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Cairo: A Memoir

Cairo: A Memoir

Hosni Mubarak's fall from grace was swift, but the malignancy of his rule had been obvious for many years.

The Nile through Cairo. Photo by Jawed.

When I first went to Cairo, Anwar Sadat had been dead for six years, but many of his official portraits still hung in shops and back rooms and petrol stations. Sadat looked friendly in the faded black-and-white pictures. His successor—the man sitting next to Sadat when he was gunned down in 1981—never did. The new rais, Hosni Mubarak, didn't even smile. But slowly, his bovine gaze, his don't-mess-with-me expression, was taking over. I remember seeing an art film in which, subtly, Mubarak's portrait was in the background of every frame.

Cairo didn't look promising on that first visit in August of 1987. I had landed in the middle of the night and decided to wait until dawn. The bus from the airport was brutal. At 6 a.m. the air was bad and I was shocked by the state that Egypt's capital was in: covered in thick grime, it looked tired and squalid, as if something terrible had happened. When the sun rose and burned off some of the haze, the decay was even more obvious. I couldn't tell if the buildings were half-completed or half-demolished. Policemen dressed in cheap uniforms stood outside government buildings. They looked like extras from a World War I movie. Then I noticed that the police were everywhere. That is what they did: they stood around, armed with machine guns and looking hungry.

I found a small hotel. The delinquent shoddiness of Egypt was all around me: clogged drains, collapsing furniture, wobbly bathroom fixtures and grubby banknotes. The building had a classic Cairo lift, a creaky wooden elevator shuddering up and down its cast iron cage. One of thousands. They survived because the structures could not accommodate modern lifts. Everyone loved the antiques until they got stuck between floors, or a touch too high or too low, at which point there would be a lot of shouting until someone showed up with a screwdriver and a piece of wire, and the journey continued.

Terrible place, I thought.

I laugh at my own naiveté now. What did I expect? What was I thinking? Who on earth was I to argue with Cairo? The dust, the neglect—they spoke not of decline but of survival. Of endurance. Every time I returned, my initial shocked disbelief gave way to resignation, followed by relief, as things fell into place: the same ancient taxis (cheap, sagging on their wheels), the same grime (blown in from the desert), the same destitute policemen (the plainclothes officers, easily spotted because of the handguns stuck in their belts, tended to be better fed). On Tahrir square, a green neon sign always read "Visitez le Liban." As far as I knew it had never been switched off. It had been there through civil wars, invasions and bombardments: Come visit Lebanon.

And I stayed at the same patched up, fading hotels. The whole city had a particular talent for fading, and fading.

Over the years Cairo's antiquated squalor became like an old friend. Sometimes I read reports about how modern and globalized Cairo had become, but I didn't see it: Cairo used to be more cosmopolitan, not less. Bars had closed, religious conformity and anxious conservatism increasingly ruled public life. In 1987 women still walked bare-shouldered in central Cairo. Not today.

There was plenty of bling and modernity on the outskirts, on the hazy edge of the desert lined with private universities, television studios and gated communities. Downtown Cairo had been more reluctant to drag itself out of the past. It guarded its own, earlier version of the twentieth century, a legacy from the cosmopolitan bourgeoisie that was swept away when Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in 1952. It was a more private world frozen behind blackened façades and heavy doors.

Periodically, people got worked up about the catastrophic neglect suffered by one of the world's great cities during the Mubarak era. And it was true: for a country that considered itself a leader of the Arab world, the capital was an extraordinary mess. But then again, it was Cairo, not Oslo or Munich, and Egyptians seemed to be used to it: one degree short of collapse would do fine.

So I thought: how nice to have the chance, one more time, to see Cairo in all its ragged vétusté, its ratty anachronism, its decaying magic. Never mind the portraits of Hosni Mubarak. Quite possibly these were the final days of the old Cairo, with its distant echoes of Napoleon Bonaparte and Europe's nineteenth-century fascination with all things Egyptian. So why not savour it, inhale it, before the whole thing went belly-up in an Islamist convulsion, or before progress moved in from the golden suburbs and extinguished the picturesque old city?

It was only after arriving from Syria one day that the unconscionable state of affairs in Egypt really struck me. Things had gone beyond the picturesque. Suddenly Syria looked like a better-run police state, more functional and plausible, more caring even, if that sounds at all possible for such a regime. Cairo appeared scruffy and exhausted by comparison with Damascus or Aleppo.

My misgivings started when I got off the ship in the port of Nuweiba. I had traveled south through Jordan and unwisely taken the slow ferry across the Gulf of Aqaba, ignoring the fact that the route was used by small-time traders from Egypt who shuttled to Jordan to buy cheap merchandise from China. During the voyage, the mountains of "luggage" remained below decks, wrapped in enormous bundles or stacked on the back of trucks. But on arrival in Nuweiba it all had to go through customs.

The illusion that Egypt was a modern country evaporated in a minute. I had crossed many chaotic borders and I expected disembarkation to be a bit if a zoo, particularly since the ship had arrived after dark. Even so, nothing could match the chaos and frenzy around the Nuweiba customs shed. The shoving, the commotion were from another epoch, as hundreds of seething traders tried to push folded mattresses through scanners and wheel trolleys with tonnes of contraband past the officials. It was as fascinating as it was sobering. It was Egypt.

After a few days in the Sinai I was offered a ride to Cairo by an Egyptian academic who owned a modest Mitsubishi car. Her name was Houda. No one drove faster than Houda. High speeds are accepted practice on the empty, straight roads through the Sinai. Horrific accidents occur but are considered routine wastage of human life. After crossing the Suez canal, we came to a major N-S intersection with traffic lights. Cairo was straight ahead, just over 100 kilometers away. Houda stopped, cleaned her glasses and, when the lights turned green, she put her foot down. Again we were going at 130 to 140 kph, but now her driving was more obviously sporting, one hand on the horn, the other giving the finger to drivers she had just cut off.

Sitting in the back, I was going pale as we zipped past heavy trucks on the wrong side. Lesser cars were honked and forced out of the way and as we moved past them, Houda turned her head to shower the drivers with abuse that I did not understand but required no translation. When there was no one to overtake, she smoked Marlboro lights, ate chips from a bag wedged between her legs and complained about the lack of discipline on Egyptian motorways. In the cars around us, mustachioed drivers glanced back disbelievingly at the short-haired freak at the wheel. Their own women sat quietly behind them, covered and unlikely to ever touch the steering wheel.

Once again I settled in, determined to accept Cairo on Cairo's terms. At night I fiddled with the radio until I found the "European" service of Radio Cairo. On some days there was a very American-sounding DJ playing Shania Twain. The French language service wasn't as smooth. The announcers seemed baffled by the texts that were put in front of them, fiddled noisily with the sheets of paper and stopped reading to take a sip of something. But the sleepy amateurism ended when the news came on in all its official severity, first a crackly rendition of the national anthem: ta-taratatata, ta-taratatata. Then, as ever, the gloomy voice began with the words: "President Hosni Mubarak...."

But something had changed, the political climate had become surreal. Egypt smelled overripe. You could easily pick up the malaise, the desire for change, the approaching power vacuum—but then the regime had looked ripe for picking for a very long time. It just hadn't been picked. The discontent was kept under control, nothing had snapped and Egypt had not fallen into the waiting arms of Islamic fundamentalists. A brief experiment with open, more or less freely contested elections in 2005 was not repeated. The lid was put back on.

Political reform was like the extension of Cairo's underground railway: you knew it would come, the signs were there, but you could grow old waiting for it to happen.

Cairo now hit me as a total mess, a massive shantytown. And it wasn't only Cairo. Apart from luxury developments and tourist enclaves like Sharm el Sheik in the Sinai or Luxor and Aswan in the south, the neglect was everywhere.

Traveling around the country again, it seemed hard to believe that Egypt couldn't do better: collapsing infrastructure, stinking trains, marginal public services, grotty hotels where the staff slept on the lobby floor. The electrical wiring was unreal, not only indoors, but outside as well: heavy power cables were strung across major city streets, from one junk-covered rooftop to another, completely improvised and haphazard. The only service the Egyptian state had been able to deliver consistently was repression and an inexhaustible supply of security forces. Mubarak's Egypt was a state that could not trust its own citizens. Everything of any importance needed protection. I couldn't remember being in Cairo without seeing truckloads of riot police on stand-by.

What excuse did Egypt have? Why wasn't it more like Turkey, its former Ottoman ruler? Turkey had managed to pull itself up to almost-European standards in a generation. Or Morocco? On paper Morocco was poorer, but in everyday life it was better organized. Why were so many Egyptian women still living in medieval destitution and illiteracy?

What did you call a case of American-backed regime failure like this? What had Hosni Mubarak achieved in all those years, except to keep himself afloat in near-pharaonic style while allowing the nomenklatura to fill its pockets? Cairo's population had almost doubled in size since my first visit, adding heavy layers of both poverty and privilege. The country's population continued to grow by a million or two every year, and the 100-million mark was in sight. A nation of a hundred million would command respect in the Arab world but the country was becoming desperately cluttered. The Nile delta was filling up with improvised brick houses, new neighbourhoods that simply replicated the frustration and filth Egyptians lived with elsewhere.

Ismailia, a garden city designed to be the seat of the almighty Suez canal authority (Egypt's second cash cow, after tourism), looked like a sanitary disaster zone, scarred by public abandon and poverty. Apart from a symbolic strip of landscaping near the waterfront, Ismailia had given up. It no longer tried to keep up with the overflowing rubbish of too many residents. Like other Egyptian cities it had grown and declined at the same time.

It was a sad place. At night well-to-do teenagers got together outside the KFC/Pizza Hut across from the railway station, one of the few places to escape the gloom and the ambient puritanism. To them, KFC smelled of freedom and escape.

After midnight the scene changed: before going home, the staff dumped the rubbish in the street, where the poor came to cut open the plastic bags and look for scraps. Later, at dawn, a woman with a donkey cart collected the leftover junk. It was hard to say which of the two looked more dejected: the struggling donkey with its open sores or the frail, tired woman. I hadn't seen such dull misery in a long time.

How did people cope? How did they maintain their pride in being Egyptian? I noticed middle-class Ismailians buying enormous boxes of pastries to take home. I wondered if that is how they made up for the hardships of life, by binging on baklava and mille feuilles behind closed doors.

Back in Cairo, I decided to spoil myself one morning and went to have breakfast at the Nile Hilton. I usually avoided the area, expecting the hotel to be blown up. It never happened, but it seemed like the perfect terrorist target, so central and indefensible, facing the river and located next to the all-important Egyptian Museum. The ground floor of the Nile Hilton was buzzing with foreigners; it symbolized the American presence, the great Satan and his exposed little helpers sticking out of the urban landscape: McDonald's, KFC, the Sheratons and Marriotts. (The Nile Hilton closed, intact, on Dec 31, 2008.)

Many Egyptians were obsessed with the American presence in their country. One man explained to me how global terrorism was a small price the US had to pay for its influence across the Muslim world, from Casablanca to Davao. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban or Hezbollah were like pressure valves for the frustration of hundreds of millions of angry young men, little more than ideological blowback. The US was anxious to preserve its political leverage in Egypt, but for many this translated into the guilty maintenance of an autocratic police state under Hosni Mubarak.

The all-important question was left hanging in the air: in the end, which way would Egypt tilt? The pull of the West was obvious: the yearning for an easier life, newer cars with four identical tires, pizza delivery and fashionable clothes. In Cairo and Alexandria the economic growth was spilling over into the streets: families went shopping for washers and sofas and flat-screen television sets. They hailed a taxi, tied their purchases to the roof with rope and drove home triumphantly. Private boom and public neglect went together.

But many Egyptians struggled and had no flat-screen televisions to distract them from the encroaching religious conservatism, the diktat of Islamic virtue. Internet and satellite TV notwithstanding, the stiffening of Islam had probably arrested or slowed down the drift towards Western behaviour, let alone "values." One day, Egypt was going to wake up from its decades of repression and misrule, Hosni Mubarak's portraits would be taken down in a hurry, and the American hotel lobbies in Cairo would fill up with very nervous people.

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—Tunisia > Egypt > World?
—Haiti and the Failure of Aid
—Revolution of the Two Ahmads

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