Curfew Days

Photo from theguardian.com

Photo from theguardian.com

Cairo under curfew is quiet. A warm, humid wind blows over the balcony. My neighbor’s sheets, left on the clothesline so long that I wonder if she’s fled the city, flutter above. Not a sound breaks the silence except the murmur of the security guard’s television at the large, mysterious villa next door. Almost everyone’s lights are out. It’s not yet 10 pm.

Over a week ago the military-appointed interim government placed the country under Emergency law and instituted a 7 pm curfew in response to last Wednesday’s bloodletting.  Egyptian security officers violently dispersed pro-Morsi protesters in squares across the city. By the time the tear gas cleared, over 600 people were dead. Protesters clashed with armed security forces in the following days and more people died, were shot at, shot back, were injured. Now a tenuous silence holds the city in its breathless grip.

The quiet is all the more outrageous because Cairo is a clattering, horn-honking, sandal-slapping city after dark, especially in the summer. This silence is unseemly, almost impolite. There are no kids setting off fireworks to rattle the nerves, no stray neighborhood dogs barking, nothing but the warm wind and the sheets stirring overhead.

The apartment grows claustrophobic from time to time, though we do leave, occasionally.  I picked up three papers from our local newspaper seller yesterday; he told me business was going well, thanks be to God. Everyone in Cairo seems to read the papers – not one, but two or three regularly. It makes me think print isn’t quite dead after all, a hopeful thought which is dampened a bit by the fact that the print papers all say the same thing these days.

When we stopped to have a sweet, dark tea with mint at our local coffee shop a few days ago, the garcon (the word for waiter here) brought me Al-Ahram. When I turned to stirring my tea and talking, he politely inquired, and then whisked the wrinkled pages away to another waiting customer. The manager, Ismail, a large man who occasionally sleeps behind the counter and likes to laugh and shout things at the waiters that make him seem important, told me that he was sickened by the television coverage of the Brotherhood protesters and the violence they were causing – a sentiment which seems completely counter-intuitive but which I’ve heard a lot recently. Instead, he leaves the large flat-screen television switched off, or watches talk shows about events in Iraq.

All the papers (and most news channels) repeat slightly different iterations of the same mantra. A small logo that proclaims “Egypt is fighting terrorism,” is emblazoned in the upper left-hand corner of Al-Ahram, as if you might forget from one page turn to the next. Every day a new member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership is arrested. One was on his way to Libya, dressed in women’s clothes, the media crows. The news seems to grow more oppressive and suffocating each day, not unlike the curfew.

A few nights ago we went to Al-Radwan, a restaurant on Dokki street with a few friends. We tend to see the same faces these days – there’s only a small group of the original fellows here in my program who haven’t fled the country. A few more are scheduled to return at the end of the month. At Al-Radwan, we stuffed ourselves with spiced rice, different kinds of meat, stuffed peppers and various salads, and watched the people in the street below slowly disappear as the curfew hour approached. Later, we sipped beers at our local hotel bar and tried to make small talk. It was evident that everyone had spent too much time inside with their own thoughts; all the beer in the world wasn’t going to fix the problem. People were jumpy, as well. Any loud noise was suspect. From the tenth floor roof, I could see what looked like a neighborhood watch committee (but may have just been a few young kids playing soccer) assembled in the street.

As the days go by, it seems like more and more people disappear. We meet others. We met a British journalist in the elevator at another rooftop bar the other day and we shared some shisha and popcorn and drinks with a few of his journalist friends, and listened to them swap stories. One had been detained for seven hours by the police while covering a protest; another had been citizen arrested twice, and watched army officers cut up his press card in front of him with a knife. I spent last week researching stories about business in Egypt during the political crisis, and asked my Arabic tutor yesterday if she thought the economy had been affected. “I don’t care about the economy at all,” she told me flatly. “I care that the army stops killing people.”

Her family was split, she said. Her mother supported the Ikhwan, her father the army. Her sisters were divided. One of her best friend’s husbands was at Rabaa, she told me (Rabaa al-Adawiya, one of the major pro-Morsi protest encampments until the army dissolved it last week), and they still didn’t know what had happened to him. “It’s terrible. We don’t know if he’s dead or alive. He may be in the morgue, or he may be in the trash somewhere,” she said, shaking her head.

I asked about the future. “There’s no – do you know this expression in colloquial Arabic?- no scent of hope. I don’t like the army and I don’t want Morsi. But this has to stop.”

“I heard the worst news today,” she added. “Chemical weapons in Syria. It’s terrible.” Terrible news travels quickly these days. In Egypt in particular, the military seems to be headed down the road to fascism at an alarming rate, and the majority of Egyptians (though not most of the people I’ve spoken with) are urging them on.

Slowly, however, things seem to be creeping toward normal. Yesterday was calm. Though the Anti-Coup alliance, the Brotherhood and other groups called for a “Day of Martyrs” march, the turnout was minimal and the security forces seemed relaxed, off their guard. The bloodshed has been horrible – there is no denying this. But if Egypt has anything on its side it is age and experience; the country has seen a revolution or two. I doubt the pundits and analysts predicting civil war. It’s not my country, of course. But I worry about everything my friends here say they have worked toward being thrown away.

Mona was equally discouraged, but despite her earlier comment, she gave me hope. “Yes, these days are worse than when Mubarak was in power. The fact that he’s being released is going to incite the people a great deal,” she told me, sipping her Nescafe thirstily. “However, it’s the government, the forces in power causing this division. The media right now. It’s not between the Egyptian people.”

“This is a real revolution,” she continued. “We are still in it.”

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