Laura Dean's Cairo Diary

Cairo Diary, July 7: An Outside Perspective

By Laura Dean
Monday, July 8, 2013, 12:39 AM

Tahrir Square is full tonight. Tamarod marchers converge on downtown from all over Cairo. Rabaa el Adaweya is packed as well again today, only with Morsi supporters.

I haven't written yet in this diary about Egypt's second city---the lovely Mediterranean town of Alexandria. I lived there for a few months in late 2011 and wish tonight that I had better news to report. Violence there is ongoing and the death toll over the last few days has risen to fourteen, with dozens wounded in clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi forces. Live ammunition was used in a clash between protesters in a video that I saw, and graphic footage is circulating of two young men, allegedly from the anti-Morsi camp, being thrown off of an Alexandria rooftop.

General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi's wild popularity continues apace, stoked by a spirit of capitalism that is alive and well in Tahrir: stalls are already selling posters and other swag with his face this week. Many people are saying if he ran for president now, he would win.

Update from yesterday's prime ministerial speculation: Ziad Bahaa el Din, a lawyer and founding member of the Social Democratic Party, has apparently been offered the job. It looks as though Mohamed ElBaradei, who was yesterday's presumptive candidate, will be the new Vice President.

A View From East of Here

My new favorite restaurant in Cairo is the Syrian-run and absolutely delicious, "Bride of Syria." It's a few blocks from Tahrir Square and opened a few months ago. I spoke with the director, Waleed Soedaany, who arrived in Egypt in January, fleeing violence in his hometown of Deraa, Syria, where he was engineer.  He has light brown hair and blue eyes, and when I arrive, he's wearing a turquoise t-shirt and stone-washed jeans. He says he departed Syria because he was an activist and his choice became to take up arms or to leave. "And I didn't have any weapons" he jokes. He finally says that his family had insisted he leave.

Throughout the interview Waleed speaks in Egyptian Arabic (a fact for which I am very grateful, since the Syrian dialect is more difficult for me). He learned to speak it when he first entered the country in January, he says, but it wasn't hard. Like everyone else in the Arab world, he had grown up listening to Egyptian music and watching Egyptian films.

Soon after his arrival, he and a group of friends opened a restaurant in downtown Cairo---one of several that sprouted up here in the last two years since the war began and Syrians started arriving in Egypt as refugees. In May the UNHCR announced that more than 1.5 million Syrians in Egypt were registered with the UN or had appointments scheduled to register; the actual number of Syrian refugees in this country is undoubtedly much higher.

I ask Waleed how he feels about the events of the last several days since June 30. He says it is a difficult balance for Syrians, as refugees, to strike; on the one hand, they try not to upset those in power, and until very recently he had seen the government as the most powerful force. But when he saw the numbers of people in the street, Waleed says, he was with the Egyptian people, "because we came from our country because of this subject"---dissent from the ruling regime.

Referring to the Egyptians who took to the street to call for Morsi's ouster,  Waleed says, "they are asking for something that is their right." However, while he does not take a side in the current conflict, he does suggest that deposing Egypt's first democratically elected president sets a bad precedent: "Morsi came by the ballot box; he should leave by the ballot box," he says. He also adds that "the media is unbalanced" and "with Tamarod," the anti Morsi group. When I ask him if he thinks Morsi's ouster was a military coup, he says, "it is a coup, and if it's not military [as in orchestrated by the military] the military certainly supports it."

He argues that the January 25, 2011 revolution in Egypt had been for everyone and, in that sense, not actually political. By contrast, he suggests that recent events, called the counter revolution by some supporters, are highly politicized---that is, contested by large swaths of the Egyptian body politic.

As for how the events in Tahrir and around are affecting him and his business, Waleed laments the lack of security on the streets, particularly given his proximity to the demonstrations. But he also stresses a feeling of solidarity and cultural similarity with Egyptians, saying, "our fear is the fear of any Egyptian" regarding lack of security, and "there's history between us. . . . We are one people." He even reminds me with what seems like nostalgia that Egypt and Syria were once one country, referring to the ill-fated United Arab Republic, which lasted from 1958 to 1961 and which people tend to regard as a disaster---particularly for the Syrians.

When I ask if he would consider moving his restaurant if violence continues in the neighborhood, he says he would not; here, his customers know where to find him---and his delicious fattoushes, covered with pomegranate molasses, from 3pm to 3am.  Still, when I ask about his long-term plans, Waleed answers immediately that he has no intention of remaining in Egypt. He wants to be a part of rebuilding his country and to "check on his engineering office" and his house in Syria. A jack of all trades, he previously worked in media and as a photographer, in addition to his engineering. Waleed had his activism too---and now the restaurant business.

Waleed feels one with the Egyptian people---with their political aspirations and with their popular culture---and has oddly affectionate memories of the brief and bad political marriage between Egypt and Syria. But he also wants to go home.

Tonight, Tonight

Fighter planes---F16s, I think---fly overhead downtown as the Tamarod marchers converge on Tahrir. I sit in a coffeeshop, and a man at a table nearby says "Allahu Akbar" and looks over and laughs. I haven't heard that phrase used ironically very many times.

The Tweeps report lots of anti-America sentiment in Tahrir tonight. Americans are blamed in Tahrir for opposing the coup---and for calling it a coup---and blamed among the pro-Morsi protesters for okaying the coup. I don't risk going to Tahrir tonight.

Meanwhile, Cairo is on a collision course with the beginning of Ramadan, which starts on July 9th. Before this all began I had assumed that the beginning of Ramadan would be the deadline for the end of any Tamarod-related unrest. Now it's less clear that it will be. But it will almost certainly have an impact, with most demonstrators fasting during daylight hours in midsummer in North Africa.

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