It’s said that those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it, and collective memory can be surprisingly short. Last week former Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi slipped into something more comfortable than his usual freshly pressed military dress uniform, determined to look his best civilian self for next month’s Presidential elections.
It’s perhaps worth reprising the last days of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first ever freely elected head of state. In March 2013 amidst increasingly erratic policy changes, amateurish gerrymandering, a perceived conservative Islamic agenda and political naivety, for Morsi the writings were not only on the city’s walls, but typed on glowing screens and sprayed on white bed sheets, once more held aloft in the protest camps of Tahrir Square. The tenure of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government was coming to an end. It was no longer a matter of ‘if’, only when and how. Both these questions were addressed by the July military coup, the deaths of an estimated 1,000 Egyptians and detention of almost 16,000 others.
Returning from Libya, I spent a few days in downtown Cairo collecting the thoughts of those I encountered. The piece I wrote was overtaken by July’s events, but at this juncture it might have regained some retrospective value. Churchill once said, ‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…’ What happens in May determines the political course of the Arab world’s most populous state for four years… However, the staying power of previous former military men suggests Egyptians may have rather longer than four years to privately ponder on the wisdom of Churchill’s words.
Cafe Critics – Cairo – March 2013.
Five minutes from Tahrir Square, amongst grand 19th century French facades, Café Riche has seen revolutions come and go. In 1919 an assassin hurled two bombs from its doorway, attempting to kill British-backed Prime Minister Youssef Wahba Pasha – he failed. In 1952, nationalist hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser shared tables with the ‘Free Officers’ whilst plotting the demise of another Riche regular, the widely reviled King Farouk.
More recently novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, to date the Arab world’s only literary Nobel Laureate, critic of ruling regimes from Nassar to Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood, based his book, Karnak Café, on the microcosm of Café Riche. Today the café’s basement bar still has a hidden door leading to a secret escape tunnel, a succinct exit for those whose outspoken views attracted uninvited attention. In 2011 revolution was again on the menu at Café Riche, activists seeking the council of café elders who’d lived through previous struggles, wooden tables and bespoke chairs cleared away, its floor space ready to treat those injured in Tahrir Square.
Historically Café Riche’s vantage point at the heart of Cairo has offered a clear view as high-minded ideals deferred to realpolitik or were ignored by those who never held them anyway. ‘I’ve been coming here for half a century but now the atmosphere is not the same because the income of the people is not the same. The intellectuals, the creatives, the artists, they’re still all here,’ And so it appears are Cairo’s grumpy old men many of whom have little time for Egypt’s current leaders. ‘Which government? Here we have a government? It’s something new for me.’ My elderly interviewee’s sagging features transcend idealism. To him the suggestion that governments might improve the Egyptian people’s lot seems farcical, his dismissive expression lacking even the merest hint of a smile confers impermanence on the current incumbents. ‘Look, no names. I don’t make speeches,’ he says, wearily but definitely. ‘I tell you the truth not dreams,’ this last word appearing to carry a bitter taste, ‘This is a country with no programme. You don’t know what is to be done day-to-day, you don’t even know what is to be done for the rest of the day. A very strange country.’
Egypt’s new democracy seems at odds with Café Riche, which may account for the attitude of its clientele. The Muslim Brotherhood’s finest minds are unlikely to be found huddled around a Riche table, sinking a cold bottle of Stella or savouring a glass of Omar Khayyam over a plate of deep-fried calamari any time soon… The serious old men in suits occupy their regular seats and talk for hours, sharing their private jokes,but the politics of Egypt has spilled out into the open air.
Down an unpromising alley just along the street the plastic chairs and rickety tables of the Al Bustan describe another café society. ‘Café Riche? It’s for the rich,’ says Ahmed drawing on his cigarette, ‘The revolution is here, all these people. That man there,’ he points, ‘His son died. I myself saw blood in Tahrir Square. I don’t forget this.’ However, despite the change in venue political perspectives appear remarkably coincident. ‘Morsi was in Tahrir for one hour. I was there for four days. There are 95 million people in Egypt, Morsi’s support comes from just a section of five million. Where are the people of the revolution? Not in the government.’ I ask why more did not vote for the other presidential candidate, former Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafik? ‘When the election came it was a choice between the fire and the frying pan, and the people did not want another Mubarak.’ Ahmed lights another cigarette, ‘Morsi has no programme. Many of his people were in gaol during the Mubarak time. They were all chained up and in the dark. They need psychological counselling not to be put in power. Morsi’s president now, maybe for tomorrow, maybe for two more years, maybe four but not more. The people will not choose another from the Muslim Brotherhood.’
Overlooking the new tented protests pitched across Tahrir Square, tea drinkers at Café Wadi Nil have their own views. ‘These people don’t represent Egypt,’ says Mohammed, casting a glance across the square, ‘They want to go backwards not forwards. Morsi is not a bad man but he’s not experienced in leading a country.’ I ask about Egypt’s chronic levels of youth unemployment. ‘There is work in Cairo,’ replies Mohammed, ‘But it’s not well paid. If people take a job and keep working they’ll earn more in the end but they don’t have the patience. Instead they stay at home or come here.’
Walking across the square a smiling small boy approaches, boldly telling me, ‘Fuck you!’, immediately taking a precautionary step back. I pretend not to understand. A young man follows behind, ‘So what about you? Why are you here? Are you with us?’ he demands. I tell him that the future of Egypt is best determined by Egyptians. He wanders off thoughtfully, satisfied or mystified, I’ll never know.
Sitting on the concrete surround of a Cairo metro ventilation shaft I’m offered tea by kindly, open-faced woman. A crowd of the curious and the bored gather to watch me drink. Two well dressed young women from Upper Egypt in turn ask to have their photograph taken with me – I smile. My tea drained, the small boy still lingers, racking his infant brain for more profanity but before finding the words he’s shooed away by a tall youth. ‘Hi, I’m Imed, Imed the Iraqi, everybody here knows me. Shall we walk around?’ Grateful to exit the limelight I join Imed. Beyond the tents the grass is brown, pavements scorched by fires, once shady trees chopped for firewood, the scorched windows and burnt out shell of the National Democratic Party’s headquarters looms large in the background. ‘There are real protesters here, but also many just looking to cause trouble,’ says Imed. ‘I’ve watched while children throw stones at police. They have nothing, so nothing to lose.’ Walking across Qasr Al-Nil bridge the view of Cairo is expansive as ever. We stand in the sunshine for a moment, looking down at a moored and empty flotilla of tourist cruisers, watching the powerful Nile current.
For many in Cairo the outcome of the Egyptian revolution remains uncertain. Freedom was a unifying goal. Blood was spilt and a dictator overthrown. Across the city’s cafes and squares there’s freedom to talk but the question now for many Cairenes is whether anyone is listening? (Cairo. March 2013)