Laura Dean's Cairo Diary

The Cairo Diary: Repression and Depression

By Laura Dean
Saturday, October 5, 2013, 4:36 PM

It is one of Cairo's rare windy fall days, and I am sitting with a group of friends, who are drinking juice and smoking shisha on multi-colored plastic chairs in an alley downtown. A poster of Nasser flutters above a neighboring cafe, and graffiti from all of the stages of Egypt's recent political past adorns the walls. When I get up to leave, a taxi almost careens straight into my friends and me, as we stand at the edge of the street. When we protest gently, the driver says, "No, no, there's shooting in Tahrir. I just came from there," as though this is some sort of excuse for his reckless driving. He proceeds to rattle off a few other sites (accurately) around the city were there is shooting, including at a police station across the river in Giza.

Alright, we say, and wander up the street away from Tahrir. One friend, who lives in the same neighborhood as the police station, decides to stay at the apartment of a friend nearby, to which he has the keys. After several attempts to get home are foiled by military barricades, I finally make it back to my neighborhood.

This is Egypt's new normal.

I am back in Cairo after a couple of weeks away. Here are some more features of the city's melancholy new reality.

Curfew is still at 7 pm on Fridays, though it recently moved from 11 pm to midnight during the rest of the week.

The headlines of all of the major newspapers have reported for the last few weeks attacks on police and army in Sinai, where, we are told in the capital, a full-fledged insurgency is raging. Until recently, however, there has been no foreign press there, and Sinai journalist Ahmed Abou Deraa has been referred to a military tribunal for “intentionally spreading false information on the military” through his reporting.

Many people I know, both Egyptian and foreign, who have weathered many storms in the last few years, are leaving the city.

Since January of 2011 Cairo has been many things, but it feels different now somehow. "Everyone is depressed," I have heard multiple people mutter at gatherings where the mood smacks of collective mourning or malaise.

After two and a half years of frustration and economic and political strife in Egypt, many people seem unwilling to criticize the current regime, despite the curfew, despite the investigation of liberal activists, despite the lack of tourists. Instead, criticism of the military is often met with defensiveness and justification---or denial of the bloody events of mid-August.

I took a long walk in Beirut about a week ago, a city where its residents are accustomed to seeing a military presence on the street. Fishermen, and one young couple, sat half-submerged on rocks next to the Corniche, dangling their rods in the water, but mostly just enjoying the Mediterranean sun and air. These scenes would not have felt so foreign in the Cairo I used to know, defined by humor and bustle, where everyone, from old men to young families were in the streets until the early hours of the morning , enjoying city life. But now, the streets are quiet after about 11:30pm. A new bustle has replaced that of bawdy jokes at tea stands on bridges over the Nile. It is the bustle of rushing home, or at least back to your neighborhood, in time for curfew.

In the fall of 2011, when Islamist governments swept to power across the region, it would have been difficult to imagine the scenario we are currently witnessing.

In Tunisia, the government headed by El Nahdha---the local arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which seemed to be playing its hand with more savvy and subtlety than its counterparts in Egypt---has agreed to resign, participate in a three-week national dialogue, and hold new elections. The organization, indeed the very idea of the Brotherhood, was banned in Egypt on September 23 by a Cairo court. The court's definition of what kinds of activities fall under that umbrella is broad and inclusive. According to Reuters, the ban was worded as follows: "The court bans the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood organization and its non-governmental organization and all the activities that it participates in and any organization derived from it" and the case was brought by a lawyer from on of the leftist parties on the grounds that it was to "protect Egyptians from violence," Reuters said. Students from the Muslim Brotherhood's student organization, however, have been demonstrating this past week, and YouTube videos depict them flashing the four-fingered Rabaa salute. (A yellow sign with a hand raising four fingers has come to represent solidarity with supporters of the "Anti-Coup" Movement, as pro-Morsi supporters call themselves, and with those who died when the encamped protesters were violently dispersed.)

Last week, government schools and universities opened to large protests at Cairo's two largest universities. The protesters' main complaint was the introduction of a new law that would allow security forces to make arrests on campuses---an idea that surfaced a few weeks ago. The government denied that such a decision had been made, but it is clear that it has been under consideration.
Since then, protests have broken out on university campuses between supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had a strong following among university students.
Meanwhile, Al Azhar, the global center of Sunni Muslim thought and learning has postponed starting its term until later this month. The institution has found itself in the midst of controversy in the last months since some of its leaders supported Morsi's ouster.
Leaders in this part of the world have often cracked down brutally on university protests, fearing the oppositional fervor than can develop in them. In Sudan last year the government cracked down violently on protests that were initiated in universities, while in Libya, beginning in 1976, after facing opposition from students, the Brother Leader Muammar Qaddafi licensed "Revolutionary Committees" to target students who opposed his rule. Each year, on April 7, there were arrests and public executions in Libyan universities as a deterrent to further dissent. He also decentralized the university system to guard against large numbers of students in one place.

In a supermarket, I overheard a discussion between a cashier and another employee discussing whether or not the National Bank of Egypt had announced that bank notes with the words "Yes to Morsi," "Yes to legitimacy," and "Against the Coup," scrawled on them in marker were now considered non-legal tender. I have yet to verify this claim.

Last week, walking through my neighborhood, I heard the familiar car horn percussion that usually signals the presence of a wedding procession nearby. But as the honks grew louder and turned onto my street I saw the yellow flags bearing the sign of the hand holding up four fingers.  Given the anti-Brotherhood sentiment all over the city and the emergency law that allows the police to arrest citizens for any reason, the demonstration seemed like quite a large risk. Young men stood up through sunroofs carrying bouquets of flowers, and a woman alone in a large black sedan wearing niquab (full face veil) honked particularly forcefully. Their flags had the words "humane freedom" printed on them. Onlookers shouted "Sisi"---the name of the general in power---as they passed.

Nationalism in Egypt, one of the most nationalistic places I have ever been, has reached new dizzying heights. Loyalty to Egypt is often discussed in contrast to an allegiance to a transnational project---the Brotherhood. And it's often directed at foreigners, including other Arabs. Syrians and Palestinians formerly residing in Syria, once the darlings of the large and diverse refugee community that lives in Cairo, here are under attack and face rampant discrimination and abuse. According to a researcher here, one reason---in addition to the generalized increase in xenophobia---might be that many Islamic charities did much to support the Syrians when they came, so they are now associated with Islamists in the minds of many people.

Political talk is down as the wagons circle around the general. Bassem Yousef, Egypt's Jon Stewart figure, is not on the air, though his team assures the public that he will return. Other voices of satire that normally pop up to issue rebukes to authority are all but silent. Friends in offices report that talk of politics is markedly less.

A committee of fifty was appointed to draft a new constitution and has been working for just about four weeks, though very few people are talking about their work and there seems to be little hope for any significant change.

Last week, a Frenchman was beaten to death by fellow inmates  in a jail in an upscale Cairo neighborhood, my neighborhood. A friend reported to me that colleagues of hers ventured, "perhaps he was a terrorist," when she relayed the incident, defending the police, the most hated institution of all under Mubarak. There are a lot of mental and logical gymnastics going on at the moment by people seeking to make sense of all that is happening.

A month ago, the Ministry of Endowments announced that 50,000 unlicensed clerics would be prevented from preaching, and gathering of large groups of people in mosques are banned except during Friday prayers.

Unconditional support of the military reigns amongst much of the population. A man came to install my satellite receiver and joked that he wouldn't program Al Jazeera Arabic because, he said, it was the Brotherhood channel.

Suspicion abounds: many of the people I've talked to in recent days say they worry that their phones are being tapped and other communications monitored.

As I left Tahrir Square one day a couple of weeks ago, there was scaffolding around one of the lions on the Qasr el Nil bridge. When I asked, the men aloft informed me they were cleaning off the grafitti that has built up on them over the last two and a half years. I have heard reports that other grafitti has been expunged from walls downtown but have yet to see evidence of it.

Tomorrow is October 6th, the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. Egypt commemorates this day as a victory in which it took back the Sinai peninsula, leaving out the facts that the Israeli counter attack brought the Israeli Army within 100 km of Cairo, and the issue of Sinai was ultimately resolved at Camp David. The Brotherhood has announced plans to demonstrate in Tahrir. The army has closed the square to traffic for the planned celebrations they have organized to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the war, and it is currently full of armored personnel carriers. The metro station under Tahrir has been closed since August 14. Brotherhood supporters are posting darkly on Facebook that it could be "the Beginning of the End."