Last week, Egypt’s National Security Agency made a series of arrests targeting the country’s leading human rights organisation, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. On 15 November, there was a night raid on the home of the EIPR’s administrative director, Mohamed El Basheer. On 18 November, Karim Ennarah, a researcher, was taken from the beach-front in the town of Dahab, where he was on holiday. EIPR’s director, Gasser Abdel Razek, was arrested the following day at his home in Cairo. His lawyers say his head was shaved and he was kept in solitary confinement with only a metal bed to sleep on.
Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi collapsed and died yesterday in the glass-enclosed dock of a jailhouse courtroom. No images have been published of his final moments: the authorities confiscated the cameras of everyone present. Morsi had spent years in the Scorpion wing of Cairo’s Tora prison, often in solitary confinement. He was denied medical treatment for long-term illnesses. His family say he was subject to a programme of medical negligence. They have not yet seen his body. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for an investigation but there is no chance of that.
1919 was a year of travelling revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa. The uprisings were triggered by the efforts (sometimes secret, sometimes not) of Britain, France, Italy and Spain to colonise the Middle East and to divvy up its territories at the end of the First World War. As their intentions became apparent – after both Britain and France had repeatedly promised otherwise – thousands of men and, for the first time, women took to the streets in protest.
Eight sets of T-shirts, socks, underwear: white. Trousers: blue. Sweaters: blue. If you’re going to visit Alaa in prison, don’t wear blue in case the guards mistake you for an inmate. It happens, his mother tells me in all seriousness. Do not wear blue. Three bottles of juice go in the freezer the night before each visit to keep fresh through the long hours between home and cell, the metal detectors, the waiting room, the transport vehicles in the prison complex, the bench in the sun outside Alaa’s inner prison building. ‘His father was in that one.’ His mother points at the building next to her son’s.
A Hamas delegation recently paid an official visit to Egypt, which these days is news in and of itself. While in Cairo, the delegation also met with the former Fatah warlord Muhammad Dahlan, which is even bigger news.
The Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali is described by his editor, May Hawas, as ‘a libertine, a hanger-on, a sponger, a political dissenter, a depressive, an alcoholic, a gambler, and probably a menace to everyone who let him into their lives.’ The American University in Cairo Press is bringing out his diaries in two volumes, 1964-66 and 1966-68. Ghali’s wonderful (and only) novel, Beer in the Snooker Club, was published by André Deutsch in 1964. He had a job of some kind with the British Army Corps, which he loathed, just as he loathed the town of Rheydt in West Germany where he lived a ‘colourless and middle class and unadventurous’ life. He had reached this relatively safe harbour after years of hardship: the details are fuzzy, but he seems to have run into trouble with the Nasser regime (which he disliked) and from 1954 travelled through Europe, working in factories and docks, and living, as he writes, ‘in the gutter’.
On my first day in prison, trying to make me feel better, my fellow inmates listed the advantages of our particular prison, and our particular ward: most of the inmates were senior civil servants, businessmen, judges, police and army officers. Each ward can take sixty prisoners and the prison has nine wards. ‘We’re all respectable people,’ my colleague said, ‘and the administration here is respectable too.’ I said nothing. ‘And even Alaa Seif is here,’ he said, ‘in the ward across the corridor.’
I hadn’t seen Alaa for two years. Two years since we stood at his father’s funeral on the marble stairs of Omar Makram mosque. Two years since he was muscled by plainclothes police into an unmarked car back to prison. My cousin has been in prison for almost as long as Sisi has ruled Egypt. He was sentenced to five years for organising a protest. This month I was allowed to visit him.
The masters of Egypt’s arcane bureaucracy are still using ‘special funds’, or extra-budgetary slush-fund accounts, to siphon off state revenues for private gain and dispersal to patronage networks. Before he was deposed and locked up, Mohamed Morsi made a few half-hearted attempts to reform the special funds system and repatriate money to the treasury. But Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who recently announced a ‘national anti-corruption strategy’, has made no serious move against this idiosyncratic levy, which flourished under Sadat in the 1970s and increased dramatically under Mubarak in the 1980s. The secret gardens of Egypt’s bureaucracy and deep state may be harder to intrude on than Sisi claims to believe.
1 a.m. In six hours the sun will rise on another grey morning and I will dress in the cold and drive to Torah prison. I’ll park my car by an old train track that's now a garbage dump and home to a pack of dogs and walk past a tank with a soldier staring at me and head towards the courtroom at the centre of Egypt’s contemporary justice system. I will flash an expired press card and talk in English to get through a crowd of young men and women arguing with policemen in sunglasses in the hope that they will be allowed inside to wave through layers of opaque glass and metal wiring at the shadows of their friends in the defendants’ cage.
On Saturday, the court case known in Egypt as the Shura Council trial was in session. Judge Hassan Farid entered the courtroom, flanked by the two other judges on the panel and a couple of morose security guards. The defence were to continue their closing arguments, the prosecution having wrapped up a month ago. But before the defence could begin, the judge leaned in to his microphone and asked if the prosecution had anything they wanted to say. The courtroom fell into a stunned silence – and then erupted in protest.
There was a bride in full wedding regalia on my plane from Cairo to Doha last month. She was wearing a sequinned, lacy hijab and a long, tight mermaid skirt that flared at the bottom, over a wire hoop. It wasn’t easy to manoeuvre the hoop down the aisle of the plane. She was travelling alone, and in the long empty hallways of Doha's new airport made laborious progress. I didn't see who came to meet her.
Yesterday was the first anniversary of the arrest and incarceration of three al-Jazeera journalists in Cairo. Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were charged with broadcasting false news and aiding a 'terrorist organisation' (the Muslim Brotherhood). Al-Jazeera rejects the charges. 'They’re not terrorists, they’re journalists,' Lindsey Hilsum, the Channel 4 News international editor, told me at a protest outside the Egyptian embassy in London. 'Everybody knows that. President El-Sisi knows that. It’s completely insane that they’re still in prison.'
On Wednesday 11 June, the Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah was one of 25 people sentenced to 15 years in prison for organising an illegal protest last November. Abdel Fattah is a 32-year-old software developer and blogger, and an habitué of Egypt’s street protests, court rooms and jails. He was first detained in 2006, under Mubarak, for protesting in favour of an independent judiciary. Supporters organised a 'Free Alaa' campaign. After being held for six weeks without charge, he was released.
A video of the imprisoned al-Jazeera journalist Abdullah El-Shamy was released online two days ago. The 26-year-old, arrested by the Egyptian authorities last summer, has yet to be charged. He has been on hunger strike for more than 100 days. According to his family, he has lost a third of his body weight, dropping from 108 kg to 68 kg. In the video, he says the Egyptian regime is responsible for his condition, and will be responsible if he dies. He says he has received no medical care in prison, and his requests to be seen by an independent doctor have been denied.
When a new arrival is brought in to the cells in the police station in Dokki, Western Cairo, the first questions he is asked by his fellow inmates are: what happened today? What’s going on outside? Very little information goes in to such places, and very little comes out. When security forces took Hossam Meneai from his apartment in late January, he said the only thing he wanted to do was get a message to his mother telling her he was alive.
I stumbled into journalism twelve years ago, at the dingy and convivial offices of the Cairo Times, a now defunct independent English language weekly whose Egyptian and foreign interns and journalists have gone on to report across the Middle East. I’ve worked as a reporter in Cairo ever since – as an editor at other local independent publications and as a correspondent for foreign media – and I’ve never known a worse time for journalists in Egypt than the present.
Tony Blair flew into Cairo on Wednesday to offer his support to the administration, to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood and to hold talks on the country's growing problem with an al-Qaida-linked Islamist insurgency. ‘We should support those people in the region who want the open-minded society and the modern economy. That means we support the government here in Egypt,’ he told Sky News Arabia.
I was interviewing the 'Bride of Sisi', as she called herself, when a crowd gathered around me and another journalist and accused us of working for a 'terrorist' news channel. Saadiya al-Sayed al-Sayed, a 48-year-old mother of two from the working-class area of al-Marg, had said she would like General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to be her and Egypt’s husband. 'We are scared for our children, for our country. Those people' – the Muslim Brotherhood – 'are coming to set the country on fire. We are a kind-hearted people, and we want those who are going to take care of us. Sisi said Egyptians are his beloved, and we like those who are tender with us.' The hundreds of women in the crowd around her, many of them with Sisi’s picture around their necks, began chanting, and she joined in: 'The people want the execution of the Muslim Brotherhood. The people want the execution of the Muslim Brotherhood.' Over and over, louder and louder.
'I don't normally cover my face, but I don't want to be identified,' the young woman told me last month. A student at al-Azhar University in Cairo, she was wearing a pink hijab and sweatshirt with a mustard-coloured bandana over her face. 'This is me,' she said, pulling aside the bandana with a smile. She couldn't have been more than 20. Many of the other young women around us had wrapped their faces in scarves to conceal their identities from the soldiers and policemen standing nearby.
Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Square still hasn’t been screened in Cairo. It was scheduled to play at a local film festival but pulled at the last minute; the Censor’s Office has still not approved the movie’s general release. It’s not hard to see why. The scenes of revolutionary fervour and army and police brutality are at odds with the prevailing version of events here, in which generals are saviours and all protesters suspects.
Mohamed Mahmoud is a small street that branches from Tahrir Square; the American University in Cairo stands on the corner. Two years ago, the police violently dispersed a dwindling sit-in there by a few dozen relatives of people killed during the uprising against Mubarak. The policemen were caught on cell phones dragging dead bodies to the curb like bags of garbage. Young people poured back into Tahrir Square and spent four days fighting the police, who fell back along Mohamed Mahmoud, protecting one of the avenues to the Ministry of Interior. (The Muslim Brotherhood, concerned that the violence would derail the upcoming parliamentary elections, prohibited its members from taking part.) For perhaps the last time, street protests by groups that identified as revolutionary had an impact on the political process. They demanded that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces set a date for presidential elections and for stepping down from power. The SCAF agreed.
This morning Mohammad Morsi went on trial in the police academy on the outskirts of Cairo where Hosni Mubarak was tried two years ago. The charges against Morsi seem even more difficult to prove than those brought against his predecessor. Morsi and 14 other Muslim Brotherhood leaders are accused of inciting and abetting violence by his supporters against protesters outside the presidential palace last December, which left seven dead. (He also faces other charges, such as conspiring with Hamas.)
The way into the Montaza II police station in Alexandria is along a narrow ridge of broken concrete tiles and wet sand. A pool of black and green water with soft grey matter floating in it covers what must once have been a parking lot. There are more than 60 people detained inside, most of them Palestinian Syrians, half of them children under ten, their faces spotted with mosquito bites. On the third floor there's a pile of sand with parts of a broken toilet sticking out of it. A dirty blanket folded over a string separates the women and children’s quarters from the men’s. The detainees were all arrested for trying to get to Europe by boat.
One of the great misconceptions about Egypt today is that the army is a bulwark against the intrusions of religion in politics, a defender of state-mosque separation. (You can't defend something that doesn't exist.) This fable is widely believed in the West, and has been vigorously promoted by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's liberal supporters. But as David Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh report in today's New York Times, in their campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi and his colleagues are invoking Islam as shamelessly as the movement they've driven underground.
Abdelrahman Mohamed Zanaty stood for three hours at the entrance to Tora prison this morning. The 20-year-old was waiting to see his father, Mohamed, a doctor at a Cairo field hospital, who was arrested on 14 July after treating wounded supporters of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
Gunshots crackle on a hot day in August. The residents of Mallawi, a town in southern Egypt, talk about whether people are raiding the police station or robbing the bank. Bands of young men in civilian clothes roam the rubble-strewn streets with assault rifles. After dark it’s best to stay indoors.
I prefer to see what happened as a great fire, which many shared in starting, some out of negligence and stupidity, some out of revenge, some of out greed and some out of inattention. Everyone thought his own actions explained the fire's outbreak, but the truth, God knows, is they all joined in starting it... And what matters is that they started it, and the army came to power claiming to put it out. I underlined this passage, earlier this summer, in Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s novel Bab El Khoroug, ('The Way Out'). Choukri Fishere is a former Egyptian diplomat, a professor of political science and the author of several previous novels. He published Bab El Khoroug in instalments in the Egyptian newspaper El Tahrir last year. The novel, set in the year 2020, looks back on a military takeover, a complete breakdown of government and security, the rise of an unlikely dictator and the massacres he oversees, the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president, and yet another military coup.
So this is how it ends: with the army killing more than 600 protesters, and injuring thousands of others, in the name of restoring order and defeating 'terrorism'. The victims are Muslim Brothers and other supporters of the deposed president Mohammed Morsi, but the ultimate target of the massacres of 14 August is civilian rule. Cairo, the capital of revolutionary hope two years ago, is now its burial ground.
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.
Islamism was born in Egypt in 1928. And it was in Egypt, 85 years later, that the first successful uprising against an Islamist government occurred. The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood is a momentous event: but to foreign observers, the army’s intervention overshadowed everything else.
The defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood is a regional turning point. Mohammed Morsi's election was widely hailed as the birth of a new era of Sunni Islamist-led democracies in the Arab world, bankrolled by Qatar, sympathetically covered by al-Jazeera, and supported by Washington, Ankara and the Gulf. It was not to be. The Morsi presidency now looks to have been a turbulent and highly contested segue between two eras of military rule. Qatar, which invested heavily in the Brothers, has lost a major ally.
At midday on Sunday the temperature hovered around 33 degrees in Tahrir Square. People crowded into the shade but didn't give up their chanting and flag waving. In the late afternoon, as the sun began to set and the temperature dropped, flag wavers, drummers, horn honkers and angry chanters set out from across Cairo towards either Tahrir Square or the Presidential Palace, protesting against President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's polarising style of governance, and their failure to revive the economy and restore security. The numbers were 'unprecedented', even for a country that has seen its share of 'unprecedented' protests over the past three years. Simultaneous demonstrations were held throughout the country, from the cities on the Suez Canal to the agricultural heartland of the Nile Delta to more conservative Upper Egypt. Some estimated the turnout in the millions.
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.
Evaluating a still unfolding revolt is like trying to shoot a moving target. Yet there has been at least one steady pattern in Egypt over the past two years: subversion has constantly outpaced efforts to consolidate a new regime.
They called him the 'spare tyre', but he may become the next president of Egypt – the first president of the post-Mubarak order. Mohamed Morsi, the candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, is a charmless man, doctrinaire in disposition and impatient with the reform-minded currents in his party. He became its candidate only after its more appealing first choice, Khairat El-Shater, was disqualified from running by the Presidential Election Commission; hence the nickname. (The commission cited a Mubarak-era rule that those who have been in prison in the last six years are ineligible to run; El-Shater was released only in March 2011.) Yet Morsi had behind him the electoral machine of the Muslim Brotherhood, still the country's most significant political movement.
Cairo's 20 million people produce an estimated 10,000 tons of waste each day. Piles of rubbish are found on the streets of many neighbourhoods. At first sight, the problem seems worst in Manshiet Nasser, which since the late 1960s has been home to Cairo’s largest community of Coptic Christian zabbaleen ('garbage collectors'). They say they recycle 80 per cent of the rubbish they collect, most of which is shipped to China.
In the streets of Alexandria, faces are disappearing: specifically, the hair, lips and eyes of mannequins. Stroll past the shop fronts and you will see the dividing lines. Observant shopkeepers display mannequins with no features at all. The faceless heads, emerging from the new season’s fashions, have no ears or noses, no hint of a cheek bone or eyebrow. Some are pristine, glossy white; others are silver or black. Shops selling religious goods, Wahhabi-style jalabiyas and Korans, use headless dummies – as do underwear shops, their windows crammed with plastic bosoms only partly covered by sheer negligees and lacy bras.
Port Said, the city at the northern entrance of the Suez Canal, has seen its share of pain. In 1956 it was the centre of Egyptian resistance to the Tri-Partite Aggression. Egypt's defeat by Israel in 1967 turned it into a war zone and shut down the canal, its main source of income; the city was evacuated. Even after the 1973 war restored some Egyptian pride, and Anwar Sadat gave the city duty-free status as a reward for its sacrifices, Port Said never really regained its old cosmopolitanism. After an alleged assassination attempt against Hosni Mubarak in 1999 – many people believe the ‘assassin’, who was shot dead by security forces, was carrying a letter for the president, not a weapon – some of the fiscal privileges were withdrawn. After the violence at Port Said's football stadium last night, in which at least 74 people were killed and more than 1000 wounded, it isn’t surprising to see so many Egyptians not only decry the lack of adequate policing at the stadium, but accuse the police and the military of having manufactured the whole thing.
As the number of wounded and killed has climbed in Egypt in recent days, a number of journalists and bloggers have reported that several of the tear gas canisters being fired at protesters in Tahrir Square carry blue ‘Made in USA’ stamps, and indications that they were made by a company based in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, called Combined Tactical Systems. Comparing a recently posted picture of one such shell with the illustrations on CTS’s website suggests it may well be a 40 mm projectile with the catalogue number 4230.
I got a message on Sunday that the Tahrir Square field hospital needed medical help and supplies. As I used to be a nurse, I went. The tear gas is toxic in a way it was not in January. Various people have said that the cyanide component is greater or that phosphorus is causing the problem. I can positively confirm that the gas injuries are completely different and much more severe. We treated hundreds of youngsters who had totally collapsed and were not breathing. Most came to quickly but we had two deaths and one, a young boy, asphyxiated. This evening, every gas victim has come in twitching or seriously fitting. Some gas wafted into the mosque. You couldn't see it but immediately my eyes began to stream and my skin started to burn. In the January Revolution, I saw the gas coming and the effects irritated my eyes, nose and throat. The eye irritation was intense but this is different. I never had a sense of my skin burning in January even with close range exposure.
On the second Friday of the Egyptian revolution (4 February) I noticed a change in the dusty, makeshift bookstalls on the streets leading to Tahrir Square. The usual array of cheaply printed, sun-faded, sometimes used books – Programming for Dummies, C++, The Prophet’s Hadith, The Little Prince, Advanced Mathematics – were joined by An Alternative President, Red Card for the President, Revolution 2025 and a selection of pirated publications with covers bearing the silhouette of Che Guevara or social networking logos. ‘It was a revolution for our business,’ one of the booksellers told me recently. ‘There were no longer police on the streets – there was no one to arrest us or take away our goods. Censorship ceased to exist.’
On Sunday night, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak called a cabinet meeting to argue against going to war in Gaza. The meeting lasted four hours, as these unlikely doves made the case for 'restraint'. They were, in a sense, arguing against themselves. After the attack in Eilat last Thursday, in which eight Israelis, five of them civilians, were killed, Netanyahu and Barak had immediately blamed the Popular Resistance Committee in Gaza, an armed movement of militants from different factions. If they had any evidence of PRC involvement, they didn't share it: the best an IDF spokeswoman interviewed on the Real News could manage was that the attackers used Kalashnikovs. The PRC denied responsibility; Hamas was even more sheepish: the last thing it needed was another Operation Cast Lead. A more likely story was that the attacks were carried out by Islamic militants in the Sinai,
Abdel-Moneim Abou El Fotouh, the secretary general of the Arab Medical Union and a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood since the late 1970s, announced in May that he would run in Egypt’s presidential elections as an independent candidate. The Brotherhood has been cautious about the political openings afforded by the fall of Mubarak. They have launched a political party – the Freedom and Justice Party – but insist they have no interest in fielding a candidate for the presidency. In June, Abou El Fotouh was expelled from the organisation. When I went to see him a few days ago, Abou El Fotouh – who with his colourful ties and thick glasses has more of the air of a popular physics professor than an ideologue of Egypt’s oldest and most organised Islamist movement – didn’t want to talk about his quarrel with the Brotherhood, except to say: ‘It makes me sad.’ Then he said: ‘Never mind. If this is the new Egypt, we have a lot of work to do.’
Posters for the movie El Fagoumi, which tells the life story of the folk poet Ahmad Fuad Negm, show the actors superimposed over Tahrir Square in revolutionary tumult. The image is almost indistinguishable from the montages of the ‘Revolution of 25 January’ that play on music video channels or hang incongruously from the government offices the demonstrations were directed against.
Getting back to Tahrir Square in the middle of the celebrations after the fall of Mubarak was a lot easier than getting out of Egypt on 3 February had been. In our apartment on the eighth floor, glued to al-Jazeera, my flatmates and I had watched on TV what was happening in the street below – the men riding into the square on horses and camels, the petrol bombs, the casualties. Our building was guarded by a group of men with big sticks. When people started throwing rocks at our balcony, we decided it was time to leave.
Hosni Mubarak was the Israeli government’s favourite dictator, so it was hard for them, and for the mass media, to say goodbye to him. Coverage of the uprisings elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East has been fairly supportive of the protesters, but Egypt was a special case. As Gabi Ashkenazi, the recently retired head of the army, put it, ‘stability is preferable to democracy.’ The refrain throughout has been: 'Israel is anxiously following events.’ But on 26 January, the Israeli establishment was hopeful that its neighbours would fail in their struggle for democracy. The daily Ma'ariv, under the headline 'Trusting Mubarak', said: 'Israeli officials are optimistic: Egypt will overcome’ – ‘Egypt’ here and elsewhere meaning the despotic administration, not the people.
The demonstrations that have rocked Egypt for the last 18 days have turned into a nation-wide street party, and it is impossible not to be moved by the scenes of Egyptians celebrating their victory. The dictator who ruled Egypt for the last 30 years has been forced from office by non-violent, civil disobedience on a scale not seen since the 1979 revolution in Iran. And the principal agent of change – until today, when Mubarak stood down and the army took over – has been the Arab citizen, a striking change in a region where the romanticised figure of 'resistance' has been the soldier, the guerilla and, at times, the suicide bomber. At the White House press conference today, Obama and his press officer Robert Gibbs insisted that Egypt's revolution was really just about Egypt, but they knew better: Washington's policy during the crisis had been driven by fear of regional instability, and by the fears whispered into the administration's ears by Israel and the Saudis, and shifted only when Mubarak became a clear liability to American interests.The success of the Egyptian revolutionary model will be studied closely, and its lessons applied. The realisation of the Egyptian dream is the nightmare of Arab despots, and of Binyamin Netanyahu. But the revolution in Egypt is not over: in fact, it has only begun.
When asked by Jim Lehrer, the host of Newshour on PBS, if Hosni Mubarak was a dictator, the US vice president, Joseph Biden, said: ‘Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region, Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalising the relationship with Israel... I would not refer to him as a dictator.’ Here are some excerpts from the rest of Lehrer’s interview with Biden, containing more of the VP’s candid assessments. On Darth Vader: Look, I know Darth fairly well,
Mahmoud, my driver in Cairo when I reported from Egypt last year, didn't talk much about politics, and – an understandable precaution – kept his views to himself unless he was asked a direct question. But when he dropped me off at the airport, he launched into a sharp attack on the Mubarak regime. 'The Egyptians are a very patient people by nature, but their patience is running out,' he said. 'They could explode.'
The other night I went out with a group of people to a private dinner club hidden away at the top of a residential building in Garden City, a middle-class area of Cairo where many foreign embassies are (with, not surprisingly, a very heavy security detail). A Sudanese waiter welcomed us into the vast, sumptuously appointed flat. It used to belong to Hoda Shaarawi, an Egyptian feminist leader, born in 1879, who wrote poetry in Arabic and French, and was the first Egyptian woman to remove her veil in public, in 1923. An oud player was performing in one room, while corny pop tunes – 'Feelings', 'Blue Moon' – blared from the stereo in another. We sat down, and were greeted by another Sudanese waiter. Was every waiter at the club Sudanese? 'They are Darfuris,' my host said, a homage, he explained, to old world colonial aesthetics (and hierarchy). Our waiter wore a name tag: R.
Barack Obama's speech in Cairo last week was, of course, addressed as much to Americans as to Cairenes (or for that matter Muslims). The crowd hardly needed to be reminded of their civilisation's accomplishments in maths, science and learning; but many Americans could surely benefit from the history lesson the president so succinctly and eloquently provided. Likewise, most Egyptians know that there are worse places to be Muslim than the US: that's why so many of them are desperate for American visas. Europeans, on the other hand, could learn something from American tolerance of the hijab.