Egypt After the Clampdown
Egyptian army soldiers sit on top of an armored personnel carrier on a street in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Cairo — Sinai aside (Sinai is always aside), calm has mostly returned to Egypt, interrupted now not by mass demonstrations but by bomb attacks on ministers and despair that this presages a return to the dark old days of 1990s terrorism. The massive street protests and clashes happen less and less, as Muslim Brotherhood members simply do not go out in big enough numbers anymore for major clashes to take place, and the security forces apparently know that shooting randomly at a pitiful demonstration of 300 wandering through the streets of a Cairo suburb would be difficult to pass off as a credible counterterrorism measure, even in the current climate.
Instead, the police occasionally tear-gas Brotherhood members in police vans when not rounding them up on a massive scale. For weeks the media has carried reports of another Brotherhood leader tracked down in a flat in Nasr City or a village somewhere in the Delta. Sometimes there are videos or pictures of said Brother squinting into a camera surrounded by masked special operations cops holding up victory signs. In some of these photos, the Brother is grinning weirdly, like a man jolted out of his sleep and informed that his daughter has given birth to his first grandchild.
Life in Egypt has mostly shrunk, politically, geographically, socially. For two long weeks, Egyptians in governorates affected by the unrest were under a curfew from 7 pm till 6 am. A frenzied scuttling began in Cairo around 5 pm, as shop shutters were banged shut and commuters began to head home. Daredevils who left too late faced the wrath of unpredictable army officers at checkpoints.
And then, from 7 pm, the terrible stillness. Curfew doesn’t suit Cairo, a city whose élan derives principally from its inhabitants and which is used to stretching and coming alive after the sun has set, in the cool of the evening. Without them there is nothing to see but the city’s decline, an ordinary face without the disguise of transformative makeup, the clear blue eyes of the river its only untouched feature.
The situation has slightly improved since the curfew was pushed back to 11 pm six days a week. Harried waiters now start the stopwatch at 9.30. But, stuck in your house for seven hours surrounded by that stillness, it is difficult not to feel trapped, to feel the walls closing in on you.
The invisible walls of the curfew are a variant on the physical walls the army has always been so fond of building. To walk in downtown Cairo near the Interior Ministry and Parliament is still to play human Pac-Man. Built to contain dissent after January 25, 2011, when people protested against rather than for the state, they now remain an obstacle course only for pedestrians, lost motorists and stray cats. People have knocked holes in them big enough to allow passage, using the rubble to create steps over which to scramble. And it has all become normal.
A principal reason Egypt is in its current political mess is that successive regimes—like regimes of poor governance everywhere—have equated shutting down the physicality of dissent with addressing this dissent. The best example of this was the August 14 dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-ins in Cairo. Conservative figures put the death toll at nearly a thousand, with many more injured.
I went to the Rabaa El-Adaweya area of Nasr City in Cairo, the site of the biggest sit-in, the next morning. It was a post-apocalyptic scene. Bulldozers roared up and down the street carrying away debris at great speed. The air was filled with the dust from their tracks. Donkey carts trundled between them and the smoldering remains of fires. Waste pickers worked over what was left: clothes, medicine, shoes belonging to the dead and to those who had fled. The image of deposed President Mohamed Morsi peeked out from posters trapped in the piles of waste that the pickers could not convert into profit.
In less than twenty-four hours, it was as if the sit-in—which had acquired the proportions of a small but developed village, with barbers, a children’s playground and even two-tier housing—had never been. It is the same story with the smaller Nahda Square sit-in in Giza, another patch of land that had been appropriated by supporters of deposed president Morsi. I went through an army checkpoint there after curfew a week after it was attacked, and all that remained was some graffiti and scorched land where tents—including the people inside them—had been set on fire.
While going through that checkpoint, an elderly man objected semi-vociferously to being patted down by a soldier half his age. “You are protecting us, may God protect you,” a woman standing in the queue behind him declared earnestly and repeatedly.
Erasing the physical presence of political opponents was a favorite tactic of the Mubarak regime, too. For years, handfuls of demonstrators would be sandwiched between rows of riot police or forced into the back of police trucks. Control the streets and you control the message, was the thinking, and while that might have worked in the pre-Internet age, it eventually stopped working for Mubarak.
The Brotherhood roundup and the closure of Islamist media channels, including those with a Brotherhood bias (such as Al-Jazeera Mobasher Misr, the network’s Egypt branch), has taken place in almost complete silence and with very little public criticism. The vast majority of the general public, apparently still recovering from its brush with Islamist rule and high on the fascistic nationalism that took hold of public life after the massive anti-Brotherhood demonstrations of June 30, think death would be too good for the Brotherhood. Defense Minister General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, who forced Morsi’s removal and who as the embodiment of the army and intelligence services is running the country behind a fig leaf of civilian rule, is now a cross between a pinup star and Batman, fighter of the dark forces. Teslam el ayady, or “Bless Your Hands,” a jingoistic paean to the armed forces, is now reportedly the most requested song at weddings.
In one of Cairo’s public squares, there are badly produced posters for sale depicting Sisi holding a knife slaughtering a sheep with Morsi’s head. “This is what happens to those that don’t do as the people say,” the poster warns grimly. The general public, in its desire to see the Brotherhood destroyed, agrees with this sentiment, and it is this that is most dangerous about the current state of affairs. The regime has succeeded in hoodwinking citizens into believing that by physically removing the Brotherhood from the picture, it has neutralized the threat, real and imagined, from Islamists. The attack last week on the interior minister’s convoy, and the simmering insurgency in the Sinai, shows that they have failed. What is even more problematic is that the general public has once again accepted, so uncritically, exactly the tactics that it took to the streets to oppose on that dreamy day of January 25, 2011, so long ago.
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