The street lamps on the Kasr El Nil bridge are out. The Semiramis hotel is battered and shuttered: during the latest round of clashes the hotel was looted by a well-armed mob that showed up one night at 2 a.m. The staff called the army and the police, in vain. As our taxi turns the corner by the Semiramis – on the edge of Tahrir Square, a few minutes from the American Embassy – there’s a crowd of young men in the street in front of us. A boy with a keffiyeh wrapped around his mouth winds up his arm and lets loose, aiming squarely at our windscreen – but his hand is empty, he’s just joking. Another boy waves us through. The first boy comes running over and, hanging on the open window, yells at the driver. I’m too flustered to catch what he says, but it’s clear we won’t be let through. We head back to the bridge, back across the Nile, up the other side and home by a different bridge.
A friend was stuck in a taxi on another bridge recently, where ‘tolls’ were begin extorted. A car in front of him was set on fire. On the same bridge a friend’s sister was trapped in her car while men threatened to rape and kill her. They never noticed the back door was broken, unlocked.
In Cairo these days the pavements disappear under your feet as the stones are pulled out for use as ammunition. Barriers spring up overnight, turning familiar neighbourhoods into strange mazes. Ancient buildings go up in flames. And every day there are new warnings, slogans and portraits sprayed on the walls.
Mohammed El Guindi, a 28-year-old activist in a secular party, disappeared from a protest in late January. He was found nearly a week later, lying brain-dead in a hospital. The government says he was in a car accident. Human rights lawyers who visited him before he died say he was tortured, his tongue burnt, strangulation marks on his neck. Two released prisoners say they saw him at a police camp, when an officer took a disliking to him and beat him ‘every half an hour’. He was the administrator of an anti-Muslim Brotherhood Facebook page; he’s the third or fourth young activist running anti-Islamist Facebook pages to die in recent months.
I interview a Muslim Brother who teaches at Cairo University. He launches unbidden into the usual arguments. The government will not capitulate to ‘a dictatorship of the minority’. Where is the respect for democracy? This is just opposition for opposition’s sake. People who don’t want the Islamic experiment to succeed. At no point does he acknowledge that the Muslim Brotherhood has made any mistakes, has been anything less than candid, trustworthy, respectful of democratic principles.
He is a smiling, pointedly gracious, seemingly confident man. I ask him who he thinks is behind the violence that mars every peaceful protest now – the rapes, the looting, the attacks on government buildings and police stations and Islamist party headquarters, the rock-throwing, the close-range shots to the head. They’re paid to do this, he says, paid by the former regime. But why aren’t any of ‘them’ ever caught, ever prosecuted?
‘This is not for your article,’ he says, ‘but… it’s foreign pressure.’ Don’t worry, it will definitely not be for my article. He speaks in half sentences. The president is being patient. The money that has been spirited abroad, why hasn’t it been returned yet? And why do you think so many former regime figures have fled to the United Arab Emirates? He raises his eyebrows. He presses his lips together. He has it from reliable sources. He’s said enough.
A thought occurs to me, later: Perhaps the Muslim Brothers think in conspiracies because they are so unsure of themselves, so disbelieving and awed at the prospect of actually reaching power – how can they be allowed? And then the power itself, so far, has proved so unsatisfactory, so awkward to wield. Small wonder they think they need more.
Only 6 per cent of Egyptian men are over sixty. They lean back in their office chairs, in their seats on TV platforms, trying to look relaxed but clinging to their armrests. The Islamists, the generals, their secular opponents – they all seem to think they can cleave some advantage from the chaos, that they can use the young men in the street against each other. In any case, they don’t know how to stop it. The young men are angry and unafraid.
They – we really don’t know who ‘they’ are any more – closed the Mugamma this week, blocked the subway tracks, got into fights with commuters.
I think back, trying to pinpoint the moment at which everything must have been already lost. Was it when we were celebrating at a house party, Mubarak’s face stenciled on the toilet door, the room shaking with the song: ‘Khalas! The people! They brought down the regime!’
I go to a meeting of activists who campaigned for a labour lawyer, the only truly ‘revolutionary’ candidate in the presidential elections. They want to start organising again. But there is almost no talk about how to end the violence (or even take a stance on it); or about a strategy for the parliamentary elections; or about the looming economic meltdown. Lots of talk though – in a little office in central Cairo – of the need to visit marginal neighbourhoods and provincial towns and really connect with the people. They dream of more revolution, of the same giant peaceful crowds and sudden, improbable change of two years ago. But all they seem ready to offer is ‘awareness-raising’; the poor are well aware of their predicament, and the Islamists will be distributing food and gas canisters.
On Kasr Al-Ainy Street, a major thoroughfare leading to Tahrir Square, a city block is shut off between two giant cement walls. A shop on the corner, with entrances on both sides, provides a way through. The owner keeps it open as a service to the neighbourhood, but there are limits to his forbearance. A policeman tries to pass, carrying a tray loaded with baked beans, pickled vegetables, falafel – breakfast for the higher-ups. ‘Hey you, get back!’ the owner yells at him. ‘Because I said so!’ The policeman retreats.