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The Cairo Diary: Danger, Ebbing Freedom, and the Urge to Martyrdom

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Friday, October 25, 2013 at 9:55 AM

On Monday night in Cairo, masked men on a motorcycle gunned down a man, a woman and an eight-year-old child as they came out of a wedding. Tuesday morning a 12-year-old girl, who was also critically injured in the incident, succumbed to her injuries. Eighteen other people were wounded in the attack. A boat carrying about 160 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and rampant discrimination against them in Egypt, sank off the coast of Alexandria two weeks ago. There are currently hundreds of Syrians and Palestinians—men, women and children—detained indefinitely without charge in police stations across Egypt’s North Coast. Most will likely be deported back to Syria. Egypt was ranked the worst country in the world in terms of primary education. It has not been a good week.

Tahrir Square was blocked off at the beginning of the week. When the army does this, it is not simply taking control of a symbolic protest site to prevent demonstrators protesting former President Morsi’s ouster and the violent dispersal of the protest camps from taking over the square. It is also cutting of the main traffic hub in central Cairo. In downtown, all roads lead to Tahrir, more or less, and immobilizing it makes getting around the city center quite an ordeal. According to a 2012 estimate, there are about 4 million cars on the road in Egypt. If between 11 and 21 percent of the population lives in Cairo (depending on how you count), that’s a lot of vehicles sitting parked on the streets, their drivers getting progressively more frustrated with those they perceive to be responsible. I witnessed a man berating a traffic cop a few days ago. I did wonder then if the military would make the mistake that all of Egypt’s interim stewards have made since Mubarak’s fall: staying in government long enough to be held responsible for the country’s ills.

Another irritant at the moment is the ongoing curfew (7pm on Fridays, midnight every other day, though I hear that tonight it’s been extended to 1am — it’s as though the whole city has over-protective parents). “Even during Eid!” I heard many people grumble, referring to Eid al Adha, (the holiday that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael) last week, “and there’s nothing going on!”

We are told that the state of emergency, and presumably the curfew, will last until mid-November.

Meanwhile, major newspapers print odes and essays celebrating the military leader, General Abdel Fattah el Sisi.

Nairobi vs. Cairo

I spent last week reporting a story in Nairobi, Kenya. When I tell people that I live in Egypt, they look at me with concern. They ask, isn’t it very dangerous there? Aren’t you afraid? Their comments strike me as strange, given that Nairobi is a place where many of the houses of wealthier residents are hidden behind foreboding metal gates, with guards and sometimes dogs outside. Walls are topped with shards of broken glass or barbed wire, and every door in many houses is secured by an extra padlock.

I think about the “bawab” system in Egypt. Many apartment buildings in Cairo do not have an external lock for which residents have the key. Instead, someone sits on a bench outside, usually a man, sometimes a woman. There seem to be few prerequisites for the job. For example, age does not seem to be a factor; I have known several very elderly bawabs. I even heard of one who was blind. Sometimes small children stand outside filling in for their parents. Usually the bawab will ask strangers whom they are going to see when they go upstairs, but not always. Yet it’s a system that by and large seems quite effective. Though petty crime is on the rise in Egypt, I am always shocked at the low levels of it compared to other large cities in which I have lived.

The Anti-Protest Law

After the uprisings in early 2011 that toppled Mubarak, who had ruled the country for three decades., after Tahrir Square and the crowds in it had become symbols of hope for oppressed peoples everywhere, after so much stayed the same after Mubarak’s ouster—there were still no jobs, rampant poverty, unchecked pollution, poor school systems—after all of that, Egypt is considering passing a “Protest Law” that significantly curtails the right to free assembly. Protest organizers would have to request permission from the police 24 hours in advance. They would have to provide details of their planned protest, such as the location and the route of the march, start and end time, the issues at hand, their demands and the names of the organizers. The law bans sit-ins, sleeping over at protest sites, blocking roads or negatively impacting the lives of other citizens, including “obstructing their interests” and endangerment.

The law “treats peaceful protesters like criminals and grants security forces additional powers to crush them,” says Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

More than anything else that has happened, that announcement seems to have stirred public outcry. The interim president Adly Mansour has decided to delay its ratification.

On Martyrdom

All over the city, stenciled spray-painted faces stare down from the walls of buildings. I have become so used to them I hardly see them anymore. A friend visiting Cairo recently asked who they were, these faces he saw everywhere. “Martyrs,” I told him. He looked confused.

Martyrs are generally thought of as people who are killed for their beliefs, usually their religious beliefs. In Islam, a martyr is granted immediate ascension into heaven and, as people understand it here, the ascension too of a large number of his or her family members. The martyr also gets all of the worldly comforts one can imagine. But here in Egypt, it seems, it has come to refer to anyone who dies what many see as an unjust death. Soccer fans killed during the Port Said stadium riot are called martyrs. It seems to be more a cultural than a religious concept here. Christians in Egypt refer to the martyrs who were killed in the Maspero demonstrations. But the idea of seeking out martyrdom seems less present in the Egyptian Christian context than among some Egyptian Muslims.

One young woman I speak with at Rabaa el Adaweya describes her experience of being caught up in gunfire during morning prayers outside the Republican Guard headquarters. Terrified by the bullets whizzing past her she called her mother for words of comfort, who asked her: “why are you afraid? If you die, you’ll become a martyr.”

I speak to a young supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose name I will withhold. He is in the middle of exams and very busy at the moment. When I ask him how he feels, he tells me that he had wanted to become a martyr this summer, but still hopes that he will manage it sometime in the future.

Many people here are critical of the idea of seeking out martyrdom, though—and the idea that Muslims killing Muslims can be anything other than a tragedy. Back on July 4th, when I asked an imam about the deaths of Morsi supporters during clashes in his neighborhood, he said: “I say those who were killed are not martyrs. If Muslims kill each other with their swords, both [killer and killed] will go to Hell.”

Yet as the sense of hopelessness at the protest camps this summer grew, as the sense of opportunity and fulfillment of their goals ebbed, so too did the sentiment that many of the participants were resigned, even excited at the prospect of martyrdom. This is a phenomenon I don’t fully understand but would like to look into further; it is deeply disturbing to talk to large numbers of young people, who list martyrdom among their goals.

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