JULY 3RD WAS Egypt’s last day of democracy before the military intervened with their helicopters and tanks to push out the country’s first ever democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Millions of people called for his removal, and then celebrated their success. In the days since, Morsi’s supporters have protested against the military coup, and violent clashes have broken out across the country. But for 48 hours, as the military’s ultimatum wound down, the country held its breath.
What the news doesn’t show are the long periods between each of these singular moments, and momentous announcements — from the army, from Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, from the opposition — when the nation sits in wait. Many have written about the protests, the thrilling energy that sweeps over crowds of thousands and thousands of people gathered for the same reason. And certainly, the same journalistic intensity will be focused on the clashes taking place across the country in the coming days and weeks.
But for the past few days, Egyptians have been waiting for something to happen. The military’s 48-hour ultimatum was set to expire at 4:30 pm on Wednesday, July 3. What happens on a country’s last day of democracy?
Unless one was really paying attention, it would be difficult to say when the military staged a coup. The windows of the bookstore across the street were covered with flimsy pieces of cardboard on July 3. Staff at nearby mobile phone stores rushed to clear out all their stock, leaving their display cases and windows empty. But most everyone else was just doing normal things. And we did the same. We went to an upper-middle class neighborhood to buy special foreign foods, in case “something” happened and we needed ice cream or pesto.
Many in the neighborhood were there for the same reason. Frantic customers gripped with a sudden impulse to stock up on vinaigrettes and Ramadan table settings, their carts filled with not-so-necessary purchases. Swedish chocolate and packets of cappuccino drink powders were among our choices. At the checkout, a well-dressed Egyptian woman in her late-40s swiveled around, then tore open a bag of imported potato chips and shoved her hand deep into the aluminum packaging. A man bought half a wheel of Gouda. A sense of barely contained panic swirled through the store’s aisles of jams, honeys, expensive sugary cereals and over-packaged bananas from Ecuador. A thin, elderly woman bought six kilos of the bananas. In such moments is the true oddity of humanity revealed.
The cab driver who picked us up from the store was a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Today was not his day. He felt sad and wished to communicate his feelings about the beleaguered president, whose career would be over in only a couple of hours. We were approaching Tahrir Square, the site of protests and sexual assaults, as well as the heart of the revolution that brought President Morsi to power. Despite the flat summer heat of Cairo at midday, the square was already filling with anti-Morsi protesters.
As the driver told us that he “loved Morsi a lot, a lot,” a motorcycle with two men aboard whizzed along the right side of our car, horn blaring, then darted in front of us, veering to the left. And then it hit a pedestrian, an older man who crumpled to the ground as the bike struck him at full force, before it and the two riders fell on top of him. With all the other traffic rushing along the corniche, rushing to get somewhere before the deadline arrived, we drove on. But the crash felt like an omen of what the rest of the day promised. Morsi, struck down. The driver repeated, to no one in particular, “Really, I love him.” Certainly, you either loved Morsi or you hated him. This wasn’t a nuanced discussion with the usual caveats and excuses, the common, “Well, a democratically elected president should be given a chance. What about a coalition government, compromise?” Not today, not in the hours before the ultimatum was set to expire. This was a time of certainties.
The street where we live is just a short walk from Tahrir Square. As we returned home, it was filling up from above and below. Military helicopters began to make tighter and tighter circles over the square, and our flat, cheered by the growing crowds of Morsi opponents making their way with flags, and red cards that read Leave! Leave! This street has always been a chaotic crush of vehicles, pedestrians and streetside vendors, but from the moment that General Sisi made the formal announcement that the military was taking charge, at 9 pm the night of July 3, more than four hours after the ultimatum expired, the street became a thoroughfare for protestors and revelers. Cars swerving in every direction, narrowly missing families with small children. Blaring horns and chanting from groups of men fairly running down the street. As if people were celebrating some kind of liberation, from the Muslim Brotherhood, from their cramped apartments, from the most basic of traffic rules.
As the minutes passed, the traffic got heavier, and faster. There were speeding microbuses and motorcycles carrying three and four people. Passengers hanging out of the rear windows of vehicles, blowing horns, waving flags and shooting bright red flames out of aerosol cans. Police officers, not seen for many days, reappeared to celebrate and dance with the crowds, to be hugged by strangers. Only a year ago, the police were reviled in this country, a symbol of the injustice and the cruelty of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime. On Wednesday, all of this was forgotten.
“You should carry the flag when you’re walking, ya sitt (lady)!” someone shouted. We had gone out to see it all, to have a cherry shisha at our favorite cafe, when a group of women wearing matching black abayas stopped us. We told them that there were enough flags on the street without one more and they laughed heartily. But still, they said, emphatically, “It’s better for you.”
And then the street began to change. In the early hours of the morning, when all of the protestors and hangers-on had gone home, came a sound very unlike those of the earlier street festival. From the balcony, the source of the sound could be seen: a large, spaceship-like vehicle was painting white lines on the street. A crew of 10 was at work. Only hours after the coup, the street was being ordered. Or rather, order was being brought to the street. Nearby, workers were demolishing a wall that had been built after the revolution, to prevent protesters from moving freely in the downtown.
But here on our street, lines were being painted on the pavement, as well as arrows and large bars showing the pedestrian where to walk and how. Yellow triangles read, in Arabic, “Slow down.” The pre-dawn work crew, in matching off-white uniforms, carefully painted in the zebra crossing by hand.
Top: Cairo, June 30. Bottom: July 4, from same balcony, just hours after the coup.
For those who live in downtown Cairo, the past year has demanded a willful denial of the psychological effects of physical barriers. To go from one point to another required thought, and navigation, of knowing which streets are blocked, and which streets are open but not very safe. Sometimes the danger is from the absence of the state, and sometimes it is because of its presence.
Many of these streets have witnessed unimaginable violence, but also celebration. The walls have been turned into canvases for public art to record this history: portraits of the dead, young martyrs of the revolution, slogans of defiance, caricatures of past and present regime leaders. But the construction of walls that close streets, the barricades, the parked police trucks, the rerouting of traffic, is all part of an effort to inhibit movement.
Now, suddenly, the identity of our street is beginning to change. It is too early to say what it will be. But it is being transformed, ordered and contained. The question remains: what Egyptian in his or her right mind would actually risk their life by trusting a driver to stop at a marked pedestrian crosswalk?