April 15, 2011, Cairo, Egypt
I got into the cab in Cairo and was shocked; the driver was wearing a seatbelt. I hadn’t seen this before. I put mine on. He smiled and said “New Egypt.” New Egypt is being stuck in a traffic jam near Tahrir Square and seeing a citizen in a white t shirt step forward, waving a cigarette like a baton, directing traffic. People are taking responsibility. One friend said “They used to own Egypt, now we do. We have to take care of it.” Or as another said “Before we just ate, slept and worked, now we have hope.”
They are taking care. The railings on the bridges and the fences in Tahrir Square are newly painted. The traffic circle itself has newly planted flowers. People put lawn chairs out on the Nile Bridge. They brought them for themselves and a couple of extra chairs, inviting strangers to have a seat and watch the river. This may be the only revolution in which the revolutionaries swept up after themselves. Central Cairo is certainly cleaner than I have ever seen it.
Several people told me that they met their neighbors in their apartment blocks for the first time during the revolution after the police left and people decided they needed to band together to protect their neighborhoods. They formed committees and those committees are now doing clean up and fix up. One young colleague told me it was the way her parents had described Egypt 50 years ago when Nasser reasserted control of the country from King Farouk and the British.
I saw a demonstration in Tahrir Square. Cairo had a cloudburst so, being an American without an umbrella, I ducked into a cab and got back to Zamalek in time to see the demonstration cross the bridge, march by Suzi’s flat and form in front of the Tunisian Embassy. At a football match earlier in the week Egyptian fans had attacked some Tunisians. The demonstrators were waving Tunisian and Egyptian flags. They were demonstrating to apologize to the Tunisians. Ayman said “Before we had football, now we have a country.”
“Before we only flew the flag at football matches, it was all we had to be proud of, now we fly it because we are proud of Egypt.”
After the storm a double rainbow arched across the Cairo skyline. There are seldom rainbows in Cairo. One colleague said she had not seen one in more than a decade. Another colleague said “We will find our new president under the rainbow.”
Ayman said that during the constitutional elections people stood on line for three hours. Neighbors brought juice and candy for those standing on line, musicians entertained those on line. In his neighborhood, where there were three lines at the polling place, the youth approached the army and asked that, while the rules said everyone had to wait, there should be one line for people over 60 who could not stand on line for 3 hours or who may not want to “recreate the Woodstock experience” as he put it.
Revolutionary graffiti, written in Arabic, English, and one entry in Russian, decorated walls near American University. Peddlers sell all sorts of revolutionary kitsch, t shirts, bumper stickers, ribbons, and buttons. The Tahrir Book Fair was underway at the American University. The Cairo Book Fair had been canceled due to revolution. Even American University was selling revolution T shirts, mugs and commemorative calendars.
There were also a lot of very good books at discount prices.
American University usually has very tight security, ID required, metal detectors, but I was waved in by a smiling guard.
The two main questions people asked were “do you see, or do you feel the difference?”
“Are you afraid to be here?”
Of course there is concern. One Coptic Christian from Aswan was both excited and scared. She wished she could get to Cairo to be in Tahrir Square but was also concerned about what might follow for Christians if Islamists hijack the revolution. A Nubian cab driver in Aswan was happy to see the back of Mubarak “he killed our culture, moving 120,000 of us from our villages when he built that dam.”
He is speaking of the Aswan High Dam, which did flood most of the Nubian land, but that was planned under Nasser and finished under Sadat, before Mubarak’s time. He was old enough to know that, but to him, it was all the same, the same line of authority, from the Army, which, in fact, is still running the country, a point make plain when the cab rolled past a tank guarding the old Aswan Dam.
The revolution has some taken some odd turns. Under Mubarak “covered” women were not allowed to be TV presenters.
The new State TV director decreed that women wearing the hajib could now present TV news. “Uncovered” women protested, fearing for their jobs, one said, at a rally “do you want your news delivered by a religious icon?” The answer was to hire a new group of covered female presenters while keeping all of the uncovered women; this at a TV station that already has 45,000 employees. You read that correctly, forty five thousand.
Tourism is the biggest industry in Egypt and the revolution effectively killed the season.
This is the dark side of the revolution, especially for those tourists who actually venture to Egypt. The Cairo Marriott was at 32% capacity. It is usually at 85%. In Aswan the hotel was at 20%. Hotel shops at the Marriott are closed, as are some of the restaurants. In Aswan hundreds of Cruise boats are rafted up along the Nile. Cairo cab drivers are particularly desperate. Suzi and I grab cabs near, but not at, the Marriott because street cabs are cheaper. We flagged a black and white.
A Marriott cab driver ran up to the cab and started shouting at the driver, sending him off, and waving off all other cabs we tried to flag. We finally got into his cab and he told us it would be 50 pounds to our destination. It should cost 30. Suzi started screaming. “Stop this Cab, we are getting out, we are not paying 50 pounds.” Suzi does not normally act this way but the driver would not stop. We were trapped. Finally I got him down to 40 pounds.
Another time I was waiting for Suzi’s driver and two cabbies got into a shouting match over me. I told them I was waiting for a friend. “When will he come?”
As soon as the call to prayer started the Marriott driver came up to me: “He’s not here, come with me.” Fortunately Wahsh pulled up in the Ford Explorer just at the end of devotions. A friend from Belgrade, also in Cairo, told me that two drivers actually got into a fist fight over him.
In Aswan a walk through the Souk is running the gauntlet. Merchants step in front of you blocking you, “I will pay you to come into my store.” And some of them may have. Vendors offered t shirts for 5 Egyptian Pounds (85¢). Touts shouted “no hassle, no hassle” as they hassled us. I can understand the merchants’ desperation, about to lose their season. But one told me “It’s happened before after terrorist attacks, I’ll survive.”
Before I left Cairo a colleague at the Media Development program said being in Tahrir square with other young people was exhilarating. It was a revolution of young administrators, not the dispossessed or radical, but bureaucrats, and that is why this revolution was different from others. I thought back at the comment I mentioned at the beginning of this letter, “Before we just ate, slept and worked, now we have hope.” I have hope as well, but I have seen this euphoria before. Sometimes it works out, sometimes, as in Yugoslavia, it gets worse. The Army still runs the show. I left Egypt with an old song by the Who running through my head. “Meet the new boss…” I hope the song got there by mistake.