In 1957, a young romantic with no social standing, depending solely on his wits, became a journalist earning just EGP 6 at Al-Gomhoria. Many dictators later, angels doing the sky’s bidding rushed to usher him to a place far better than the dusty environs of Cairo where he was born and where he died. In a shroud of personal tragedy this writer, 48 hours after his father’s passing, was afforded the opportunity to have a sit down with his beloved Cairo. And what a sit down it would be.
“You know, I was recently arrested and as a result I’m being followed. Would love to see you but …”
“Understood, of course, let’s wait and see if the monitoring stops, meanwhile, don’t save my full name on your phone, use initials instead.”
This conversation is neither from the latest American blockbuster nor from a real life 007 dialogue taking place in the torrid Cairene streets. This is life for journalists who call Egypt home and the conversation is one I had with a foreign colleague. I distinctly remember in my early teen years Baba telling of a Nasserite Egypt where “the walls have ears”. Egypt nowadays is a nation where the ears have ears.
When it became clear I had decided to take the risk of boarding a Cairo-bound plane I recognised, as did all my intimates, that at stake was the ability to hug my wife and children goodnight for an extended duration. But fathers must be honoured so the risk wasn’t optional but a must. Normally, the last 45 minutes of the 11 hour sojourn to Cairo are particularly heavenly as you make your first visual with your beloved. Many a heart skips a beat as you see the waves below lashing a gorgeous sandy beach on the northwest coast but the “skipping” would be for different reasons, on this day.
As the doors opened and we made a right from the plane a young, formal, and well-dressed man would call out Amr but with a twist, a different last name. Questioningly I stared, likely more sternly as a result of nerves. He looked directly into my eyes and said my last name. I froze but eventually answered ‘’yes?”. “Have you had a death?” ‘’Yes.’’ ‘’Your passport, sir?” I motioned, robotically, back to my wife who handed over our passports and that of a friend traveling with us. The moment had come sooner than I’d expected. I was either about to receive VIP treatment or a VIP security embrace. I had covered the latter and hardly experienced the former. In a script worthy of an old commercial Egyptian film another man had lost a mother, boarded the plane from New York and a general had sent his aide to assist at the airport. We shared similar first and last names and this became my ticket into Egypt, thereby sparing my family further tragedy. All in one, the situation encapsulated the faceoff between government and the fifth estate in Egypt: haphazard, potentially violent, and tragicomic.
After bidding goodbye, at the funeral, to the man who had encouraged both pen and mind it became clear my visit would be extended and that’s when the two Egypts welcomed me. Socio-economic stratification that had a stranglehold on Cairo since the old days of Sadat’s Infitah (Open door) was as subtle as a hammer.
Step out of a Zamalek Café, where the majority of the patrons conversed in American or British English, only to find yourself face to face with an Egyptian woman’s family who looked to be struggling to remain afloat day to day, let alone be able to conceive the opulence of the aforementioned café. How could anyone with the most minimal of deconstructive sensibilities not understand that this sort of contradiction is a time bomb in plain sight? But the regime has far bigger problems these days: two islands surrendered to Saudi Arabia resulting in a haemorrhage of support, multiple demonstrations, a faceoff with the Press Syndicate, and highly suspicious fires across Cairo this week. Egyptians are left to wonder: will plague be next?
Egyptian bureaucracy provided the next angry snapshot. With personal tragedy forcing my hand I had to step into the Kafkaesque paradigm of an Egyptian ministry, a world embodying the axiom: the devil is in the details. With the targeted office on the sixth floor the elevator was not a luxury but a must. Sweat-baked Egyptians fought to board as though the elevator were a lifeboat to escape from the sinking Titanic. Even the elevator itself must have chuckled at the misnumbering of the elevator buttons. Press 5 and you arrive on the sixth floor—a more apt symbol of the state of Egyptian affairs I couldn’t imagine. People literally fought and cursed with the elevator attendant over this as though he were responsible for this highly symbolic dynamic: in Egypt, nothing is what it is supposed to be. Wrong numbers, wrong policies, and wrong leaders.
Worse yet, the contrast between an assistant minister’s office, uber large, super-cooled by multiple air conditioners, and luxurious enough to exceed that of a Google SVP shone an unflattering light on a ruling class who could be heard to shout “let them eat cake” to the sweaty masses. This disparity is no secret to the average Egyptian, nor is the empty comfortable, properly numbered, elevator used by the minister and those with access to it. In this Egypt, the elevator of the people is in constant descent, while that of those calling the shots is chilled by nonchalance.
Minutes out of the ministry I would step into the military reality of day to day existence of an Egyptian. Frightening and arbitrary is understatement: a cab is forced to stop along with other cars near a military installation on the outskirts of Heliopolis and within 20 seconds tempers flare. Only here, when tempers flare between a civilian and a military man the punishment is not a ticket but a swift military tribunal. I shouted at the young driver “shut up for God’s sake, please”. I don’t know who was more frightened for him—him or me.
Days later, on 25 April, the regime would provide these eyes with first-hand proof that it is dissent averse. “Mass arrests in ruthlessly efficient bid” to stymie peaceful protest, shouted Amnesty international. “Activists taken from homes” blasted the highly respected HR organisation EIPR, in the days leading up to protests over the surrender of Tiran and Sanafir. Earlier, on 15 April, well over 3,000 demonstrators had screamed “Down with the regime” and the “The Ministry of Interior are thugs”. Pictures captured the tip of an iceberg of growing opposition. Local papers blared, days later, that Sisi was angry and that the coming protests would be quelled. Naturally, the presidency would vehemently deny but events would confirm. Multiple sources spoke of the arrest of 90 Egyptians across eight governorates before the protests and plainclothes police outnumbered citizens in central Cairo indicating a panicked regime. So panicked were the halls of power that I was told, by two sources, that two Christians were arrested, arbitrarily, while emerging from a well-known church near the fabled Tahrir. April 25 included the arrest of dozens of journalists, including a few foreign journalists, the near arrests of several friends who came face to face with regime guns as they ran and the final numbers for April 15 to 27 tallied 1,127 arrests in 22 governorates. With both sides seething, for all together differing reasons, the headline here was: anger.
Simple math whispers this: those who rule, without fundamental course change, will not be able to forestall the coming confrontation. Though the opposition remains disorganised, there are signs that the depression felt for many months is waning and is in the process of being replaced by the loud, fiery rhetoric of better days.
There can be no naive illusions here. Change—whether peaceful or, most likely, violent—is not around the corner. But so long as this regime continues to stumble with such consistency the opposition, in its various political shades, will have ample opportunity to organise.
As a well to do former Sisifite told me: “many of us had lost hope in him long ago … but we don’t know what comes next.”
My father’s Egypt is gone, what comes next is anyone’s guess.