This week much of Cairo celebrated Eid al Fitr – the feast, or holiday, if you like – that marks the definitive end of a long month of fasting. On a Saturday morning, the end of the long holiday weekend, Cairo is almost silent. There is no traffic, no horns honking, only the occasional sound of someone’s sandals flapping against the asphalt on the street below my balcony.
This silence is a little misleading, however. Thousands of pro-Morsi protesters still occupy squares and public spaces around the city and country, and the interim government recently declared their plans to clear the squares of these encampments. Two days ago a spokesperson for the Brotherhood called this Eid the ‘Eid of Victory’ as protesters held marches to demand Morsi’s reinstatement, and a few clashes occurred outside of the city. So far, not much else of consequence has happened, except for a lot of escalation of rhetoric on both sides.
The army remains a very visible presence on the streets of Cairo, and no one seems ambivalent about this fact. People that I’ve met alternately love the army and shower them with praise for sweeping out a much-hated president (every taxi driver I’ve spoken with and many small business owners on my street fall into this category) or hate the army and accuse them of perpetrating a coup and massacring citizens. (Security forces have opened fire on pro-Morsi protesters and killed over 130 people over the past few weeks.) I’ve also spoken with a few young, liberal-minded Egyptians who wanted Morsi out of office, yet who also remember the various problems of SCAF rule two years ago all too clearly. They have no desire to return to military rule. This last group has organized under the name “the Third Square” (Maydan al Talat) but they don’t seem to have rallied significant numbers, at least as of yet. Tamarod, the campaign behind the massive protests on June 30, has denounced the Third Square movement and accused them of dividing the opposition.
Last week, I took a walk by Cairo University, not far from Maydan al Masaha. This was the site of one of the first incidents where the army and security forces opened fire on Brotherhood supporters, killing several people. On this particular day, four army trucks and three tanks were stationed around the square. Conscripts in fatigues were hanging out, sleeping on top of the trucks, looking exhausted. The square itself was barricaded off on one side with barbed wire. A young man with a gun slung on his back washed his hands in preparation for mid-day prayers.
Tanks are a common sight downtown as well; tooling around Cairo this weekend, we spotted one every couple of blocks. Young men and women took pictures of each other posing with soldiers. Yesterday near Al Azhar mosque, I saw several posters of general Sisi like this one, which reads (roughly) “The people of Egypt have taken up your call, Sisi – we stand together, against terrorism.” Terrorism means the Pro-Morsi protesters, which has disturbing connotations. It seems difficult – if not impossible – to form a fair and inclusive new government when one side is being denounced as terrorists.
All this aside, the giant, dusty machinery of Cairo grinds on, and the Eid holiday is progressing like any other Eid might. People are spending time with their families and friends – we walked among a large crowd picnicking in Al Azhar Park, which overlooks the mud-colored buildings of Islamic Cairo yesterday – and setting off fireworks. Downtown is the same bustling place it has always been, and Doqqi’s back streets are still filled with normal people leading their normal lives, albeit among more posters and graffiti. Men in tiny doorless tailor shops still do their ironing under fluorescent lights, women are still selling lemons and yelling at me to come and patronize their stands, and our local mango seller, a tall, bent-over man whose clothes imply that he comes from upper Egypt, still pauses to smoke shisha on the street curb and cultivate his world-weary gaze. Groups of local residents still gather at our local ahuwa to drink sludgy Turkish coffee and hot, sweet tea, read the papers, and watch hilarious and melodramatic Egyptian soap operas.
This is, I suppose, is what a country in political crisis looks like. Lots of talking, arguing, conjecturing, gossiping…and waiting.