Letter from Cairo
Reading the daily headlines in post-revolution Egypt, it’s hard to feel optimistic. The state has hired a private security outfit to “protect the nation’s universities” (i.e. crack down on student protests); foreign journalists and local activists are serving jail sentences, NGOs are facing a restrictive law, and even the Carter Center has closed its office, saying Egypt appears uninterested in democracy. In light of these and other developments, in addition to a sorely ailing economy and the general poor health of average citizens, you might expect people to be disillusioned or depressed. But if they are, they’re not letting on.
Returning from a summer break, I visited neighbours, the Mounir family, comprised of a widowed matriarch, four daughters and two sons, one of whom is a building guardian or boab, as was his late father before him. He’s 34, a heavy smoker and has recently had heart surgery. His wife, who gave birth to their first son nine months ago, is pregnant again. The youngest son and his wife, married less than a year, are expecting their first child. The eldest daughter is about to have her third, and one of her sisters, after having a son and later suffering a miscarriage, was nursing a newborn girl. Pregnancy wins women a special status in Egypt; they tend to eat better and work less. I wondered if the only unmarried daughter, who was busily tending to all these fecund females (in addition to her mother who at 50 can barely walk due to advanced diabetes) had considered marrying and having children herself, if only for a break in the action.
Although they are poor, largely unemployed and well-aware of the costs of child-rearing, this family is happy to be growing. They laughed when I said that if they kept this up, they would be a city of their own. “No” they said, “we are a planet, Planet Mounir.” Families indeed survive by sticking together, creating a self-sufficient world where children, they believe, multiply their options. They are undaunted by the conditions of life as they know it – the cramped housing, abysmal health and education systems and the scant job prospects for themselves and their offspring. To them it is enough that their children are Egyptian, born in Egypt, a place where people always have and always will survive.
This is not patriotism or even optimism, but a firm if irrational conviction that Egypt is finally on the road to prosperity, however winding and long that road may be. I found more proof of this attitude visiting Mostafa, a tailor forced into retirement by lack of work. Mostafa had his few remaining teeth removed three years ago and was waiting, he said, until his gums had toughened before getting dentures. I suspected he hadn”t enough money for the dental work. Then he told me he had bought EGP10,000(£833) of the bank certificates the state recently issued to essentially crowd-fund the expansion of the Suez Canal, a historic national asset. In eight days the investment certificates sold out, earning EGP64bn (£5.3bn) for the project, an outcome that exceeded all expectations.
But I was surprised at Mostafa. In the 20 years I’ve known him, he has consistently referred to Egypt’s government as “that band of thieves”. “You’d rather help build the Suez Canal rather than chew a piece of meat?” I asked. “Who can afford meat anymore?” he returned with a big toothless smile. “I don’t care about that band of thieves. I believe in Egypt.” And apparently, he’s not alone.