CAIRO: I came home one Sunday to find a repairman working on my building’s elevator. The wrought-iron cage was open, the elevator box stopped six feet short of the ground. A heavy, early 20th-century wheel lay on the marble floor, part of the mechanism that pulls the elevator up to the roof seven floors above. I greeted the workman and inquired after his age.
He set down his screwdriver, adopted a manly pose, and replied, “Fourteen.”
Fourteen? He wasn’t a day over 12.
He would have been eight or nine when the January 2011 revolution unseated President Hosni Mubarak. In the years since, there have been mass demonstrations, a coup, tens of thousands arrested, and more than 2,000 killed.
When an economy collapses, with employment scarce and the price of food rising, families put their children to work. Such things are normal here, in Egypt. The word itself — normal — has become a reflexive answer to questions about most anything.
On a recent evening, an armored personnel carrier passed within spitting distance. A baby-faced soldier manning the rooftop gun made eye contact from beneath his helmet. I asked the man beside me what’s happening. He told me everything’s normal.
Last Thursday I was sitting in a café, a noisy place at the intersection of two busy streets. I heard the shouting, and then saw two blue police trucks passing. The trucks were full of arrested men, chanting.
“Eih dah?” (What’s that?) I said to no one in particular. A man at the next table replied, “Nothing. Everything’s normal.”
In January, on the third anniversary of the 2011 revolution, a series of bombs in Cairo targeted police stations, the metro, and a cinema. An al-Qaeda-inspired group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), claimed responsibility. One of the attacks was an early morning truck bomb that targeted a downtown police building.
The blast woke me, such was the force. I rang a friend and then opened my kitchen windows to see clouds of heavy black smoke.
Not long after, a Dubai-based television station showed Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil. Watching the film, set “sometime in the 21st century,” was disturbing. It’s about a bureaucratic state where everyone is a potential enemy. One scene goes like this:
“Joining us from the Ministry of Information, deputy minister of information, Eugene Helpmann.”
“Good evening, David.”
“What do you believe is behind this recent increase in terrorist bombings?”
“Bad sportsmanship. A ruthless minority of people seems to have forgotten certain good old-fashioned virtues. They just can’t stand seeing the other fellow win. If these people’d just play the game they’d get a lot more out of life.”
“Do you believe that the government is winning the battle against terrorists?”
“Oh yes — I’d say they’re pretty nearly out of the game.”
“Mr. Helpmann, the bombing campaign is now in its thirteenth year.”
The film’s central character, Sam Lowry, is having lunch at a posh restaurant with his mother. Just after the waiter delivers their pureed food a mighty explosion occurs. Amid the flames and smoke women scream, chairs are upended, and wounded diners clutch their heads.
Seconds later, the string quartet picks up its bows and plays “Hava Nagila” (Let Us Rejoice). The maître d’ apologizes for the interruption. A screen is erected, separating the diners from the still-burning wreckage of the blast.
Egypt is like that these days. Barriers, both physical and psychological, hide anything that is unpleasant. After the January bombing concrete bomb-blast barriers were erected around government ministries and police stations. They are 12 feet high and separate the buildings from the street.
Downtown, where the streets are narrow and filled with traffic, pedestrians must walk directly beside the barriers. Even this feels normal. For several years now Cairo’s residents have skirted rows of tanks, sandbagged sharpshooters, and coils of barbed wire.
The physical space of Cairo has been securitized, and so has the internal space. The heads and hearts of Cairenes have been colonized.
Some months ago I noticed the way the street near my flat would abruptly go quiet. People on the sidewalk would become still. Then a convoy would appear, high-end vehicles led by a motorcycle, sirens blaring.
Inside the white four-by-fours the drivers and passengers are young and handsome, with short haircuts and good postures. In the backseat there may be an older man in a good suit. They are passing my street to reach the Ministry of Interior, the most powerful entity — outside the army — in postrevolutionary Egypt.
No one looks. The street sellers, bowabs, and tea drinkers all avert their gaze. Then the traffic resumes. People turn back to their conversations, and the moment passes.
A city of 20 million is a place of sensory overload, a place of constant change where the population must adapt to survive. People must constantly filter out a myriad of distractions. And they succumb to subtle and not-so-subtle conditioning.
Sirens rise above the noise of traffic. There is the “Alain Delon,” the two-tone French wail that makes everything seem black and white and film noirish. There is the drawn-out civil defense horn, the one that warns of an impending cyclone or tsunami or hurricane, none of which occur in Egypt. There is the tightly wound, high-pitched siren also used by the London Metropolitan Police, or what I call “Clockwork Orange.” At other times they seem to be cycling through the various signature sounds of the NYPD, each one transmitting a different level of urgency.
The sirens don’t necessarily announce an emergency, or accompany one. Last week a woman was hit by a pickup truck near the corner of my street. It was just past 11 p.m. I heard her scream. From my balcony I could see a crowd gathering, as many as 50 men surrounding her. Minutes passed before someone brought a chair and the woman was lifted into it. The chair was set beside the sidewalk, but the crowd remained, some of the men in heated discussion with the driver of the truck. There were no sirens. No help came.
The sound of sirens keeps us on edge; when I hear a siren I always look for a convoy, an armored car, or a prison truck. Visuals condition, too. After the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown last July, state-run media used sheep to caricature senior Muslim Brotherhood figures. Newspapers ran red-banner headlines and head shots of Islamist leaders affixed to the bodies of sheep. For one Egypt pound (15 cents) you could buy a popular, gory poster showing then Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with a large knife in his hand, the other gripping the nape of one of the half-man, half-sheep figures. The message was clear: Sisi would “slaughter” the Muslim Brothers.
As the end of Ramadan approached last year, flocks of sheep were herded into the streets of Cairo. During the holiday that follows Ramadan, families kill a sheep, sometimes for their own consumption and sometimes to give to the poor. After months of seeing the docile animals equated with Muslim Brothers about to be killed, the sight of them made me feel ill.
There was a commotion in the alley below my fifth-floor apartment. People were running, shouting. Had a thief been caught? I had seen this before, the men of the neighborhood taking matters into their own hands. They would frog-march a suspect from the outer street into the privacy of the alley, and rough him up a bit before turning him over to the police.
If I stood on my kitchen table I might be able to see what was happening. As I leaned out of the open window, it occurred to me that this would be a stupid way to die. It would also ruin the evening of the men drinking tea in the ’ahwa below.
But then I saw something so surprising that I leaned out a bit further. The shutters on the window of a nearby flat had been left open. Inside, a couple were lost in a moment of domestic intimacy. They were young, attractive, wearing tight jeans and T-shirts. And they were both men.
Was I shocked because they were men? Or was I surprised by a gentle scene of passion? Probably the latter.
Unless you are downloading movies online, you will never see moments of affection between couples in Egypt, heterosexual or otherwise. If you are a young person, and have only ever watched television in Egypt, you might think that kisses were a matter of two faces meeting for no more than a second. Oh, and there is always some some jerkiness in the movement. The censors always cut the kisses out.
If the couple I snooped on is very brave, they are still stealing moments to express their love. But maybe not. Over the past month, police have arrested as many as 70 men suspected of being gay. Is it part of a new wave of “morality” under a Sisi-led government? Is it signaling the lengths to which the new state will use its power? Most of the arrests, sources say, were made in the men’s homes. Their phone numbers and addresses were obtained when police interrogated other suspects.
More than 16,000 people have been arrested in the past year. They include members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which was declared a terrorist organization last December. There are also young secular activists who played key roles in the 2011 revolution. The power of “the deep state,” the product of three decades of Mubarak’s rule, persists. The activists have received lengthy sentences for taking part in peaceful protests. And there are journalists among them, including Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Australian Peter Greste.
On Sunday morning Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was formally installed as Egypt’s eighth president since the end of colonial rule in 1952. Sisi, the former minister of defense who led the popular removal of Morsi last year, won a reported 97 percent of the vote in last month’s presidential elections.
Of the men who formerly held the highest post, only one is at liberty: the popular former chief justice, Adly Mansour. He was appointed interim president after Morsi’s removal. He handed power over to Sisi on Sunday. In televised coverage, the imposing, always-serious Mansour was seen smiling broadly. Mansour’s two predecessors, Mubarak and Morsi, are in jail.
The first man to be president after Egypt’s king was sent into exile was an officer named Mohammed Naguib. His fellow Free Officer, Gamal Abdel Nasser, threw him out two years later. The metro station near my flat is named after Naguib. When he was removed from office, Nasser ordered him held under house arrest. His imprisonment lasted for almost 30 years, until his death in 1984.
Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970, to be succeeded by Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamists during a military parade in 1981. For eight days the long-forgotten politician Sufi Abu Taleb served as interim president. Then Mubarak took up the presidency, which he held for 30 years until the January 2011 revolution.
Sisi could be forgiven if he was feeling anxious as Sunday’s official program unfurled. No longer a military officer, he was wearing a sober suit. The jacket was one size too large. When the television cameras moved in, the lines of his body armor, worn beneath the suit jacket, were visible.
His last act of protocol on Sunday took place at the Ittihadiya presidential palace. Before shaking the hand of King Abdullah of Jordan, assorted presidents and foreign ministers, and the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Sisi passed down a very long red carpet to review an honor guard.
The white-gloved officer who led the way was very tall and carried a saber. In the Prussian tradition, he marched the Stechschritt, otherwise known as the goose step.
Despite his everyman suit, Sisi’s long career in the military was evident. His head was fixed at a sharp angle toward the long lines of assembled troops. And step for step, his feet matched those of the goose-stepping officer.