The price of a taxi from the airport dwindles with each stride taken past the exit doors of the baggage hall and the stale, harried officers who guard them; those nabbed by touts at the outset pay top dollar for a limousine service that features no limousines, while the real bargains are to be found out beyond the terminal building where the air is coarse and mucky and the night slams up hot against your skin. You need a bit of guile to get there, though. My usual tactic is to chatter animatedly to no one on my mobile; I try and put on a real ensemble performance, all phatic fakery and apologetic grimaces to anyone who endeavours to catch my attention along the way. ‘Ya brince! ’ I yell into the void. ‘I’ve just arrived, bring the car round!’ Sometimes I pile on so much comradely slang in an effort to sound authentic that I get tangled up and trip over my words, momentarily confused by the silence at the other end of the phone.
On this occasion, the aged Peugeot I ended up in was parked on a far-flung traffic island on the fringes of the airport, wedged between a rubbish bin and an ornamental tree. The exterior was reassuringly scratched and bruised, and its dashboard was covered in plastic fruit and prayer beads and ornate tissue boxes crowned with nodding dogs shrink-wrapped in velour. Its front-left tyre had come to rest on a hunk of rubble, leaving the vehicle sitting at an erratic angle from the ground, swaying slightly in the gloom. The driver made me wait so that he could execute a synchronised shove down on the bonnet and prevent the whole thing tipping over as I climbed in. He said he was sorry for the inconvenience. But of course these are the days when everything in Egypt is at an angle: nearly familiar, yet one step removed.
Large fragments of plaster were scattered on the dusty floor of my flat. Looking up, I realised they came from the kitchen and bathroom walls. The municipality had been promising to bring piped gas to our street for years, and drive the embooba (‘gas canister’) vendors – who strap four cylinders at a time to their tottering bicycles and smack them with spanners at godawful hours of the morning in an effort to drum up business – out of the neighbourhood. No one thought it would ever happen, but it had and in my absence, the workmen, with no cigarettes or banter or small change to incentivise them, had understandably taken a route-one approach to installation: gouging massive holes out of the internal partitions to run pipes through to the boiler and oven, and simplifying their task further by repositioning these two appliances as close as possible to one another, which involved dragging the latter right across the kitchen door.
In the process, the electricity had been knocked out. I clambered gingerly over the oven by the light of a torch and caught sight of my old revolutionary posters, tattered a bit at the corners and stuck awkwardly out of time on the cupboards. Next to the sink was my 6 April youth movement mug, bearing the clenched-fist logo of what used to be one of Egypt’s leading anti-regime forces. They were subversive once, these pieces of uprising ephemera, but in a way that seemed to put you on the right side of history as it tilted. They bought you some sort of place among the chants and the marches and the kids who picked up tear-gas canisters and barrelled them back towards police lines. Then, after Hosni Mubarak fell, they became kitsch. Vendors set up stalls where you could purchase number plates and T-shirts and commemorative clocks emblazoned with protest poetry and the faces of the martyrs, and what had been a badge of honour for the self-congratulatory young and conscientious journalist became something of an ironic statement instead, up there with the Hassan Nasrallah laser pens and antique Stella beer mats dotted around people’s living rooms.
And then, quicker than we ever imagined, they became dangerous. The martyrs, it turned out, had died because they were duped by a foreign plot to sow chaos in Egypt and bring bloodshed to its shores. The 6 April movement is banned now, its leader thrown behind bars soon after the coup which brought military general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi into power in July 2013. The reproduction of the clenched fist – a terrorist symbol, according to the statute books – is punishable by law. The country is engaged in ‘fourth-generational warfare,’ where information is the weapon and media outlets the battlefield; it has enemies everywhere, seeking to distort the state, and although some of those enemies scheme far away, with maps and tanks and uniforms at their disposal, there are others lodged far closer, right inside the citadel, and it is from their hands and their propaganda that the decisive blow, if it comes, will surely fall.
I wondered what the strangers who had entered my home had seen, and what they made of what they’d seen, and what I was to them. And I cursed myself for my carelessness. Funny how inanimate objects acquire new meaning while sitting perfectly still; how violence can steal into the mundane.
16 October 2016: Rumours are circulating that TV host Amr al-Leithy has been suspended after he aired a video of a tuk-tuk driver raging against the state, reports al-Dostour newspaper. ‘We watch the television, we find Egypt is like Vienna. We go to the streets, we find out it’s like Somalia’s cousin,’ claimed the unnamed driver, in footage that has now gone viral and been viewed over 5 million times on the internet. ‘The people are not educated, the people are tired, the people are hungry.’ Meanwhile, a taxi driver has set himself on fire in Alexandria to protest his inability to afford rising prices as a result of the economic crisis, leaving him with burns on 95 per cent of his body.
17 October: In an editorial for his newspaper, Youm7, Dandrawy El-Hawary criticises how social media users on Facebook and Twitter elevated a tuk-tuk driver to the status of preacher, while ignoring the credibility of the most prominent Egyptian scientists who say that Egypt’s situation is improving. El-Hawary described this as ‘the deterioration of the concepts of all core values’. He claims that the recent viral video of a tuk-tuk driver protesting current living conditions must have been staged, arguing that it would not be possible otherwise for a tuk-tuk driver to come out with such pessimistic thoughts.
My Cairo is an inverted city, one that wears its innards above the skin. The networks upon which life depends – flows of commerce, of infrastructure, of social relations – tend not to be buried under asphalt or packed into container trucks, but left open to the elements. Ice carts criss-cross dusty backstreet alleys and eight-lane highways, dripping trails of water. At Eid, great flocks of livestock are herded along broken pavements and into the lobbies of grand, decaying apartment buildings to slaughter. Here, the poor live on the rooftops of the rich, or are jammed in against the crash barriers of roads which carry the wealthy to gated villas in the dunes. Some occupy the tombs of the capital’s old aristocrats, rigging up the resting places of the departed with satellite television and turning grave markers into shelving. When the guts of a place are as visible as this, it is easy to think of yourself as one with it during the good times, and as foreign as a virus during the bad.
In Arabic, Cairo is known as Umm el-dunya, the mother of the world, and it is home to more than 20 million people. ‘The city is no different from any other mother,’ says my friend Ziad. ‘You feel safe in its arms when it loves you and totally alone when it doesn’t.’
In the months after I first arrived in the Egyptian capital, nearly a decade ago – on a long-distance bus from the Sinai port town of Nuweiba, which fetched up at a suburban coach station in the early hours of a weekday morning under a sky both roseate and grey – it was through Ziad and his gang that I discovered Cairo. We sat on the rooftop where Ziad lived with his alcoholic father and gazed out west across the Nile, talking of the things you talk about when the whole world is at your feet. We smoked shisha on broken chairs amid the labyrinthine din of the bursa (stock exchange district) – all empty now, obviously, with the cafes long shuttered and security forces guarding the quiet at both ends – and made jokes about the terrible photos of politicians that appeared in the state newspapers. We rode out to play football matches together, in Mostafa’s car if he had money for petrol and on Sami’s motorbike if not. Sometimes Sami would put on a cheap pair of sunglasses for the journey and pretend to be the President. ‘Make way, motherfuckers!’ he’d whoop, as we darted in and out of coagulated traffic streams and I clung on to his sweaty backside for dear life. ‘Very important people, coming through!’
It seemed then that Cairo was opening itself up to me with a cheerful curiosity, pushing in through the front door in the shape of the milkman, the postman and the bikya (‘clutter’) collector; yet it was also pulling me out into its circuitry on missions to track down random commodities and comforts: desk lamps, shower heads, portable heaters and hash. Every time I returned to Egypt, which was almost always at night, the first thing I did upon reaching the flat was stand for a few minutes on the balcony and stare down at the parked cars and the stray cats and the rear of the giant advertising hoardings mounted at the far end of the road, facing a busy flyover, lending the whole neighbourhood a sort of backstage thrill, and in the midst of it all I would try to pick out the bats. There were always bats, wheeling and diving across the narrow space between my towering apartment block and the next. I loved the way they seemed oblivious to the distinction between building and street, vanishing formlessly into private recesses and then bursting into the air without warning, a rapid kaleidoscope of black on black. Everything around me seemed a bit like those bats, half-in and half-out. Plastic tubes crept out of mounted air-conditioning units and wound themselves around the dusty trees which lined the street. Ropes dangled from windows carrying a sabat – the wicker basket through which money is passed to shopkeepers on the ground below and food loaded up in return. Bags of rubbish were chucked from higher floors, sometimes careering off a washing line as they fell and spilling open their contents into the breeze so that a mishmash of family detritus – discarded shampoo bottles, dinner leftovers, Fayrouz bottle tops, and once a black-and-white photo of two children, perhaps a brother and a sister, posing stiffly in their best clothes in the 1970s – cascaded in slow motion from one balcony to the next.
I watched a fire one night from my balcony as it raged in an adjacent block of flats. I watched verbal altercations and furious punch-ups that ended as suddenly as they began. I watched the long, monotonous laps of the elderly dog walker who lived on the floor above; the kids who got high on the steps of the industrial bank opposite and played mahraganat music from their mobile phones; the shoeshiner who perched on his chair alone through the dark hours, moving only to dip his head almost imperceptibly in acknowledgement of any rare passers-by. I got the shape of things, or I thought I did, but the details and their meanings were usually clouded in fog. The next morning I’d go downstairs and ask Anwar, who ran the grocery store, to bring everything into focus. In return, I helped him translate the messages he received from a Scottish woman he’d met on a sex chat website.
On my last Cairo homecoming, in the autumn of 2016, once I’d climbed off the oven and fiddled around with the fuse box for a while, I walked out onto the balcony and watched the soldiers. They stood in pairs next to their armoured vehicles, motionless, faces clad in balaclavas and automatic weapons by their sides. Every now and again one of them would peer upwards and our eyes would briefly meet, and then someone, usually me, would break away in embarrassment and look elsewhere. I’d love to ask Anwar about the soldiers, about how he feels seeing them annex our little street, about the imminent protests in the main square that the soldiers have been stationed here to disperse. I’d love to ask him whether he ever locks eyes with them too, seeking something ragged and human within their fixed postures, and about how that uncompromising detachment of the state, its helmets and metal grilles, fits in with everything else around us, with all the in-betweenness.
But Anwar is long gone; he lives in Edinburgh now, on a student visa, and his grocery store has been turned into a coffin shop. So instead I lean back against the balcony wall, light a cigarette and attempt to clear the fog myself. The shoeshine guy is sitting alone on his chair as usual, his polish and brushes gathered in a rolled-up mat at his feet. It’s as if he has been there forever, impervious to upheaval. There is no sign of the bats.
19 October: ‘Interior Minister asserts security apparatus is not affected by rumours intended to destabilise national security,’ reads the front-page headline in the newspaper al-Dostour, following reports that an online Facebook page entitled ‘Revolution of the Poor’ has initiated calls for a protest on 11 November, apparently attracting more than 100,000 supporters in a single month. ‘The police, armed with the latest in cutting-edge scientific methods, are able to protect the people,’ Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar assured the public in a speech on Tuesday. The newspaper al-Masry al-Youm claims that the protest calls are part of an attempt by international bodies to disseminate false information and foment unrest within Egypt. Sources tell the newspaper that a large amount of money has entered Egypt from international sources to fund Muslim Brotherhood ‘brigades’ who run anti-regime accounts online.
20 October: ‘Sugar queues continue, as Supply Minister asserts there is no crisis,’ reads the main headline in the privately owned al-Watan newspaper. Egyptians continue to be unable to find sugar at affordable prices, despite several high-profile government officials and media outlets denying the existence of any crisis.
A cartoon in state-owned al-Ahram newspaper depicts a police officer detaining a citizen who, he says, ‘stole a spoonful of sugar when he left the coffee shop’.
‘Do you remember the ringtones?’ I ask Kamal. We’re on the north-west side of Tahrir, in gridlock, me thrumming spryly on the steering wheel, him with his feet up on the dashboard, staring out at nothing through the windscreen. The ringtones were a favourite of mine: I’d be walking through one of the narrow passageways that knit this part of the city together, searching out some replacement batteries or a mazboot coffee or just a brisk, strobe-light pageant show of mundane Cairene bustle, and then a passing stranger’s phone would clatter into life. Yaskot, yaskot hokm el-askar, it would sometimes sing. Down, down with military rule. Occasionally it was a single voice, set badly to music (the inexorable fate of all revolutionary slogans is to be set badly to music); usually, though, it would be a recording of an actual protest chant, thousands and thousands of grainy voices gathered at any one of a thousand moments of pregnant possibility, all overlaid on top of each other. Kamal gazes in my direction for a few seconds without replying, then waves his hands languidly at the vehicle fumes and resumes his original position.
Kamal has curly black hair and an unruly beard; he’s in his mid-twenties and suffers from a form of PTSD. He’s from Port Said originally, on the Mediterranean, but he came to Cairo when the revolution started because it was where yesterday was crumbling, and if you saw something hopeful in that crumbling then it was where you wanted to be. On the day it all began he passed out in the fighting and woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed. When he tells the story of his escape, which involves a sympathetic nurse called Amira and a botched attempt to drug the police guard and many nights spent in the torture cells of Gebel El-Ahmar, the ‘Red Mountain’ district of the capital where several security buildings are located, Kamal’s eyes widen and vivify, and he rocks back and forth impulsively on his seat. But more often than not his eyes are slightly glazed, and they rest on the middle distance. ‘The expectations we had, they didn’t just disappear,’ he told me once, during one of our long car journeys together. ‘They became their complete opposite. It’s not that our dreams didn’t come true, it’s that we tasted them and then they turned into the worst of nightmares. And I think that when high hopes are suppressed they become a deep sadness, because energy – you know this from physics, right? – energy never dies. It has to turn into something else, another kind of energy or action, but here there’s no outlet for any of that, just a vacuum.’
We retch forward a little in the traffic, towards the site of the National Democratic Party building – the headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling party, which were burned down in the uprising and later demolished by the government as part of a generalised scrub down of urban memory. It occurs to me that we are level with the spot where the second field hospital had been situated, and where the shebab (‘youth’) had once stood with colanders and loaves of bread and strips of cardboard on their heads as the rocks rained down, forming the first line of the revolution’s defence. They’ve put up new railings now and remodelled the air vents that rise from the underground car park in front of the Nile Ritz-Carlton, so that the space is diced and bordered and will be much harder for unsanctioned crowds to ever spill into from the margins as they did before. There are the same patterns in the brick tiles, over and over; it looks like a self-generating computer landscape that could stretch to infinity, without ever being interrupted. Maybe it always looked like this, I think to myself. It’s just that before there were so many people jostling on top of the tiles that you couldn’t tell.
Kamal counts out the beats of his adult life by the political events which have shaped it. Comedy show X came out after rally Y, but before court decision Z. So-and-so’s friend got married three weeks after this massacre; they took their honeymoon just as that sit-in was getting under way. Places and times collapse into one another, which is a messy business when you’re physically navigating a metropolis while simultaneously trying to keep the ghosts of the past at bay. Mostafa Mahmoud is a street to the south-east of Tahrir, but it’s also November 2011, when protesters battled to reach the interior ministry and the police resisted by blinding them with birdshot. Ittihadiya is the presidential palace in leafy Heliopolis, but it’s also December 2012 and the fierce fighting between opponents and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Rabaa al-Adawiya Square is in suburban Nasr City near the stadium, but it’s also August 2013 and the time Islamist demonstrators wrote the names and phone numbers of their parents on their arms so that their bodies could be identified, and the ensuing slaughter that left nearly 1,000 people dead. Kamal is not an Islamist, but he knew seven individuals who were killed at Rabaa. ‘The first time I was arrested and beaten, I was nineteen,’ he says matter-of-factly, when I ask him about personal milestones. ‘The first time I carried a corpse, I was twenty.’ We work together, me and Kamal, and I feel like everything we report on in counter-revolutionary Egypt is also a report, solipsistic and urgent, about ourselves.
Military service in Egypt is mandatory for those insufficiently moneyed or connected, and Kamal has been ‘extending’ a long-finished undergraduate degree for years in an effort to avoid being called up. But he can’t do this indefinitely and the deadline is fast approaching; he could get out of the country and try to claim asylum in Europe, but then he wouldn’t be able to return and see his mother who has hepatitis, the same disease that killed his father, and she relies on his support. So he stays and smokes weed and goes to cafes to play backgammon, because that way he can avoid talking. ‘I’ve become a master in backgammon,’ he shrugs. ‘I concentrate on playing because I don’t want anyone to ask, “How are you?”, and because I don’t want anyone to ask the next question, which is, “What happened?”, or the question after that, which is, “What will you do now?” ’
Every few weeks the isolation gets too much. In the aftermath of Rabaa, unable to find a common language with the large numbers of people who cheered on the state’s violence, but also desperate for human contact, Kamal pretended to be interested in renting a flat and accompanied a property broker around several Cairo apartments purely so he could indulge in conversation. He chatted with landlords about utility bills and deposit arrangements and walking distances to the metro, because that was so much simpler than talking about the things he’d seen in the morgue. He describes this city, the one he came to because it promised to open every door, as an open prison. ‘I’m just waiting,’ he declares abruptly, as I finally managed to extricate us from the jam around Tahrir and nose our car up onto the bridge. ‘I’m just waiting, and I don’t know what for.’
24 October: ‘Muslim Brotherhood plan to create chaos’, reads the headline in al-Wafd newspaper. According to anonymous sources, the banned Muslim Brotherhood group has been exploiting recent price hikes and shortages of sugar, baby formula and medicines to incite anger among Egyptians and mobilise them against the authorities ahead of the proposed 11 November protests. The newspaper cites a report prepared by the interior ministry’s security services which reveals that the Brotherhood secretly stores large quantities of sugar in numerous governorates around the country. It adds that the group manipulates citizens’ feelings by encouraging frustration concerning any government reform, by using media outlets based outside Egypt to further incite dissatisfaction, and by asking people to participate in protests to create chaos. The report accuses the Brotherhood of ‘economic terrorism’, a term it deems no less dangerous than armed terrorism.
25 October: ‘Sisi tells youth that challenges are great amid few resources’, reads the main headline in privately owned newspaper al-Masry al-Youm.
There were raids downtown last night. A friend texted: They’ve started near Hardee’s, same as last time. Remember, lights off, no noise, hope that they don’t force entry. I head down the stairs to buy some candles, past the Coptic family who leave the television on all day with the door open, and the woman with the speech impediment who places water bottles on everybody’s doorsteps for reasons that nobody can fathom, and the hagga (‘older woman’) who spends all her time darning in the first-floor cubbyhole. She used to have a gilt-framed portrait of Mubarak in there, tacked up above the chair. For a while she replaced it with a picture of a horse standing by a lake, and now it’s a photo of Sisi. I smile and nod at each neighbour as I skip past, and they smile and nod back, and I try to retain an exact image of every smile and every nod in my mind. I want to scrutinise them later, and work out whether there is anything different about these smiles and nods, the ones proffered now amid the clampdown, compared to the smiles and nods that came before.
It’s wet outside, which is a novelty. It almost never rains in Cairo, but when it does the drops are plump and satisfying. The rain washes flotsam off the street into crevices and hollows, so that every concrete fissure oozes koshari cartons and half-finished bags of chilli sauce. In other parts of the country, the rain has caused flooding; nearly thirty people have died, according to the newspapers, and in Ras Ghareb residents are so angry that they have shut down the main highway and blockaded the prime minister’s entourage, demanding that Sisi send help. But Sisi is in Sharm El-Sheikh for a government-sponsored youth conference; more than 200 MPs are there with him, all aged over fifty. Reports are spreading on social media that several young Egyptians have walked out of a session dedicated to ‘youth and social justice’ because none of them were allowed to speak. On state television, a correspondent sent to cover the conference welcomes the unexpected downpours, explaining that the presence of rain indicates Sisi’s project has divine support.
In the late afternoon, Kamal and I drive to Giza for an appointment with Dandrawy El-Hawary, co-founder and executive editor of Youm7 – a punchy, popular media outlet that racks up more readers than almost any other and offers the regime full-throated support. I’ve been fascinated by El-Hawary for ages; of the many establishment columnists who dominate the evening papers he is usually the loudest in his outrage and the rowdiest in his conspiracy theories. He is particularly hostile to other journalists, especially foreign ones, and to lily-livered liberals who complain about police abuse, and to the country of Qatar, which is supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, and which he is convinced has been ‘exporting gays’ to Egypt in an effort to encourage debauchery and the wearing of women’s clothes. ‘Egypt could occupy Qatar with a folk music band in just two hours,’ El-Hawary claimed recently, although with the caveat that it would debase the Egyptian military to bother doing so.
Those floods upstream have disturbed the Earth and freighted the Nile with soil; the river is a ribbon of luminous mud. Outside the Youm7 offices, security guards in black shirts pace up and down and mutter into walkie-talkies. Stage by stage, gatekeeper by gatekeeper, we enter. El-Hawary, waiting to shake each of us firmly by the hand, is wearing glasses, an expensive-looking wristwatch, and a pink, striped shirt with the words la grande métropole embroidered above the cuffs. ‘Welcome, welcome,’ he beams, leading us into a conference room. ‘What coffee will you have? Obviously I can’t promise any sugar!’
I wonder what El-Hawary will make of Kamal. A few weeks ago, he penned a column accusing political activists of being the willing dupes of Egypt’s international enemies, and insisted that male revolutionary types were so effeminate that it was impossible to distinguish them from their female counterparts. Kamal is unshaven and wears a scruffy top; he looks like a revolutionary type because he is a revolutionary type. But El-Hawary is in a generous mood and if he does have any criticisms of Kamal’s appearance then he checks the impulse to share them. ‘Let me make this clear first,’ he proclaims with a sort of booming geniality as we take our seats. ‘I stand with the state, and with stability.’
Our drinks arrive and El-Hawary breaks off to dab at a rogue splash of coffee grounds on the Formica. ‘You’ll notice,’ he says in a low tone, as if confiding a secret, ‘that there is not a scratch in this whole building. We take care of cleanliness here.’ He explains that smoking and beards and the leaving of jackets on the backs of chairs are forbidden for Youm7 employees in the workplace. He tells us that his academic background studying Egyptology has taught him the importance of order and of things being in their right and proper place. ‘We cannot afford more demonstrations, more uprisings,’ he warns gravely. ‘I don’t understand why people keep doing this, why “human rights” has to mean protests. Because what’s coming with that is ISIS.’
This love of disinfection must make Cairo unbearable for people like El-Hawary, who yearn for a more sanitised universe. The revolution left jackets on the backs of chairs and then threw chairs through the windows. But this is their moment now, El-Hawary’s and his ilk, and maybe that is why they are building a new capital out in the eastern desert, plunging billions into wide, tidy boulevards and neatly segregated business zones while bread riots play out in the old cities left behind. I’ve been to the construction site, a sprawling area just south of Madinat Badr, and paced across the helipads and the hotel complexes and the ceremonial mound from which Sisi will one day inaugurate the future Cairo, which is bleak and sandy and wrapped in a frayed tarpaulin. The regime believes in a binary choice, between total chaos and total control, and if current Cairo was the former then this new capital will be the anti-Cairo: purged of its itinerant shrimp sellers and its outdoor mattress stitchers and its pairs of lovers holding clandestine hands while crouched in the scummy, piss-stained underbelly of the 15 May Bridge. There will be no place in the new capital for white bed sheets strung up between lamp posts by rebellious teenagers and pressed into use as makeshift cinema screens, projectors powered by hacked electricity boxes to broadcast illicit footage of army atrocities to the streets. There will be no audience for the bed sheets, because the new capital will be the antithesis of density and anyway the lamp posts will be too far apart. I spoke to an engineer out there who told me that the state’s synthetic new home will boast the second biggest dancing fountain in the world, and I didn’t know what to say. Afterwards, I met a group of dust-streaked labourers who were helping to build a wall which will eventually encircle the whole city, insulating it and its inhabitants – the first of whom will be Egypt’s government ministries – from all those jackets on chairs and spilt coffee grounds; from the smoking and the beards and the rest of recent history’s unpalatable debris. An urban planning expert described the new capital to me as a bad version of The Truman Show, but up close it looked more confused and menacing than that, more like an attempt to draw a line under an unfinished story, but one that just falls short. The section of the wall that the labourers were working on reminded me of a medieval fortress, massive and unyielding. One of them unzipped his trousers and urinated on it. ‘This town is for the happy people, the ones who fly above us,’ he said.
I asked El-Hawary whether he saw me as a direct and deliberate conspirator against the Egyptian state, and with a polite and concerned paternalism he assured me that he did. I asked him who was employing me and orchestrating this conspiracy, and he mentioned Hillary Clinton, Qatar, MI6, the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the BBC. There didn’t seem to be much left to discuss after that, so we exchanged some more pleasantries and he led us out of the conference room, conducting a tour of the office artwork on the way back to the lifts. The corridors were lined with large colour-saturated photographs: a simple man in a traditional gallabeya, a soldier with a single tear rolling down his cheek, a bird’s-eye shot of the 25 January 2011 protests in Tahrir that unseated Mubarak, with huge Egyptian flags being held aloft by the crowds, and a studio close-up of Angelina Jolie. It was a roller coaster ride through the regime’s schizophrenic subconscious, and every single frame was mounted flawlessly to its wall. ‘The authorities have made up their minds: meaning is dangerous, defending it is a crime, and its advocates are the enemy,’ wrote leading revolutionary Alaa Abd El Fattah this year, from his prison cell. ‘Once we were present, then we were defeated, and meaning was defeated with us.’
27 October: ‘Sisi urges media to report truth: “Media unintentionally harm Egypt and will be held accountable before God,” ’ reads the front-page headline in al-Dostour. The state-owned al-Ahram newspaper quotes President Sisi as saying that there are organised efforts to reduce Egyptians’ support for the government, arguing that Egypt’s current spate of economic woes – from the devaluation of the Egyptian pound to increases in the price of basic commodities and market fluctuations – are part of a deliberate ploy aimed at demolishing the country.
3 November: ‘Pre-emptive strikes against terrorist chaos prior to 11 November,’ reads the headline in Youm7. The newspaper reports that following the issuing of arrest warrants for several Muslim Brotherhood members on the charge of spreading rumours, attempting to overthrow the government and inciting hatred, several terrorist cell members and students coerced into terrorist activity by the Muslim Brotherhood have now been apprehended.
Mahmoud Hussein wears a green cap and a zip-up hoodie. His words rush out fast, like he’s making up for lost time, but they are also measured, as if he’d used that lost time to pin them down, and his voice cracks slightly as he speaks. ‘When I started meeting friends again,’ he remembers, ‘I would reach out and touch them, and ask: “Are you real? You’re not just a letter? You’re not just a photo?” ’
I push my Dictaphone closer because there is a man next to us in the cafe who keeps laughing loudly and banging his cup against the table. Mahmoud and his older brother Tito both snap their heads towards him instinctively; they are always scanning the room, reading its rhythms and honing in on anything that doesn’t fit. A waiter drifts over and speaks quietly to the man and the man holds up his hands to apologise and then extends the gesture to the rest of the cafe. ‘Sorry for disturbing you,’ he slurs in our direction. He sounds drunk, or maybe high on Tramadol. We turn back to each other and Mahmoud continues his story.
In January 2014, on the third anniversary of the start of the revolution and six months after Sisi’s coup, he was stopped at a security checkpoint on the ring road. He was wearing a T-shirt with the words nation without torture next to the outline of a stick-figure guard beating a stick-figure prisoner. The policeman at the checkpoint asked him who the stick-figure guard was supposed to be. ‘It is a picture of whoever sees himself in that stick figure,’ replied Mahmoud. The policeman knocked him to the floor. Mahmoud was held in detention without charge and tortured for 791 days. The irony, he tells me, was that it was his brother Tito’s T-shirt that got him into all that trouble; it was originally Tito who was the real agitator, the revolutionary activist, and Mahmoud was wearing it in part because he was trying to emulate his sibling and live up to his ideals. Tito looks across at Mahmoud lovingly and protectively. At the time of his arrest, Mahmoud had just turned eighteen.
Over the past year the security services have carried out an average of nearly five forced disappearances a day, bundling citizens into cars as they buy their vegetables or dragging them from their beds while they sleep. Often it takes weeks or months for any word of their fate to reach family members: one released prisoner recalled a fellow prisoner overhearing another prisoner mention something about a kid from this town or that governorate who is locked up at Torah, or Azouli, or el-Qanater, or the Scorpion. There are an estimated 60,000 political detainees in jail, alongside all the regular criminals, and the prison system – both its formal elements and its less visible understructure, which is far larger and ranges across side chambers and half-forgotten cellars and nondescript outhouses scattered over military bases and regional security headquarters from the Aswan Dam to the sea – is groaning under the weight of them all. For more than a year, Mahmoud was held in a cell with 150 other people, the majority of them violent offenders. All of them shared a single bathroom.
‘There is a social hierarchy in the cell among the prisoners, including a commander who is usually the oldest, and he takes charge of everything,’ explains Mahmoud. The drunk man’s phone starts ringing and he moves out of the cafe to answer it. Mahmoud pauses as he stumbles past. ‘The first night I was there, the cell commander came over to me and saw that I was sick and he promised to find me a good sleeping place on the floor. He found me one right next to the garbage and said that if I didn’t want it there were many others who would give anything to have this spot and that he was doing me
a favour. It took me about five months to bargain my way to an upgrade.’
Since his release, Mahmoud has found it difficult hanging out with people his own age. Like Kamal, he struggles with the inanity of regular conversation, with the impossibility of integrating some articulation of his experiences into the regular flow of gossip, girls and football, and he finds once-familiar pathways through the city pockmarked with unease. He has taken to embarking on long walks with others who have lived through detention and who know something of what Islam Khalil, a sales agent in his mid-twenties who was snatched from his family home during a security raid, calls the inability to distinguish anything beyond the blindfold, not even the separation of night and day.
‘They might take me one night to hang me from my hands and feet, naked. Or I might spend a long time with my hands tied to a post. Or maybe they’d take me for an electrocution session,’ Khalil has said of his initial detention, before he even reached a proper cell. ‘Your dream is to survive this place, to make it to prison or to the grave.’
The Egyptian artist Sara Fakhry Ismail has written of how, during the revolution, walks through Cairo became a collective performance, one in which ‘physical and mental barriers surrendered to the power of numbers’. Today, one might walk the same route, but the journey is different. ‘Walls, barricades and an ever-shrinking walkable public space in the heart of Cairo are this government’s way of making sure that no group, no matter how big, can ever find their way into the
Most of the people close to me haven’t been subjected to the levels of violence suffered by Islam and Mahmoud, but they have also seen old walks and places disappear behind walls and fences, along with old frames of mind that not so long ago felt daringly new. The radical online news outlet Mada Masr recently published an article on the coping mechanisms deployed by journalists, activists, artists, human rights workers and scholars: ‘For those who see themselves as connected to the revolution, but remain [in Egypt],’ the piece noted, ‘these are depressing times, and increasingly lonely times too, as friends and comrades leave or are imprisoned.’ It posed the question: ‘What do you do to get through?’ Among the answers from readers were colouring books, computer games, knitting, kaleidoscopes, drinking, drugs and dancing. ‘Spinning tops are very soothing and hypnotic,’ one person responded. ‘They’re stable but also constantly moving, so give an illusion of stability.’
‘Remaining’, ‘surviving’, ‘coping’; sometimes these things feel like failure, and sometimes, often at the same time, they have more in common with resistance, or even just hope. The vagaries of our own moods can be savage. Aida Seif El-Dawla, a psychiatrist and founder of Cairo’s al-Nadeem Center, which works to rehabilitate victims of state violence, talks of a generational legacy of trauma; were there to be an almighty revolutionary wave tomorrow, she points out, and a utopian Egypt victoriously established, that imaginary country would still be faced with a psychological reckoning of a magnitude that is barely comprehensible. Al-Nadeem has been closed down by the authorities now, and El-Dawla is banned from travelling. Almost anybody who works in the field of human rights has personal experience of raids on their offices, of arrests, of asset freezes and of judicial inquiries. Since the Sisi era began, a new law regulating the voluntary sector has been passed with the aim, say observers, of ‘erasing civil society’ in Egypt: a protest law has in practice outlawed demonstrations, a terrorism law has forbidden journalists from contradicting the government’s account of militant attacks and a military courts law has enabled any civilian accused of committing a crime at ‘public or vital facilities’ to be tried by the army. In addition to all that, emergency law – the hallmark of Mubarak’s reign – is now back, allowing security forces to effectively detain any person, for any length of time, for any reason.
In an effort to guard themselves – from the weeds of the mind as much as from the clout of the state – many people who were propelled by the revolution into shared and common spaces are now beating a retreat into private bubbles. ‘There is a sense of dispossession at those physical sites that were formerly markers of political identity,’ says Lina Attalah, editor of Mada Masr, of the public squares and cafes and pavements which during the uprisings and the street clashes briefly became an extension of one’s home. ‘There is a sense that to do anything other than to keep your distance and avoid them would just take too much out of you. I go to work, and I go back home, and that’s it.’ Some got out of Cairo completely, of course, to London, New York, Milan and Berlin, but many others have merely relocated to the capital’s suburbs: to Sheikh Zayed, to al-Tagammu, to pottery classes in Maadi, where there is grass on the roadside and the sky can be seen. Coping takes its toll, maybe even more so than conflict. ‘Sarah Carr marked herself as safe during general everyday existence in Egypt,’ posted one friend on Facebook this month, spoofing the alerts used by the social media platform during disasters. These smaller, more reserved routines are a form of protective insulation. But they can shake something out of you in their repetition, like the work of the American composer William Basinski who, in the early 2000s, attempted to transfer his magnetic tapes onto a digital format – but found that with each loop the music became unstuck and eventually disintegrated.
Mahmoud has been forced to remake a home for himself time and again over the past two and a half years, from cell to cell, nook to cranny; where he could get away with it, he pinned up photos of loved ones on the prison walls and took up drawing to pass the time and help stave off despair. ‘I liked the fact that there was no room for compliments or flattery in the cells,’ he says when I ask him if anything good came out of his time there. ‘There is no space for anyone to say, “Do you know who my father is?” Now I can understand people better.’ The transition we make from adolescence to adulthood is always sinuous and slippery; for Mahmoud, it took place by the garbage, with 150 other people around him on the floor. ‘People are confused now because the child isn’t there any more,’ he says. The drunk man pushes past us again, only this time, as he does so, he also seems to linger.
We exchange glances and then Tito and I make a show of calling for the bill and tussling over who will pay. There is an oud playing through the cafe’s speakers and a distant hiss from a kettle and Tito and Mahmoud are texting one another and also a contact, confirming their location, warning of possible danger. They do it casually, like bored millennials, but the drunk man is watching us now and he doesn’t seem drunk any more. We get ready to leave but he stands up before us and hastens towards the exit, speaking quickly and clearly into his mobile phone. We’re seconds behind him and can hear a few of his words: he’s reporting in to someone at Qasr al-Aini police station, which is nearby, and he’s describing our physical appearance. We hurry past him and break into a trot around the corner – no faster than that because Mahmoud is on crutches, a legacy of his incarceration – and Tito, who knows the owners of the cafe, calls them as we pick up the pace and advises them that trouble might be approaching.
We weave and writhe through the murk of Garden City, which droops with mottled gates and wilting villas, bound in that moment by mutual risk and yet also poles apart – only one of us protected by his passport and the colour of his skin. And then, having made certain that the informant is not following us, we hug and depart, in separate directions.
7 November: In an editorial published by his newspaper, Youm7, entitled ‘Owners of fancy palaces object to fuel price increase and call for a revolution of the hungry’, Dandrawy El-Hawary claims that all individuals criticising the government and decrying the situation of the poor – from business people and media professionals to activists – are millionaires who benefit from the chaos. Ahead of the planned protests on 11 November, El-Hawary concludes that revolutions make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and that the invention of fuel, electricity and security crises comes at the expense of Egypt’s underprivileged.
9 November: Assiut University Hospital has postponed scheduled medical operations due to a lack of anaesthesia and other medical supplies, reports al-Bawaba. Sources tell the newspaper that more than thirty operations have been put on hold indefinitely, while fifty non-urgent medical procedures have been postponed for several months. The hospital is continuing to try and treat patients in critical condition.
A woman tried to throw herself from the advertising hoardings at the end of my street this morning. She stood on the precipice for a long time while the traffic stopped below and a policeman tried to talk to her through a megaphone. For a long time I didn’t realise what was happening: I saw the commotion at ground level, but didn’t pick out the solitary figure above, still and scared, as if she had no idea how she’d got there, scrawny against the clouds. Ibrahim, the doorman of my building, told me later that apparently the woman had lost her savings in the currency crash and was demanding that someone, anyone, find her a job. Eventually, she was persuaded down and led away. She wasn’t from round here, Ibrahim added, with a hint of pride.
10 November: ‘Security forces arrest terrorist members of Muslim Brotherhood cells and confiscate explosives’, reads the front-page headline of state-owned al-Ahram newspaper, on the eve of major planned protests against the government. Several newspapers report erroneously that the Facebook page calling for a ‘Revolution of the Poor’ on 11 November has been shut down, and calls to revolt withdrawn. Al-Wafd newspaper claims that this ‘cancellation’ follows the election of Donald Trump in the United States on Tuesday, providing further confirmation that outgoing American President Barack Obama is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and that Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton was the main financial backer of the protests.
In other news, the state-run National Council for Women has launched a nationwide ‘Support your country, for tomorrow you get the bounty’ initiative, reports Youm7. The door-to-door campaign aims to raise awareness among women about the importance of supporting Egypt during the present economic difficulties.
The low buildings in which the migrants hide are surrounded by reeds. They are storehouses used by the trawlers and local farmers; sometimes loaded with human beings, sometimes with grain or fish. The smugglers use code words on their radio systems to trick the navy. Bearings, times and numbers are swapped around, so two boats heading north by north-east at one o’clock might mean one boat heading west at two. Cigarettes, or mo’assel – the syrupy tobacco smoked in water pipes – stand in for people. The boat captains have memorised everything, Hamdy tells me. They and they alone know the vocabulary and the grammar of the sea.
I’m driving through the reeds and Hamdy is directing me, recounting the ruses he and his colleagues have used to bootleg sugar into the country over the past few weeks, and making wisecracks about Sisi. The president just gave a speech emphasising the personal sacrifices that all Egyptians must make on the road to a better future and offered his own life story as an example: he once spent ten years of his youth, he divulged, with nothing but water in his fridge. Sisi seems to have forgotten that fridges were a luxury when he was young and that even when they became commonplace only the highly privileged could ever afford to rely on permanent takeaways or a personal chef. ‘Poor Sisi,’ smirks Hamdy, who has a grizzled face. ‘If even he is that poor, no wonder everyone else is trying to escape.’
Hamdy facilitates escapes. He is a retailer of new lives on distant shores and at the moment his product is in great demand. There are many like him up here, on the crest of the Nile at Rashid. In September, one of the migrant boats – not Hamdy’s, but he knows the guy responsible – capsized just off the coast because it was overloaded, and more than 200 died. ‘If young people travel behind their parents’ backs, or without their parents’ permission, then it is their own fault what happens and they do not deserve sympathy,’ stated one parliamentarian soon afterwards. The authorities made a lot of noise about their rescue efforts, but Hamdy says that the police vessels didn’t retrieve a single body from the water, alive or dead; it was Rashid’s fishermen – most of whom, like Hamdy, are embroiled in the smuggling trade themselves – who brought the victims onto dry land. ‘The government is the last thing we think about when we think about the valuing of human souls,’ mutters Hamdy philosophically, although he knows that the same could be said about himself.
But maybe ‘victim’ isn’t quite the right word; maybe it warps something that matters and denudes migrants of their agency.
‘Almost no one thinks about the migrant until he or she becomes a lost migrant, a dead migrant, a deported migrant or an imprisoned migrant,’ wrote Lina Attalah, following the tragedy. She went on to draw a parallel between the courage required to risk riding the sea with the courage required to risk joining a protest – a leap into the unknown that can likewise result in incarceration or death. Both, she points out, involve the pursuit of liberty and dignity through disruption, through revolution, through ‘the kind of risk where one’s entire being, body and soul, are summoned for the adventure’. That is not to say that all migrants approach their boat passage with such a mindset, nor to romanticise the horrors of the journey. But it is true that if you walk down the central strip of any number of villages around Rashid and pause in front of the larger, fancier houses, residents will tell you with some esteem about the people who live in them, and the relative of theirs who already made it to Syracuse, to Lampedusa, to Malta and beyond. It isn’t hard to see why a young person with more than water in their fridge, even aside from the unemployment and the economic crises and the cruel and systemic state repression, might fantasise, one day, of following suit.
We leave Hamdy behind and begin the long drive back to Cairo, only to be stopped and detained at a checkpoint and made to wait for a state security officer from the regional headquarters to arrive and interrogate us about our movements. The soldiers are friendly and apologetic; they warm up some tea on the stovetop and pass around Kamal’s cigarettes. We make big talk and then small talk and then we stand without talking for what feels like an eternity, listening to the gulls. Eventually, from the shadows, a tuk-tuk materialises wrapped in fairy lights, blaring pop and driven by a fourteen-year-old boy. It pulls up and the radio dies and a rangy, moustachioed figure emerges and immediately fills the air with barks and orders. A minute later we are back in the soldiers’ hut, next to the stovetop, answering question after question about who we are and why we’re here and what we think about it all. The officer notices that my surname and first name are printed in different orders on my ID document and my press card and growls the word ‘conspiracy’ in English under his breath. We walk the familiar high wire, probing his ego carefully as we reply so as to know when to soothe, when to placate, when to be obsequious and when to get loud and bully back, reading each other’s strategies and swapping quick little glances between ourselves to ensure that each step is in tandem. The officer goes outside and radioes his colleagues and we are left listening to the gulls again and the soldiers are too scared now to make more tea. When he returns, he announces that we are free to go but that our details are being placed on record, and he issues us with a warning, although he doesn’t mention what the warning is for. Then he observes, with a significant cough, that the tuk-tuk has gone and that he is twenty miles from his base. We offer to give him a lift back, because we have to, and for the next half an hour Kamal, the officer and I drive in near silence through the darkness, the wind bouncing off the storehouses and rustling through the reeds.
In the end, nothing happened on 11 November, the day upon which the ‘Revolution of the Poor’ was scheduled to explode. Not quite nothing, actually: there were some marches and clashes in Alexandria and Beheira and Kafr al-Duwwar and more than a hundred arrests nationwide, but in Cairo itself there really was nothing – a heavy, ersatz nothing that took the shape of long lines of police trucks at every major junction, of the special forces outside my apartment fanning out across the neighbourhood, and of no one in the streets at all. Ibrahim warned me not to step outside that day but I wanted to feel it, the nothing, and see if it unlocked the answer to a question that I didn’t know how to spell out to myself or anyone else; a question that had something to do with my shifting relationship to this maddening, magical city.
I spent nearly all of my twenties here and I don’t know whether it was just me, or just Cairo, or whether this is the case for everyone in their twenties wherever they might be, but it was an age when life’s contours felt obligingly malleable. Now when I looked around, the ink seemed to have dried that bit more on the page. ‘Each thought, each day, each life lies here as on a laboratory table,’ said Walter Benjamin of early Bolshevik Moscow, and there were so many of these moments in Cairo, a whole avalanche of them, when everything was fat with imagination. I read somewhere that the colour spectrum of the mantis shrimp is four times larger than our own, and I remember wondering what a mantis shrimp might do if, having lived with all those hues, it was then made to rely on human eyes and the world suddenly appeared plainer and more predictable and more carefully, crushingly constrained. I skirted the security vehicles by taking the cut-through that runs from the back of my apartment building and down past the abandoned Italianate palace off Champollion Street, where the windows are broken and the statues chipped and the countless rooms home to no one but nesting falcons. I walked and watched and ducked into doorways to avoid passing patrols, and walked and watched some more.
And then I found Ziad, in the maze of tiny thoroughfares behind Bab el-Louq market, and he had managed to track down the only shisha place that was willing to risk opening on that asphyxiated Friday. We sat and smoked and Ziad held forth excitedly on the subject of politics and possibilities and stubborn, inchoate dreams. The next day I flew out of Egypt, just after sundown. It’s the most beautiful time to rise into the air because the sky is dimmed but you can still make out the city’s sparks and hollows, its many bumps and breaks. There are always kids on balconies shining lasers towards the planes as they take off from the runway, and alongside the white high beams and the orange street bulbs and the strips of green neon draped down the sides of minarets they make the earth seem restless and electric and alive. As we climbed towards the delta, I stared out of the window. Cairo looked like shattered glass, light coursing through the cracks.
Photograph courtesy of the author
View from the balcony of the author’s flat in the Marouf neighbourhood, just north of Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, 2015