Fourteen months after the Egyptian revolution, uncertainty reigns. Walking in Cairo’s streets, I can sense the fear of what tomorrow might bring; but then, a strange feeling settles in. A vibe of energy engulfs the air; I feel its ripples, but struggle to find its source… Passing a group of students talk about politics in the University of Cairo’s main square, I recognize it in a young woman’s face, beautifully encircled with a Hijab. It radiates with empowerment, comparable to the kind seen on a baby’s face when taking its first steps.
Maybe Egypt is taking its first steps towards democracy, I think to myself, but if so what would I make of Port Said and Maspero incidents where tens died absurdly? Would they be considered falls in the process of learning how to walk or just signs of a crippled baby? This question is just one of many that daunt post-revolution Egypt. People are questioning SCAF’s willingness to hand in the power and return to the barracks peacefully, questioning the Muslim brotherhood’s ability to rise up to the expectations, the role of the Salafi forces that are gaining ground by the day, and the fate of minorities in the new Egypt, especially the Coptic Christian one.
No one I meet gives definite answers, even academics and political analysts. Any conversation often ends with a popular proverb or a Quran verse that denotes submission to the unknown or to a higher power; a trait reflective of the deep influence that Islam has on the Egyptian culture. In cabs, this experience is epitomized. The less than five dollars fare gives fresh and immediate insight into Egypt’s new reality.
The best way to feel the pulse of the street is by talking to taxi drivers. Most of them come from poor classes catering to Middle and rich ones. Through this link, I aspire to get my story feed about the state of Egypt. Indeed, most of the drivers I talk to are well rounded and can engage in any type of conversation—perhaps a virtue of their daily interactions with all kinds of people.
Even the most apolitical taxi drivers are eager to give me their political opinions about the former regime and the present and future situation. Attempting to make the experience as scientific as possible, I try to ask the same questions to each one of them, in hope of drawing comparisons and conclusions. They agree more than they disagree especially when it comes to economy, but uncertainty is a common characteristic across most of their answers.
They are not sure what to make of the SCAF rule. Two of the taxi drivers served in the military, their positions unsurprisingly, were in favour of SCAF. They justify this by explaining that SCAF preserves stability, forgetting that Mubarak ruled for almost thirty years under the same pretense Many Egyptians I spoke to, disagree. They want SCAF to go back to their barracks. A slogan on Cairo’s walls says it all: “Down with military rule”.
SCAF has certainly raised doubts over their suspicious role in handling the power in the transitional period. Their conduct in regards to the trial of Mubarak and his men as well as the Maspero incident is questionable, to say the least. Some students I meet reflect on the subject. They believe that SCAF wanted to highjack the revolution, but the awareness of the people prevented that from happening, in reference to the December 2011 protests. They believe that it is a matter of time before the power is passed to a civilian government.
Views on the economy are more uniform than those on politics. All taxi drivers complain about it. One of them, Khalid, uses the rise in commodities’ prices to lament the Mubarak era. He further develops his argument to criticize the security situation today, saying that it is not as robust as before. While reports of crime rates holding steady post Jan. 25 refute his claim about security, he is right about the economy. A recent poll conducted by Gallup, an Abu Dhabi based research centre, has revealed that Egyptians are struggling to make ends meet.
An example of this is the price of the gas tank used for cooking in households. Fares, a father of five, explains while driving me to the airport: filling up the gas tank cost ten pounds before the revolution; today it costs more than 35 pounds and “we cannot even get it”. He continues to complain about the economic situation saying that he had to wake up at three in the morning to avoid line ups on gas stations. Indeed, after spending seven days in Egypt, the gas line-ups turn into an everyday scene.
In Hurghada, the economic conditions are even worse. Unlike Cairo’s diverse and large economy, the beautiful red sea city is small and highly dependent on tourism. Construction and development came to a halt after the revolution. The depressing view of empty and unfinished buildings becomes typical after passing by hundreds of them scattered along the desert. Hajj Mohammad, a 55 year old man from Sa’id tries to provide an explanation for this in his deep, strong voice: “most of these projects belonged to a pro-Mubarak businessman. After the revolution, he fled the country, declaring bankruptcy, owing millions of dollars in loans and debts’.
Although Hurghada, a tourist destination which has been badly affected by the instability following the revolution, the Anti-Mubarak sentiment is exceptionally high on the streets. Another Sa’idi taxi driver tells me how the security forces used to abuse their powers to gain money. “They once taxed me over an air freshener I had in my car, saying it was a luxury item” he says. His story reflects the absence of trust between the police and the people. Most Egyptians had suffered from their corruption and greed, and many I meet have stories to tell.
He continues to say that in the Sa’id area, they do not have this problem because they have local tribal councils to arbitrate and organize residents’ relations. He praises this system of governance, preferring it to the democratic forms promised by some. I cannot spot in his language much of the proud Egyptian nationalistic vocabulary that’s heard while talking to the urban people of Cairo and Hurghada. However, when it comes to Arab nationalism, his tone changes. He speaks dearly of Palestine and how Mubarak tried to alienate his people from the “cause.” His eulogy of Arab unity continues as we arrive at the seafood restaurant. Knowing I am of Arab origin he refuses to take my money, but my insistence defeats his infamous Sa’idi stubbornness.
The pan-Arabist comments of the Sa’idi taxi driver make me reflect on the many similar comments I hear during my stay. I remember how students, academics, taxi drivers, or doormen I have met were acutely outspoken about Arab nationalism and Palestine. Could this be retribution for Mubarak’s policies that tried to skin off Arabism from Egypt? Is this their way of saying: Mubarak is gone; this is the real Egypt, the jewel of the Arab crown? If that is so, will this whole enthusiasm fade out after the revolution’s ecstasy wears off? This is yet to be seen.
Unsurprisingly, this Pan Arab nationalism translates into blunt animosity towards Israel. The attack on the Israeli embassy by protesters last September was a significant expression of this. On political levels this is no better. The Israeli embassy is still non operational and the diplomatic activities are scaled down between the two countries. The continuous attacks on pipes transporting gas to Israel, and the opening of the borders with Gaza, are also indicators towards this populace-driven change in the country’s foreign policy.
I only make sense of this change when I hear Ali, a Taxi driver in Cairo, express his readiness to go to war: “If the war against Israel is declared today, I swear by my children that I will join once again the ranks of the army.” In retrospect, I can say that the anti-Israeli sentiment is one of the few uniting factors for Egyptians at the moment.
However, the way to go about materializing hostility varies between different people, and its pacifism is proportional to a person’s level of education. Muhammad, a Master’s student of political science, understands this hatred towards the northern neighbour and shares it as well, but argues that Egypt is not ready to go to war. He uses a verse from the Quran to explain that we should prepare for it and attack once we gain strength: “Make ready for them all thou canst of (armed) force and of horses tethered, that thereby ye may dismay the enemy of Allah and your enemy”. In the mean time, he continues, the Camp David accords can govern the relation, but only after modifications.
Muhammad’s argument is remarkably similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful political party in the country at the moment. The Brotherhood, aware of the economic cost of any political move towards Israel, will have to deal with the matter delicately if it holds executive power. But regardless of any future development, it is unlikely to see the Israeli ambassador hosting the yearly Passover Seder dinner, which became a tradition under Mubarak, anytime soon.
Every political discussion that I engage in with different people in Cairo ends up somehow as a discussion of the Presidential elections. With the number of candidates passing six hundred, candidate posters decorate every space. Hazem Abu Ismail, the Salafi candidate, is ahead in the media war so far with his moustache-less bearded smiley face dominating walls, billboards, and plastered across the back windows of cars. The most prominent candidates next to Abu Ismail include some liberals, some defected Muslim Brotherhood members, like the Charismatic Abd Al Men’em Abu Al Futuh, and, believe it or not, ex-Mubarak regime remnants such as Omar Suleiman, Amr Moussa, and Ahmad Shafiq.
Until recently, the Muslim Brotherhood was on the fence after they made a pact with SCAF not to support a candidate from their ranks. They ended up endorsing their own candidate Khairat El Chater. Everyone is awaiting the results of the presidential election in September. They are hoping that it will bring stability and ease the transition to a civilian government, hopefully initiating the process of rebuilding Egypt.
In the mean time, everyone awaits, but not in silence. The people are enjoying their freedom. Now, they protest every injustice, no matter how small it is now. I walk by students pitching tents in the University of Cairo’s main square. They are protesting the poor management and “authoritarianism” of the languages department, chanting slogans that rhyme with those of the Tahrir square, peppering it with the famous Egyptian sense of humor.
In the midst of all this instability and troubled economic situation, the resilient Egyptians keep their optimism, pride, and smile. I feel all this talking to Ahmad, a 50 year-old Taxi driver. The tiredness shows all over his face despite the messy beard he is carrying.
After two minutes of chatting about random things, I am compelled to ask him how he feels after the revolution. Using ornamental Arab metaphors, he responds:”It is like I was in Chains and they have been broken… it is like someone was strangling me by the throat and now he let go, it’s a great feeling!” How much longer before Egypt starts breathing normally? , I think to myself, after I step out and watch him dissolve into Cairo’s tetris-like traffic.