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In Cairo


A few days ago I went to Tahrir Square for an iftar, the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. It had been organised by Tamarod, the youth-led movement which, with the backing of the army, ousted President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government at the beginning of the month. Tamarod were hosting the iftar because of the ‘danger to Islam’, a juice seller told me as he set up his stall, ‘from the Muslim Brotherhood’. Meanwhile across town, the deposed president’s supporters have been camped out for more than two weeks defending what they call democratic principles.

On the way into Tahrir I saw a sticker on a railing that said: ‘No to terrorism.’ On the face of it, an uncontroversial statement. But in the last two weeks state and independent media have been denouncing Brotherhood supporters as terrorists.

‘Are you with the legitimacy of God or the legitimacy of Hassan el Banna?’ another sign asked, referring to the Brotherhood’s founder. ‘Legitimacy’ is a buzzword of the pro-Morsi camp, who call his ouster an illegitimate coup.

Many of the people I talked to said they were there because the revolution’s aims – ‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice’ – had not been realised. ‘We feel injustice, we feel we are not Egyptian,’ said Rada Omran, whose 13-year-old son drives an auto-rickshaw to earn extra income for the family. ‘But when we come to Tahrir we feel we are Egyptian.’

Mamdoh Mouradi, an artist sitting nearby, said there was another iftar closer to his house, ‘but the revolution is here.’

Young men can’t find work and haven’t the money to buy food or get married. ‘We look at meat from afar,’ Ahmed Darweesh said. ‘We look at girls from afar too.’

Ahmed Magdy, who has been sleeping on the street for two months with his family, showed me deep gashes on his leg from an accident the day before. He can’t afford to pay hospital fees. ‘God is my hospital,’ he said.

Thankfully there wasn’t much talk of ‘terrorists’. Instead, people talked about losing faith in the Brotherhood during their year in office. ‘They wanted to control everything,’ said Afaf Mouradi, who voted for them in the parliamentary elections and studied at a Brotherhood mosque for nine years. ‘Anyone who didn’t agree, they called them unbelievers. But they can’t. We’re all Muslims.’

Two nights later, I went to the pro-Morsi sit-in in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. A man at the entrance was painting Egyptian flags on little girls’ faces. At first everything looked much the same as in Tahrir. But people have been camping out there for more than two weeks, and it was beginning to show. Drying laundry hung between tents where people lay resting or reading the Koran. They said that Egypt’s first freely elected president deserved to see out his term. But with a new government in place and plans being laid for a new constitution and elections, there seems little chance that their demands will be met – particularly since the other side has an army.

Talk-show hosts say that the Rabaa sit-in is riddled with disease and human waste, but that isn’t what I saw. People were handing out dates and juice. Women arrived carrying large pots of food. Someone brought me a meal and a newspaper to sit on – a copy of Horeya wal Adala (‘Freedom and Justice’), the Brotherhood’s party paper. This is one of the few places you can still get it.

At the sound of the call to prayer, everyone started drinking water, eating dates, taking long drags on cigarettes. I sat with three members of the Muslim Sisterhood, who were sharing a plastic bag of water. One broke a piece of meat in two and handed me half.

A few days earlier the army had flown over the encampment and dropped pamphlets on the demonstrators, advising them to disperse. ‘They are acting like a colonial army – if our Egyptian army wants to say something to us, it should be through the media – on television or on the radio,’ says Walaa, who spent eleven days sleeping in Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising. But unlike in Tahrir, there are few cameras here to tell their side of the story.

Comments on “In Cairo”

  1. Sam Muller says:

    The only way one can avoid an abyss of despair over ongoing events in Egypt and the current condition of the Arab Spring is by seeking refuge in the long-view. The Arab uprisings were compared with the European upheavals of 1848, correctly in my opinion. In Europe, 1848 was followed by confusing and confounding times, in which revolution and counter-revolution, hope and betrayal, progress and retrogression were ubiquitous. But in the long run, the relatively more democratic, free and progressive Europe of our times could not have happened without 1848 and its less than salubrious aftermath. Perhaps some day, decades from now, Egyptians – and the world – will look back at the current events and recognize in them the agonizing but necessary birth-pangs of a better Middle East/North Africa.
    Perhaps; hopefully.

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