Text Message from Cairo
The Mood in Tahrir Square Months After the Revolution
Cairo's taxi drivers are great for rumors: They read the papers, they watch the state news on TV, and they believe neither. Even though they're initially reluctant to answer questions about politics, they usually warm to the topic and talk nonstop, animatedly and enthusiastically, as they navigate the endless chaos of the roads. (A Japanese study is rumored—because in Cairo, everything is rumored—to have predicted that all traffic in the city should come to final, total gridlock in 2014.)
My friend Pete Wieben—a young American writer working in advertising—translates from the front seat. He is married to a cosmopolitan Cairene and lives in a respectable neighborhood of embassies and expatriates on an island in the Nile.
Every Egyptian seems expectant, but not necessarily anxious, about what will come next. Will the military allow the scheduled elections in the fall? Are they paying the old secret police to incite sectarian violence between Copts (Coptic Christians) and conservative Salafi Muslims? Are they trying to create an image of a destabilized Egypt in order to hold onto power?
One example of the destabilization: When I arrived in Cairo last month, nobody knew what time it was. Onboard the plane, the British pilot cheerfully announced our arrival time, only to be met by a chorus of Egyptian women correcting him—the military had canceled daylight savings time. Nobody I spoke with knew exactly why, but everybody agreed that the officers had overstepped their "caretaker" authority. But then people were quick to point out that the change would help with Ramadan in August, allowing everyone to eat an hour earlier.
As life in Cairo goes on, revolution fatigue has taken hold. There was supposed to be a "Second Revolution" the Friday after my arrival—a day to protest the pace of change and put some pressure on the military—but the conversation on Twitter showed a lack of resolve: "Let's have revolution 2 next week. am away this weekend." The 18-day revolt that galvanized the world in January and February was a miracle, but many Egyptians are now happy with the "soft revolution" and its landing. President Hosni Mubarak is gone, there is some hope for civilian rule, and life seems to go on—art exhibitions celebrate protest films and paintings, apothecaries are still selling lizard tails, posh clubs are full and festive, police are still directing traffic, and basic services have been seamlessly maintained.
When Barack Obama gave his big policy speech on the Middle East and North Africa, locals couldn't be bothered to watch. Ed, a photographer from the New York Times, said the Times had asked him to take photographs of people reacting to Obama's speech. But when he made the rounds, he couldn't find anybody watching. (Cairo is mad for professional wrestling these days, and nobody could be bothered to change the channel.) Ed finally found a coffee shop where the clientele was channel surfing, and he encouraged them to watch Obama's speech—which they did for about five minutes before declaring the speech "boring" and changing the channel.
Despite the collective satisfaction of deposing a despot who is rumored to have stashed away billions of dollars, democratic fervor seems to be a temporary distraction from a looming crisis. And while it's not at the top of the discussion list, many people in Cairo think the "democracy movement" is a sideshow. Corruption and feeding the people are the main events.
Egypt has been dominated by the military for decades, and the military has generally been respected (due, in part, to universal conscription for men). Mubarak, a former officer, could not have ruled for 30 years without the backing of the military. And the military officers would not have backed him if they hadn't gotten a piece of the pie, including a separate military aid budget from the US (according to WikiLeaks) that kept officers happy as they pocketed money from fake factories built with military-contract funds. These factories remain sparkling clean because they've never actually made anything, according to an American I talked to who works in a steel factory outside Cairo.
One day when we were out on the sidewalk smoking sheesha, we were joined by an exuberant Egyptian on leave from her post as a United Nations refugee services specialist. When I asked what she thought would happen in "post-revolution" Egypt, her passion was equal to the taxi drivers', as was her confidence in her own opinion. Egypt has always been corrupt, she told us, but the rulers have always followed the age-old principle of "Oriental despotism": Steal, but let them live. The problems that Egypt is now beginning to confront have arisen because the regime, in its greed, forgot the second half of the equation: Let them live. The World Bank says that people in Egypt who live on $2 a day live at the poverty line. Recent estimates from the UN suggest that about 44 percent of Egypt's population lives in "extreme or near poverty," and that percentage is increasing despite a much-heralded rise in the country's gross domestic product. (Translation: The country is good for corporate investment and profit, but with double-digit inflation, real income for the poor has collapsed since 2005. Egypt is another case study in the failure of trickle-down economics—the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.) For many of the Cairo intelligentsia, this is a disaster that hasn't disappeared with the Arab Spring uprisings.
The poor and hungry Egyptians who stand in line for subsidized bread—and who get into fights with each other when the bread runs out—are not on Twitter. When you are hungry, democracy is a sideshow. Egypt might be an interesting example of the structural limits of capitalism: a nation and people at the periphery of the developed world, at the edge of the capitalist universe as it begins to slowly contract, unevenly perhaps, but nevertheless totally and permanently. Theorists refer to the beginning of the end of capitalism as the "long decline," the final phase that began with "monopoly capitalism" in the late 19th century.
When the revolution started, Pete Wieben and his friend Adham Bakry worked for the same advertising firm. Adham is a designer and graffiti artist. When Tahrir Square started heating up, both of them were too distracted and excited to go to work. Pete remembers being in a meeting on January 28, discussing the launch of a new hair gel for men and wondering why the hell he was there. Adham was stenciling paintings for the revolution, and when he took a break to check in with his boss, the response was unanticipated: "You're going to ruin the economy and the country. You're going to put us all in the poor house." Adham told him it was time for a change: "My father always told me that it takes five generations to make a gentleman. This revolution might fail, but we'll have another."
Adham admits that he is not really sure what the revolution hopes to accomplish, but he has a keen sense that Egypt can only get better.
While I was in Cairo, the G8 backed away from French president Nicolas Sarkozy's bid for $40 billion in support for the emerging democracies of the Arab Spring. They issued a deliberately confusing "declaration" of financial aid. Going into the summit, everybody was on the same page, recognizing the urgent need for "job growth" to stabilize and support the democracy movement. Given the West's irrational embrace of austerity economics and the notable lack of success in addressing the needs of workers in their own nations, I worry how long the poor, the hungry, and the unemployed will have to wait for change they can believe in. The crisis is building—and the architects of power and economy don't have any new ideas.
These are pretty damn insurmountable odds. Egypt is a hair's breadth away from a military dictatorship. Steal or let them live—but everyone could be, or should be, satisfied with stealing a little less.