Why Cairo Was Calm

1982 BBC doc on Anwar Sadat, the corruption and cronyism of his Open-Door policy, and its effects on Egyptian society and the capital Cairo. Captures how economic liberalization and Egypt’s emerging neoliberal political order masked, for Western governments and media, Sadat’s authoritarianism. A preface to the Mubarak era.

Via Adam Curtis’s blog.

Waguih Ghali’s character, Ram, on old Cairo

“Font has two rooms behind the Citadel in old Cairo. His neighbors are barrow-keepers, servants, and sometimes beggars. It is the prettiest and most colorful part of Cairo and anywhere else the arties would have flocked to it, but not in Cairo. The Cairo arties, if not slumming in Europe, are driving their Jaguars in Zamalek. I would like to live in that part of Cairo; I genuinely would prefer to live there. But with me it would be gimmicky. There is a touch of gimmick in whatever I do.”

from Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, p. 31

Muizz Street Flood

The Egyptian antiquities authorities have long asserted ownership (or at least exclusive caretaker status) over historic “monuments” in Cairo, for their tourist value. But how does that square with everyday infrastructure? Yesterday Muizz Street flooded when sewage water overflowed — photos posted on Facebook show the historic architecture and urban fabric of Fatimid Cairo inundated with waste water. Apparently the flood was contained after six hours, as Ahram Online is reporting. Their story includes revealing quotes from Mohsen Sayed, head of the Islamic Antiquities Department, who blames the flood on a water pump operator. From the article:

“This is not the antiquities’ fault,” Sayed said, adding that according to the street’s development project, the Antiquities Department is paying an annual fee to operate a pumping machine that has been installed to prevent the leakage of water into the street and to pump it out if neccessary.

Regretfully, Sayed continued, sometimes the person who is in charge of the machine has left it without supervision. “This is the third time in a year that drainage water leaked into the street due to the irresponsibility of the person in charge of the machine,” Sayed told Ahram Online.

There is so little transparency and so much bureaucratic obscurity that it’s almost impossible to understand who is responsible for maintaining Muizz Street — which was “restored” in a very costly intervention by the Egyptian government, led by the Ministry of Culture with the Ministry of Housing and the Cairo Governorate, that was basically street-level beautification. The antiquities head Mohsen Sayed is from a government institution that in matters of tourist promotion, ticket sales, and restoration (for the sake of tourism), asserts control over the historic buildings on Muizz. But when sewage water overflows around those 700-year old buildings… blame the pumping machine operator.

Management and upkeep is as important to preservation and restoration as the physical projects themselves — and here the antiquities authorities have failed.

Anniversary in the city

Wednesday was the anniversary of Egypt’s January 25th uprising. Today is the anniversary of the Day of Rage, January 28th, when the people beat back the police and state security forces who had for so long cracked down on dissent and gathering in Cairo’s streets. The continued ability of Egyptians to mass mobilize, and to transform urban space into expressions of popular will and determination, is remarkable. This is my favorite photo from the revolution’s first anniversary:

Larbi Sadiki’s recent op-ed on al-Jazeera English on “January 25th and the republic of Tahrir,” captures the centrality of space and urban control in Egypt’s uprising and ongoing revolution. And images like the one above demonstrate the persistence of public gatherings and of an altered urban environment in Egypt. The city as the arena for mass protest, the millioniyyah (the millions’ march), reflects a new popular, political and social order. Gone, hopefully, is the era of authoritarian urban planning and rule.

Agency was displayed in multiple colours, prayers, words, shapes, cries, songs, dances and slogans. Perhaps, nothing equals the beauty of such creativity than Egyptians taking over the public square to make it their own and taking charge of time. That is when 31 years of dictatorial urban planning and of regimented timing ceased to have an effect.

When they re-fashioned time and space to suit the moment of liberation, the state was thrown into complete disarray. Never before in the history of humankind was there a Friday of anger. Every Friday, there were the security forces lining up the streets leading up to Al-Azhar mosque and other places where the state kept a watchful eye on citizens it distrusted and controlled via fear. Time was designed to worry about livelihood and the rest of it was apportioned between commuting, working and looking for ways to escape thinking about the things that mattered most at the subliminal level: tahrir from hunger and from tyranny, from Mubarak and from the expanding Gamal club and co.

When Egyptians, like other Arabs, discovered that to topple a state required wresting time and space from the state, they realised they found the antidote to misrule. It was licence for liberators and for liberation, inverting authoritarian orders, resisting in rebellious terms, and in ways no police force in the world was ever trained to sabotage much less handle.

Zamalek 1896

The island of Zamalek in earlier days, before it was Cairo’s leafy enclave on the Nile. Both photos read, “The quarter (district, neighborhood) of Zamalek, 1896.”

I’m posting these photos partly in reply to Mohamed’s new blog, Vintage Egypt: a visual history of mid-twentieth century Egypt (more or less?) in old advertisements. For a later but still historical image of Zamalek, here is one he found:

Letter from Cairo – LARB

“Why are we destroying our own city with our own hands?” the architect Nairy Hampikian asked last month in Magaz, an Egyptian design magazine. She was speaking of the decades of poor planning and infrastructure in Cairo under Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In the same publication, architect May al-Ibrashy wrote, “Cairo, always fast, has now become furious. Stadiums as battlegrounds… buildings as burning effigies (the list is endless but the unrivaled favorite seems to be Ministry of Interior buildings)…” Both writers may have been anticipating the urban conflict to come: in the battle for Egypt between protestors determined to be heard and a military determined to silence them, space, and who controls it, is as much the focus of the contest as anything else.

This month’s battles between military police and protesters outside the cabinet and parliament buildings, just south of Tahrir Square, are a prime example. In the early morning on Friday, December 16th, regime thugs and military police threw furniture, plates, bricks, and cement blocks onto a few hundred protesters who for three weeks had been sitting-in peacefully outside the cabinet building. The ensuing street battles were contests of space. At least thirteen people died and hundreds more were injured over the first three days, as they fought to control Qasr al-Ainy Street, a central boulevard that houses many government buildings and connects to Tahrir from the south. Like the violence of late November, when over forty protesters died fighting the Central Security Forces for control of Mohamed Mahmoud Street (one of the main arteries leading out of Tahrir Square), this latest spasm of violence was not just about freedom or human rights: it was about urban control.

In the battle of Qasr al-Ainy Street, the fight was directed against specific buildings, most of all the cabinet building from which uniformed soldiers and military police attacked protesters (one, caught on camera, even urinated on them). The buildings became symbols as well as tools of oppression, with the military attacking civilians from the rooftops. Detained protesters were dragged into the parliament, known as the People’s Assembly, where they were beaten. Rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown both at and from the cabinet building, an adjacent government office, and the Ministry of Transportation, just up the street. Regime toughs and military police attacked from the roof of the Institut d’Égypte, a valuable national archive built after Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798.

Molotovs hit the institute — exactly who threw them is not clear — and the military allowed the building to burn, along with its vast collection of two-hundred year old books and manuscripts. Soldiers didn’t try to save the volumes of national heritage housed inside; protesters did. A photo quickly spread on Twitter of a man cradling a stack of old books rescued from the burning building, his head covered with a plastic chair to protect him from rocks thrown and bullets fired by military police. The Big Pharaoh, an Egyptian blogger, posted the photo with the message: “I just want u to look at this pic closely. Look & contemplate. Look & feel proud.” According to al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt’s largest independent daily, young men who ran into the still-burning building on Saturday to save the books were shot at and hit with rocks. “They fired at us with shotguns,” a man named Ahmed told the newspaper. “A little kid was hit with 11 pellets in the neck.” Al-Masry al-Youm reported that a man carrying books from the smoldering institute had his back broken by a rock on his way out.

A salvage operation began days later outside a state archive building along the Nile, where academics, specialists, and other volunteers sifted through the charred remains of the institute’s 192,000-volume collection. “When the government wants to protect something, they do,” Ahmed el-Bindari, one of the volunteers, told the Associated Press. “Try to reach the Interior Ministry or Defense Ministry buildings. You won’t be able to.”

Read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books.