My twenty years in Egypt

Cairo may be eternal, but it changes.  When I arrived in Cairo for the first time in the summer of 1992 Mubarak had already been president much too long: eleven years at that point though he would hold on for nearly thirty in all.  Still, I loved the city.  I arrived after a month in Yemen and Cairo, by comparison, seemed to me the most dynamic and cosmopolitan place on earth.  It did not strike me as especially exotic or strange or any of the usual things foreigners say of it; on the contrary, I woke up in Dokki the first morning, went out on the streets, and felt inexplicably at home.

My mother had lived in Cairo in the 1950s, just after Suez — this is a sketch of the villa my grandfather rented in Maadi — so in a sense I had a long history there even before I arrived.  But she lived a lot of places I’ve been (Singapore, Beirut, Tripoli) and I’ve never felt anything like the unearned familiarity I felt for Cairo.  And still feel: I have visited Cairo many times in the last twenty years and lived there in the mid- to late-1990s, my view of it deepened by exposure and nuanced by its frustrations and idiosyncrasies.  I cried actual tears watching the revolution on Al Jazeera, amazed not just by Mubarak being forced from power but by the collective throwing off of the sense of futility that had seemed so much a part of Egyptian life in the preceding decades.  Yet when I returned a couple months ago, Cairo still felt a part of me and, I realized, probably always will.

In New York, people will ask me whether I saw any changes in Cairo since the revolution and I usually say that I think it is getting more conservative and more liberal at the same time, that the notion that trends only run in one direction is false.  Many more women wear the niqab now, a phenomenon that has been (too) much discussed; at the same time, men and women of a wide range of social classes now socialize together in public spaces in a way that was very rare previously.  Even my friends living in Cairo had missed this change.  Women have always gone to Fishawy and El Horea, of course, as well as upscale coffee shops like Cilantro, but this is something different: at hard-core qahwat downtown, to say nothing of the more expected revolutionary-spirited cafes around the Borsa. [*  see update below]  It is hard not to connect this ongoing social claiming of public space to the occupation of Tahrir and other spaces through political protest.

It is hard, too, not to notice that I had half-a-dozen deep political discussions in my first few days in Cairo where previously politics was a subject more of jokes than debate.  This is not because people were afraid to talk about politics — in the late-1990s, if you weren’t an activist or an Islamist you were unlikely to get into trouble — but because, in a meaningful sense, there were no politics in Egypt for much of the Mubarak era.  Everything was political, even the price of bread, but the practice of politics — the tug and pull among policymakers, the accountability wrought by open elections, the negotiations about the relationship between the people and the state — was frozen or driven underground.

Now, finally, for most Egyptians politics is worth thinking about because those thoughts and judgments have consequences.  There has been so much that has happened since the revolution that has been disappointing — I wrote about it here and here and most recently with the constitutional referendum — but one magnificent effect has been that there is a new sense of participation and a recognition that each person needs to work out for themselves what kind of society they want because, in fact, they have a small but determining role in the outcome.  The MorsiMeter — I wrote about it here — is one illustration of this, because no ever bothered to track Mubarak’s campaign promises since he hadn’t had to make any to get elected.  But it is manifested in everyday life, too, where the views can confound expectations: I met a man who quoted the Qur’an to me a few times for its wisdom and then said he had voted for Ahmed Shafiq because he didn’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood; others were die-hard secularists who swore the MB was more committed to the democratic process than the feloul were.

In some ways, the most unexpected view was my own: if I’d had a vote I would have given it to Mohamed Morsi.  I would never have imagined that.  True, I have subsequently had cause to question whether the MB’s professed democratic inclinations are sincere but, as one man told me, “If the Ikhwan don’t do what the people want, we’ll vote them out.”

That is such an amazingly ordinary idea, but I never thought I’d hear it said in Egypt.

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A note on the photographs, which can be clicked on to enlarge: I took the one in the inset (above) on Talaat Harb Square in 1992 when Ann Haig Abat Jour occupied what is, twenty years later, the Cairo Inn.  The apparent renovation of the building in the intervening years is illusory: a new layer of paint hides what, as in most of downtown, is a deteriorating building stock — go inside that building on Talaat Harb and you see that the roof has collapsed and the staircase exposed to the elements.  The photograph below, also bridging twenty years, was taken on an alley just up Talaat Harb Street, past El Abd.

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Click here to read all my posts on Egypt and the Middle East.

* Within hours of my posting about the cafes around the Borsa Egypt Independent reported that the Salafi vigilante group Ahrar attacked those same cafes under the pretext of enforcing public morality.  That both A) proves how progressive those cafes are and B) represents the sort of puritanical violence that is rare in Egypt so its emergence would mark a deeply unwelcome sort of change.

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