familiar landmarks of Filfila (where I used to eat felafel and hummus), Groppi’s (where I once drank tea, spying on Naguib Mahfouz at a nearby table), Madbuli book store (where I had bought a Naguib Mahfouz book), the Tulip Hotel (where once I had spent the night.) Moving on, I pass the endless rows of shoe shops. Everything looks familiar. Yet I note some new shops and an overall increase in the prosperity of the area.

In Islamic Cairo, I walk from Midaan al-Hussein to the citadel. Once I arrive at bab zawayla, I detour into the qasaba where the tentmakers are sewing their wares, before walking up darb al-ahmar to the citadel. Everything is exactly as I remembered it. I am sure that a photo of me walking this route ten years ago, and twenty years ago, would reveal the exact same stores being run by the same people or their sons and grandsons.

But in other parts of Cairo, there has been tremendous economic growth. In Zamalak, the elites and foreigners can enjoy clubs and quality food. I order a lemon juice at the Marriot Hotel. It costs three times a meal in Islamic Cairo. One evening, I head off to Mohandiseen to dine with friends at Charwood’s on sharia gamaa al-duwal al-arabiyya. It is a lovely restaurant serving quality steaks at Western prices. The area has developed greatly over recent years. Wide roads, bright lights, western shops, western restaurants. A world away from the lives of those in Islamic Cairo and indicative of the gulf that has grown between the poor and the elites under Mubarak’s rule.

Further details of the corruption of the old regime comes to light. The former minister of tourism and former minister of housing are both now in jail awaiting trail. They had sold off plots of prime real estate to friends for virtually nothing who then made millions from them.

Taxi drivers complain about the economic situation. One tells me that if he is lucky, he earns around $80 a month. Lack of money is putting stress on his relationship with his wife. They live in cramped conditions with their immediate and extended families. The driver wants the energies of the new regime to be focused on investment and relieving the stress on families. Another taxi driver says that the real issue is poverty. People are under tremendous pressure. Youths cannot afford to get married. There is insufficient housing. And all this is putting huge stress on the Egyptian people. Corruption is endemic in Egypt as salaries are so low. Tourism has dropped 50 percent since the revolution — and Egypt desperately needs it to pick up again as it is a vital part of their economy.

At breakfast, my eyes nearly pop out of my head reading al-Ahram weekly. No longer is it full of stories about official visits of the President. Instead there are debates on whether Mubarak should be tried then jailed or executed — or whether he should return the money he took from the Egyptian people, apologize, and be given amnesty. Some Egyptians I speak to believe that he should be jailed. Others believe that he should be forgiven, as he was President for thirty years and did do some good for the country.

At the Citadel, I wander around the military history museum, and am taken by complete surprise to find a large statue of Mubarak, photos of him, and paintings depicting him in military settings. It is the first time I have seen any image of him since my arrival in Cairo. Every portrait of Mubarak that hung in every office and shop in the country has been pulled down and removed from sight. And it raises the question of how Egypt should come to terms with Mubarak’s 30 year rule. Some want it wiped out of the history books. Others, however, say it would be a travesty for Egyptians to not acknowledge these years of the country’s history.

President Obama is giving a speech addressing the Muslim world. My American friends are blogging on it, waiting in anticipation to analyze the response. As I walk around, most TVs are tuned to local sports or local soap operas. I see one tuned to Obama on Misriyya TV, with simultaneous translation. I go and sit down next to the one person watching it and ask him what he thinks. The man, who tells me he is an accountant, likes Obama and thinks him a ‘good man’. But he is only one man and will not be able to change America. The accountant asserts that Palestine matters and pushing a solution for the Arab/Israeli conflict is key. The accountant asks why Obama refers in his speech to bin Laden. Bin Laden is not what Islam is about. An educated woman laments to me that many in the West view Bin Laden as representative of Islam. He is a million miles away from her understanding of Muslims as generous, warm people. I meet others, however, who refer to bin Laden as a devout Muslim.

Another Egyptian tells me that he liked Obama’s speech, saying "It was good words — but we have seen little action from his last set of good words," referring to Obama’s address in 2009 to the Muslim world when he visited Cairo. He said that Obama is a good man, but he will not be able to change the United States. The United States is increasingly irrelevant. It controlled Egypt through its puppet, Mubarak. Now Egyptians will determine their own future. Another Egyptian complains that America behaves as a global policeman, running around the world knocking people on the head. This is not good behavior. Obama would not be able to change America. He is merely an employee, carrying out the orders of Congress. One taxi driver complains that President Bush never issued a word of apology for the deaths of all those Muslims in Iraq. So many innocent women and children died as a result of the war.

I don hijab and visit al-Azhar, the seat of Islamic learning. The university is now behind the mosque, but students still come to the mosque to read. One old man sitting in the courtyard describes to me the visit of Prince Charles to al-Azhar and how he made a very positive impression, due to his respect for and knowledge of Islam. The old man tells me he watched Prince William’s wedding on TV and wanted to know if I had done the same. I sit down to talk with Ahmed, who is in his mid twenties, and is happy to talk about Islam with non-Muslims. I ask him what his father thinks of him having such a beard. He giggles and admits that his father is concerned. He tells me that every time he visits his father he shaves off his beard! He says he is deeply religious, but not salafi — he does not follow any particular clique. He asks me if I believe in Allah. I respond that I do believe in some essence greater than man. He asks whether I believe that the Qura’an is the direct revelation from Allah. Would Allah put us on earth without a guidebook? We chat for a while about religion. I like Ahmed. A devout, well educated, and open-minded Muslim.

So three months after Mubarak’s ouster, I find that most people are happy that Mubarak has gone, but there is increasing awareness that reforms are not going to come about quickly and the way ahead will be difficult. One man tells me that he is not so optimistic about the future because Egypt is going through a popular revolution with no leaders or political parties to take it forward. Egyptians are good at organizing demonstrations but the attempts to forge consensus between the disparate groups on the way ahead have not gone anywhere. Among elites, I hear fears that if parliamentary elections go ahead as planned in September, then the Muslim Brotherhood may sweep to power and have great influence over the constitution. The other parties are divided and splintered and don’t seem able to work together. They are hoping the elections will be delayed.

I leave Egypt knowing more and understanding less than when I arrived five days ago. Will elections make the Muslim Brotherhood the dominant party in Egypt? Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of religious minorities in the Arab world? Will the pressure of poverty, over-crowding, and population growth lead to society breaking down? But I remind myself of the comment made by one vendor who interrupted me when I asked about the new post-revolution Egypt saying: "Excuse me, Madame, Egypt is a very old country. Our civilization goes back 7,000 years." And I remember the words of the Muezzin of al-Hakim mosque who scoffed at those who think that substantial change will come overnight and told me: "It even took Allah seven days to make the world. So it will take Egyptians much longer!"

Emma Sky is currently traveling the Middle East exploring the ‘Arab Spring’. She was a Spring 2011 Fellow at the Institute of Politics of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and served as Political Advisor to General Odierno in Iraq from 2007-2010. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
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