Laura Dean's Cairo Diary

The Cairo Diary: In Alf Maskan After the Bullets

By Laura Dean
Monday, January 27, 2014, 10:39 AM

On the anniversary of the January 25 uprisings, television screens across Egypt broadcast dance performances on the stage in Tahrir square, smiling children with Egyptian flags painted on their faces, and women wearing pictures of General Abdel Fattah el Sissi around their necks. Meanwhile clashes raged in the next street over, largely ignored by the local media though covered widely by the international press. In the Alf Maskan neighborhood in Eastern Cairo, police closed down roads leading into the area, and heavy gunfire made it too dangerous to approach.

The next day, the glass is completely gone from the front window of a pharmacy near the entrance to the a side street off the main thoroughfare in Alf Maskan, shattered by bullets from the night before. A man stands out front and sweeps up the shards. Another shows a resident fresh bullet holes in a storefront next door. Inside, there is a large round hole in one of the cabinets where a bullet pierced the glass, slicing through the bottom of a bottle of sunscreen; the white cream still oozes onto the shelf. The pharmacist, Dr. Mamdoh, 28, puts on the counter a bullet that he found on the floor when he returned to the premises after the fighting.

“Of course the police started it,” he says, though he adds that eventually there was shooting from "both sides." He is reluctant to say for certain who was shooting, but it's clear that the clashes were between police and supporters of ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi. At the first sign of trouble, he says, he closed up shop and left. He reserves much of his anger for the police, denouncing the thousands of arrests since the summer, noting that many are in prison without charge. "Some very good people were killed in Rabaa" he says, referring to the site of the sit-in in support of Morsi that the police violently dispersed on August 14, 2013.

General Atef, a man who looks to be in his sixties and who lives in an apartment nearby, has a different take on the events. He found bullets in his bedroom, in his bathroom, in his living room, all fired by protesters on the street, he says. He blames the protesters for disrupting the peace in the neighborhood.

As we speak, one of the bystanders who looks very much in dress and personal aesthetic like a member of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood gives us a surprise; he identifies himself to my male colleague as a member of the security forces.

 

A Brotherhood Stronghold

The polarization in Egypt between those who support the military-backed government and those who were against Morsi's ouster has taken a toll in this neighborhood. Every Friday, residents say, pro-Brotherhood protesters demonstrate here. Shop owners have taken to closing up on Fridays altogether.

This morning the ground is blackened. A pile of branches lies in the street, ripped from a nearby tree, I am told, to build a fire to disperse the tear gas, and decrease visibility for nearby police gunmen. All the bricks are pulled up from a large swath of sidewalk on the corner, used to build a barricade and as projectiles to hurl at the armed forces. 23 protesters were killed in the fighting, 22 from live fire, and many more injured.

The “field hospital” where doctors tended to the wounded is a trash-strewn patch of grass. Today, among the cans and multi-colored plastic bags, there are wads of bloodied gauze and rubber gloves.

During the dispersal of the large sit-ins and other clashes this summer, field hospitals were often set up in mosques. Now, however, the mosques do not open their doors to anti-government protesters, and many pro-Brotherhood imams have been relieved of their positions, replaced with religious leaders sanctioned by the authorities. Many mosques across the city are closed except during prayer times so that they cannot be used as places for people to congregate and organize.

By 10:30pm Saturday night, says one of the protesters who declined to be identified for fear of arrest, there were so many wounded and dead, and the protesters feared being surrounded, so they fled the area. All of the leadership of the Brotherhood are in prison, he says, so decisions are made by those who are left.

Many hours earlier, the Revolutionary Front, an umbrella group made of a group of revolutionary movements and parties who are against military rule but also against the Brotherhood, pulled out of demonstrations against the military-backed government. They did so as a consequence of the disproportionate use of violence by security forces in downtown, feet from where hundreds of thousands were celebrating "National Police Day," the celebration of which was the occasion for the first uprisings in 2011. You can't make this stuff up.  

Given the thousands arrested and the hundreds killed since Morsi's ouster on July 3, it's seems foolhardy that Morsi supporters continue to protest as they are being summarily locked up and arrested. Indeed, they seem to exist in a somewhat baffling reality of their own: They don’t believe the numbers the government reports, insisting that only between 4 million and 7 million people voted in the referendum, instead of the 38.6 percent of Egypt's 90 million people the government claims. I have no reason to believe that that figure is inaccurate. At the moment there seem to be three Egypts: those who support the military-backed government, those who support the Brotherhood, and those who support neither. Each has a different view of the last seven months---and a different set of facts to go with it.

 

“Take Care of Yourself”

Often when I part ways with someone these days, whether with opposition party members, activists, or friends, one, usually both of us will say, “take care of yourself.” Many of the phone calls I receive these days are from people who want to check on me. There is an atmosphere of fear and apprehension.

The other morning, I went to meet a friend for a weekend morning walk across the city. The designated meeting time, 8:30, rolled around with no sign of him. Punctuality is not at a premium in Cairo---ever. So I waited. At 8:45 I called him. No answer. Maybe his phone is on silent. I called again. On the third call, the phone hung up after two rings. Strange. I sent a text message asking if he was alright. Perhaps his mother had called. He texted back one word: "Police."

This text took place against a backdrop of the detention of prominent activist, Alaa Abdel Fattah, and others, on charges of violating the new anti-protest law. Three Al Jazeera journalists are in jail and several from other outlets. A colleague of mine, a cameraman, was also detained at a polling station during the referendum. None of them are being held for anything that would be considered a crime in my country. So I was very worried.

I called my friend’s cousin, who has lived many of the protests and political events of the last three years. He got a ahold of him and in the end, all was well. A few police officers had stopped him as he was walking along and detained him, asking why he had a camera, exposing his film, and saying they had detained him the previous week---which they had not. When my friend finally arrived, he seemed to think what had happened fairly routine. We have adjusted to a new normal.

Two recent acquaintances, tourists visiting from the US, were recently detained for three hours after one of them took a photograph. Cameras are very unpopular here these days. Many journalists report having theirs smashed, or being mobbed when they try to take pictures or video.

A prominent journalist and former parliamentarian, Mustafa Bakri, on the privately-owned CBC channel spoke of, "a revolution to slaughter Americans in the streets."

Meanwhile, the Al Jazeera journalists have been in jail, one of them often in solitary confinement, since December 29th. The line the government is sticking to is that they were working without proper accreditation, though they have yet to be formally charged. These days, it can be very difficult to obtain proper accreditation. Last year, I was told it would take no more than six weeks to get a permanent press card. The end of the year came and went and I am still using a piece of paper with a photograph stapled to it instead of the laminated version. Think of it another way: Most of the foreign correspondents operating in Syria are working without proper accreditation from the Bashar Assad government. They sneak in across the river from Turkey. This is not to compare the current regime in Egypt to the Assad government in Syria. Just to add a bit of perspective.

Here, obtaining a permit for absolutely everything is part of the culture in a society where maintaining dictatorial control is paramount. This morning, a shopkeeper asks a middle-aged Egyptian resident of the Alf Meskan neighborhood if he has permission from the government to take photographs, as the man snaps a picture of the damage to the street on his iPhone.

 

More Bombings, More Fear

Four bombs on Saturday, one on Sunday. I think much of the country wishes it could have woken up on January 26, having skipped the 24 hours of the anniversary of Egypt's revolution. There is fear. There is anger. There are lots of murmurings, or in some cases more than murmurings---angry crowds chanted for the death of the Brotherhood after the bombings---about revenge. But among many there is sadness too. While it is perhaps true to say that the arc of history is long, these days it is of little comfort to those who have given up so much in the last three years, suffered so much loss, and perhaps most painfully of all, allowed themselves to hope where once they would not have bothered.

Friends were attacked and chased by mobs on Saturday. Levels of xenophobia are far higher among the pro-Sisi crowd than among the Islamists. A middle-aged women pulled the hair of a young female journalist and tried to strangle her with her scarf as she and a colleague were chased by an angry mob and had to be taken into custody by the police.

I spoke to a Lebanese woman yesterday who worried that with all of the explosions, Cairo was becoming as unstable as Beirut.

And here, as there, life goes on.