LETTER FROM CAIRO, DECEMBER 2013

There’s a lot to be said for living in Cairo under curfew. The silence that reigns after midnight is more than welcome. Claxons stop blaring and the sidewalk vendors hawking their wares beneath my window stop hollering themselves hoarse and go home. Mornings are so calm that birds visit the yucca plants on my balcony; both have survived serious doses of tear gas in the last few years. The marches on my street are smaller now and rare. The rotunda of Tahrir Square has been landscaped with grass and spindly palms. Boys play soccer and families lounge there as if it were a park and not a major intersection or arena where the extremes of jubilation and despair, camaraderie and bloodletting were on display for months on end.

Traffic is light since streets feeding into the Square have been mostly walled closed, some of them for over two years. People have adopted different routes and rhythms to accommodate the changes that occurred on

4th July when the army, with the people’s blessing, ousted President Mohamed Morsi and Egypt declared its independence from the Muslim Brotherhood. Security has been tight after curfew with tanks and army personnel carriers manning frequent checkpoints; even the trains in and out of the capital have been halted. Cairo is cloaked in a preternatural calm, but there is something disquieting about the prevailing acquiescence regarding a trend of events that has placed power, once again, squarely in the hands of Egypt’s generals.

Among these, General Abdel Fatah El Sisi, Egypt’s Minister of Defence, is the public’s anointed hero, the man who delivered them from the nefarious Muslim Brotherhood, never mind he was appointed to office by the ill-fated Mr Morsi himself. Poems and songs have been composed in El Sisi’s honour, and the face of the formerly unknown 59-year old is everywhere, on posters accompanied by a photo-shopped lion, on candy wrappers, t-shirts and coffee mugs; not since Gamal Abdel Nasser has a leader’s face been so successfully transformed into a cottage industry.

The fervour with which Egyptians have embraced a new strong man may seem confusing, considering the events of 2011, when Egyptians forced the tenacious Hosni Mubarak from office, ostensibly to obtain greater freedom and some semblance of self-governance. Now it’s as if people are convinced that by dutifully respecting the curfew and its enforcers everything will be all right, the economy will fix itself, the future will open bright and promising before them. They are unaccustomed to taking charge of communities and institutions, since that was always the state’s job. They are willing to obey because they’re not sure what else to do, with no viable political parties or movements to rally behind, no national projects for rebuilding in which to take part. They are saying to El Sisi: ‘Be the one who gets us out of this!’ The problem is that no single individual can, not alone, not a man or even an army.

The tradition of deferring to authority runs deep in this patriarchal society, with good reason. Order has been maintained for millennia thanks to the people’s willingness to surrender rights to an autocratic state in exchange for sustenance and security. This formula no longer works, as the last few years of unrest suggest, but Egyptians have yet to realise it is they who must do the work of rebuilding their country, from the inside, working out. As curfew falls on Cairo, it’s as if everyone were holding their breath, so as not to disturb the tenuous balance between the past and all that is yet to come.

Maria Golia