Shock of the Old

I left Cairo in early 1999 and have not been able to come back since. The nearest I got was south Sinai last summer as part of Across Borders. So I was excited and a little apprehensive to be arriving on the late flight from London and driving downtown in the early hours of yesterday morning.

I am not sure precisely what I expected, but I know it included change. Not simply driven by closely following the events of the past year, but also by the passage of 13 years and some significant changes I had heard about – AUC moving out of town, the arrival of British supermarket chains, an ever-increasing wealth gap leading to ever-fancier cars on the road, mobile telephones everywhere.

In fact, arriving at Cairo International most resembled my first ever arrival here, in 1991. Same basic procedures, same contained chaos, same sounds and smells. The drive downtown was paradoxically comforting in its excessive speed and near misses. The tang of pollution quickly settled in at the back of my throat.

It felt like home.

I spent my first day here doing logistical things – changing money, getting a local SIM for the phone – and walking around. Getting lost on foot is my preferred way of getting into a new city, or reacquainted with an old friend like Cairo. I walked a very rambling route down to Sayyida Zeinab (in a ‘popular’ i.e. poorer district) – mosques are often the best landmarks, and I love to see them. Then I got the Metro back to Tahrir.

It was unsettling to be in Tahrir, after watching it so intensely from afar this time last year. The burned-out NDP building and the walls the military threw up between Tahrir and the parliament etc are obvious physical signs of that history. Otherwise, the most notable change for me was the former Nile Hilton now under wraps as Arab Contractors and others change it into a Ritz-Carlton, slowly. But mostly it felt, to evoke Talking Heads, same as it ever was. The souvenir sellers do a nice line in revolutionary t-shirts, but the Nefertiti heads are still there.

Window shoppers were out in force last night and this evening on Talaat Harb and the other shopping streets of downtown. The street vendors seemed to be doing more business than the shops, which also looked very similar to how I remember them in the 1990s, down to the adventurous and uncomfortable-looking underwear and nightwear for women which make so many of those downtown shop windows interestingly colourful with just an edge of seedy. Shops staying open late could be a sign of economic health. But most seemed to be overstaffed with bored and underemployed young men and women. Same as it ever was, on the surface.

Then this evening I saw a small demonstration march up and down Talaat Harb. Few of the shoppers paid much attention as it passed in either direction. And here was a big difference. One might be disheartened that the vanguard were not appearing to attract much active support from the downtown crowds this close to the anniversary of the revolution. But the very ordinariness of citizens protesting and the lack of police interest in a group holding up the traffic with revolutionary slogans can be taken as good signs.

In the 1990s there were next to no real politics. Street politics, certainly, met swift repression. The openings made since then by strikers, by the Kefaya and April 6th movements, by football supporters (‘ultras’), and then ultimately by the masses of all of them together last year, have made it unremarkable that citizens who have something to say about how the country is run get out there in public space and do it. That is remarkable.

I spent a few minutes at Tahrir this evening (after a bowl of koshary with lots of hot sauce to keep out the cold – yes, Cairo is cold this January). There was a stage with musicians, a decent-size crowd of all ages, general good spirits. A separate, smaller crowd was listening to speeches. The square was definitely a public space. That’s revolutionary.

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