Yesterday, I celebrated my anniversary. To mark the occasion, my husband and I had dinner at a Moroccan restaurant at a hotel on the Nile. Our visit to the hotel coincided with that of the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who had just flown in to engage in political talks about the ongoing situation in Egypt. I caught a glimpse of the minister as he delivered a few soft, solemn remarks in the lobby, surrounded by an entourage of civil servants and journalists.
Because of the political situation (and, perhaps, the absence of the tantalizing and over-priced Buddha Bar on account of Ramadan) the luxurious hotel and its sculpted pool were mostly empty. A few helicopters buzzed overhead while we chatted with some South Africans who were visiting on their way home from Malta. As we finished our meal, we watched several boats of all sizes leaving tracks in the dark Nile water. Some were blaring sha’bi music and were decked out in blinking lights. From where we sat, we could make out the shapes of young couples holding hands as they stood on the prow and stared out into the darkness. While we were watching the flashy vessels and I was scooping dollops of harissa onto a square of pita bread, a family of five pulled up to the bank in a small motorboat. A young girl crept forward to the front of the boat and asked restaurant-goers for spare change.
Cairo, like every large city I’ve ever visited, is a very stratified place. This is not a shocking or unique observation, but one has to wonder in the midst of all of this talk of political crisis whether most of its citizens care who is in power. The word for the coarse bread that is one of the staples of the Egyptian diet is not خبز (bread) but عيش (‘aysh) which is from the ِArabic root “to live.” Witnessing the gas shortage over the last few months and the reaction in the streets, it seems like the question of access to ‘aysh and petrol must take precedence over any pretty words about political transitions and terrorism, revolutions and coups.
This is not to infer that the two are not linked. Everyone I’ve spoken to here is passionate about rights, whether it is the right for one’s vote to be heard or the right to demand a better and more democratic government, constitution, etc. The right to be able to buy bread necessarily underlines all. There is little of the affected apathy, or disillusionment and general exhaustion with the political process that one finds in the States. There is hope, but there are a lot of reasons to doubt this hope as well.
For example, the Egyptian Minister of the Interior announced yesterday that police were authorized to break up the the large, pro-Morsi protest camps in Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda squares. They also promised protesters a safe exit. However, this assurance of safety comes after weeks of statements from the army and the new powers that be decrying the pro Morsi protesters as deadly terrorists (ElBaradei is a notable exception). The Egyptian media has ramped up their incendiary rhetoric, calling for the eradication of terrorists (the protesters) from public spaces and squares over the past week. On Wednesday, Al Masry Al Youm announced that Al Qaeda had infiltrated Nahda Square.
All of this comes in the wake of more state violence. Last Saturday, security forces opened fire on groups of protesters – the second time in a few weeks – and killed over 80 people. The sanctioned use of live fire against protesters has left many Egyptians and non-Egyptian bystanders concerned and confused about the future. No one seems particularly pleased: not the revolutionaries who took to the streets on June 30th, some of whom are now circulating Venn diagrams like this one to show that while they’re pro-revolution and anti-Morsi, they’re not necessarily pro-military; not the army, who is facing increasing international pressure for the carnage they created near Rabaa al-Adawiya and in other protests squares; and certainly not the Ikhwan supporters who were victims of the violence, and who just called for another million man march demanding that Morsi be reinstated.
In addition to this increase in violence and bellicose rhetoric, international actors are beginning to throw their weight around. Catherine Ashton, the EU Foreign Policy Head, met with Morsi last week and reported that he was in good health. (He’s still detained in an undisclosed location). In addition to the German foreign minister, a EU envoy arrived two days ago to urge the army to keep things peaceful through the weekend.
To return to the question of bread – for the government, the military, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, politics is their living. But for the rest, politics is a striving for a better life. If the politicians who are putting together the new government ignore this fact – the desire for basic rights at the heart of the protests – then they will find a far more serious problem on their hands in the future, and this latest revolutionary wave will be one of many.