These pieces under the tagline “Ringside at Tahrir” were first published in The Telegraph in February 2011
Feb 14, Cairo: The downtown is an anywhere city, a glittering boredom of globalised similitude; the same bodywear brands, the same engineering of sanitised food, the same waft of cloying perfume that has accosted you in the malls of Delhi and Calcutta, pervasive market surrogacy.
Even the women look part of the tedium, as if they’d all rolled off the democratic factory floors of worldwide fashion — streaked hair, carmen lips and scarlet talons, eyes dilated by the itch of mascara, tip-to-toe in black. This isn’t a tribute to the hijab, but when you come across one — and like our sari, it has evolved into mesmeric hues and contours — it intimates you of a culture that is still its own.
But all of that fleets by quickly in Cairo, whatever direction you head; this is the Third World, remember, cash-prosperity doesn’t stretch very long. Ismael was driving us north-east along the Corniche El-Nile, along rows of cappuccino cafes and flower-bedecked river restaurants moored to the banks. It was early in the morning, early enough to escape another street disruption and late enough so curfew wasn’t in the way. A “Moto-Sushi” delivery bike zig-zagged ahead of us, cutting perilously through traffic. “Rich people, see, very rich,” Ismael said sardonically, “Even order breakfast at home, cannot cook, breakfast come from Japan, too lazy, too rich.”
Presently, after a few ponderous puffs on his cigarette, he ventured again. “Look at ordinary man, one taxi, four children and only one wife, cannot afford more, cost too much, haha.”
But if that was Ismael’s humour, there was something determinedly black to it; it’s not another wife he really wants, he probably wants to own the cab he rents, a flat of his own, a school for his children. “You know how much I earn in a month?” he bore on, taken by an internal dam-burst, “If I do very good, I earn 2,500 Egyptian pounds a month. And I pay 20 per cent tax. And you know how much a corrupt policeman earns? One million pounds a month, two million if he is doing good. And you know how much tax he pays? 20 per cent, and probably he does not pay that at all. That’s the system, dear sir, so I cannot have two wives, haha.”
We passed an Abrams tank marooned in spools of traffic, soldiers atop it picnicking on baguettes. We passed the Giza zoo which is meant to be a rare treasury of Saharan fauna, some of it extinct beyond its confines, desert goats and gazelles you don’t see in the wild anymore. We passed the forlorn ochre palace of Hosni Mubarak’s mentor and predecessor, Anwar El Sadat, set at a remove from the Giza high street and barricaded.
Sadat was himself a dictator, but he pioneered a peace with Israel that still holds, and in death he is remembered respectfully. “He was a good man,” Ismael says, bowing his head as we pass, “Not like Mubarak. But he should decide now, go or stay, taxi men like me getting hurt, no tourist, no money.”
The finessed masonry of a modern city was beginning to fall away and giving on to overwhelming and all too familiar erosions. We crossed middle-class Menial and entered Helwan and everything lay shoved back a few centuries — nothing but a box-like accumulation of mud hovels with the odd minaret or dome whaled into the sky. And in the far distance, snouts risen from small industrial sheds, all dead.
Glistening automobiles gave way to horse and donkey carts, dainty cafes to tawdry samovar vends with their bread just piled on the pavements, the road yielded to a dirt-track. Helwan, like El Maadi or Masr El Kadima that hug it seamlessly, is typical of the impoverished sea that Cairo lies islanded in. An interminable working class warren that breathes fine dust and eats what it can put together each day.
Maghroub hawks plastic footwear on Cairo’s pavements but for the past fortnight he hasn’t been able to set up shop; there isn’t a safe enough place and there are no buyers in a capital caught in tumult. His son Noora and mate Badr have been pushing a donkey along the lanes all day, gathering garbage. “But it is just for play,” Maghroub muttered, sprawled on a tattered cot in the winter sun, “Nobody is going to give half a pound for that, but half a pound will do.”
He wasn’t particularly informed on what’s taken Cairo by storm, nor particularly interested. “Just let this business be over,” he said, “what does it matter to us who’s in charge, what matters is a livelihood, we make it ourselves, just let us make it.”
Ismael complained about a 2,500-pound wage, Maghroub said he earns 150 pounds a month. A woman, probably his wife, was dipping into an open drain for washing, flies buzz about, there was dry stench afloat, alchemised by the many ingredients of penury.
These are the children of the Sadat-era state socialism perverted under decades of profiteering by the Mubarak ruling clique that has used instruments of state to grab the goods.
Thirty per cent of Egypt’s $188 billion economy is controlled by nine per cent of its privileged elite according to a conservative estimate. Fifty per cent of the populace feeds on less than 10 per cent of that kitty.
It’s partly such raging disparity that the anti-Mubarak protests are trying to address; the poignant paradox is, the turmoil and the consequent closure are hurting the poorest the most.