A friend of mine has just written to me asking what is happening in the "city of fatigue.” He thinks I was the one who suggested this name for Cairo. Regardless of how the name came about, it was relevant before the 25th of January. That day Phoenix happened to be Egyptian too! Why not? Isn't Cairo um el-dunia (the mother of this world)?
I am thrilled by what is happening despite all the signs that suggest I should feel differently. It is such a glorious moment for which I, as a believer in freedom as an original/essential human right, have been eagerly waiting since I became aware of this world. The moment I mean is that one to which the Tunisian poet al-Shaabbi alluded many decades ago; "it is when people WANT that even divine fate accepts their will!"
In real political terms however, even though it is a necessary condition, that "want" remains insufficient; it still requires a whole host of conditions and circumstances. First, let me narrate what has happened so far. Cairo and the Cairenes have lately looked extremely tired of the existing regime. It is no accident that the biggest movement opposing the country's corrupt system has been called “Kifaaya”, or enough, which is a term that Egyptians particularly use in daily life when they become fed up! Those who hear this term often stop their irritating and hurtful acts. Those acts consisted of the policies of successive governments that made it impossible for even the employed to live with a minimum sense of feeling human; many of my friends and acquaintances have been working at least 16 to 18 hours a day just to make ends meet. Statistics say there are many millions who live under similar conditions. Such conditions caused ordinary Egyptians to feel they are not respected even inside their own country. Many of them migrate abroad in search for better jobs. Nevertheless, even abroad many felt humiliated when the image of Egypt and the Egyptian deteriorated because of policies that explicitly and implicitly went against the principles upon which the very identity of their own Arab and Muslim country has rested for centuries.
I was very aware of these issues when I lived in Cairo during my graduate studies in the years between 1995 and 1998. Since then, I have been thrilled by the various political movements that emerged to amend the damage caused by the regime. They tirelessly engaged the system and sought any form of dialogue with the various governments. However, it has always been frustrating to witness the regime's continued ability to buy its opponents off or set different parties at each other’s throats. Throughout it was assisted by its long-standing good allies; the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The latter supported the regime and, of course, asked for something in return; Egypt’s assistance in protecting and maintaining the Israeli and American dominance over the whole region of the Middle East. Such an exchange has been glaringly obvious even to those who know very little about politics in the Middle East.
Although said out loud by hundreds of thousands if not millions, the word Kifaaya did not cause the regime to change its destructive policies. Lately it has even looked totally indifferent to what people may think of or feel about it; to add insult to injury and long after the rise of Kifaaya, the regime dared to fake the parliamentary elections, to raise prices and to arrest thousands of political activists representing millions of those who have been fatigued by the country's unbearable conditions. The MPs who represent the pro-regime party (called, probably mockingly, the National Democratic Party) are the majority. The greatest majority of those, however, are accused of winning their seats through rigged elections. The Egyptian ability to “engineer” elections is one of the most advanced in the region; many candidates from the opposition cannot run for election because of false legal suits. Others are deported, exiled or imprisoned. Those prevented from partaking in politics represent the majority of the Egyptians living under the exhausting conditions mentioned above. Those who are allowed to seize or even monopolize politics are those who support the regime’s policies and the conditions they created.
Some dimension should be added to the conditions under which Egyptians live however. Sociologically speaking, what appear to be unbearable conditions currently in Egypt have arisen when the country experienced the best economic growth in its recent history. It is true that that growth has not been associated with an even distribution of income. It is true, too, that it was associated with high rates of corruption. Nevertheless, it is also true that it led to the creation of a "new middle class," so to speak. I say new because it is different from the old state-connected middle class that developed under Nasser and Sadat who ruled from 1952 to 1981, when Mubarak came to power. The new class has been nourished by and flourished on the opportunities made available through the neo-liberal economic policies followed by the late Sadat and strengthened by Mubarak. These policies further opened up the country to the outside world, provided new means of communication including, most significantly, the by-now affordable Internet. As the general conditions of the country have improved, the needs and the aspirations of all the population have developed. They also started to compete much more fiercely. One example may make things clearer. Taxi drivers in Cairo today drive cars that are much better than those they drove back in the eighties and nineties. The cars now are brand new flashy machines purchased through bank loans. They come with many means of comfort including AC, automated gears, windows, etc. Although living under enormous pressure drivers are now able to compare and aspire to cars similar to those owned by individuals enjoying higher incomes. In my conversations with many drivers I would ask, “Well why do you have to buy this car with a loan and then you have to work extra hours that you think may even kill you to make the repayments?” All the men with few exceptions said it was the pressures of life that pushed them to buy the car. When asked to list those pressures they mentioned needs that I know have not previously been normal parts of life for these drivers or their groups now aspiring to private schooling for their kids, owning an apartment or having a cell phone, etc.
Paradoxically, these needs and aspirations have been on the rise along with the conditions that made their attainment less and less possible. The uneven development of income along with the kinds of corruption that have long existed in Egypt made it very clear to all in Cairo that the distance separating the high and low income groups can only increase and thus further reduce the chances for the present and following generations to enjoy the perceived huge wealth of their own country. This idea gave birth to a grim image of the future; if the present conditions continue to exist life for the majority of the Egyptians can only get worse. Many said that it made them literally lose their ability to dream. It is no accident that these words are said by people who work for too many hours, which means that they don't get enough sleep and thus literally cannot dream!
How on earth could they dream after the means that assisted them to become what they are have been sold to privately owned firms owned only partly by Egyptians? And what kind of Egyptians? They are the ones who monopolised most governmental posts and became shareholders in the companies they themselves had established. In a sense, they somehow sold the public sector to themselves. The commodity sold though represented something very dear to Egyptians. The public sector in Egypt is a complex socio-political space that helped Egyptians make sense of the modern world they had to live in. Most significantly, it provided them with their basic needs such as food, education and the health care services that enabled them to dream of a better future. Now there is no public sector. What is available instead is a competitive market requiring high standards of education and social skills that can be purchased for money. But where to get the money from? The answer under the present conditions is from nowhere. The vast majority of the country’s wealth has been appropriated through legal and illegal deals by a small oligarchy headed by Mubarak. That fact has been lately pushed under the nose of Egyptians and made them wake up. In no way can dreams make things better.
The present revolt therefore reveals a sober will for better living conditions and from a holistic point of view. Its proceedings make clear the kind of manoeuvres and tricks that have been practiced on the Egyptians at least for the last three decades. First, it caused the regime to panic and thus exposed the tricks it has used as never before. The government in Egypt has ruled people through their stomachs as it were; it always made them afraid they would lose subsidies for basic foods, thus become hungry and probably die! Next, it always made people feel they were a burden on the government which always had to go for loans in order to cover the expenses of "feeding them", as Mubarak himself once told the parliament in a speech broadcast live on TV. These two threats were used at the beginning of the revolt. Banks were closed, a curfew was announced and people were unable to bring their own groceries. After a short time, however, the Egyptian people managed to get things done in their own inimitable creative ways. Then the government tried the security issue. The police were withdrawn from the streets. That was to tell people “You see, if you get the food you won't be able to eat it in peace … you may even get killed because there are many poor people living in slum areas who would attack you like locusts”. A friend of mine who belongs to the middle class literally used this image shortly after the police disappeared. He tried to encourage me to hide in my house and take all precautions possible to protect my family. But I walked freely in the streets and soon noticed that many men like my friend were patrolling the neighbourhood while carrying sticks, baseball bats and chains in their hands and knives under their belts. They were afraid of men from the slum areas around our neighbourhood infiltrating our streets in order to loot. It was like a nightmare when I started to believe that lie. So I walked around to get rid of that image. However, I was blocked by other men who looked like my middle-class friend although much younger. They asked to see my ID and then forced me to return to my house. The image they drew was so intriguing; they said “the mob must be approaching now, you should be careful, go bring any kind of stick with which you can defend yourself”. One my colleagues dared to go around on her bike next morning. There was no trace of mobs of any kind, let alone looting or theft. It seemed like a good, normal, safe Cairene morning.
A few blocks away the government played another trick. A tank stationed a few blocks from my house fired a few shots every other hour or so. The news spread that the shots were to deter prisoners from running away. Other people said prisoners did get out. The fear intensified. On TV some prisoners were shown with some bank notes and herbs that looked liked hashish in front of them. The news said they were among the many prisoners caught. The whole idea was “you see, we are the secret of your own safety”. In the same vein are all the other tricks that aimed at demonising the demonstrators and the entire revolt; bombing the gas line to Israel, murdering some foreigner in al-Tahrir Square, etc.
When the regime despaired, they resorted to the use of sheer force and terror. They mobilised their own police to demonstrate undercover as people who support Mubarak. However, that did not work either; soon the mercenaries became tired and even scared of the millions who woke up to look for their dream under the beautiful sun of their beloved land.