LETTER FROM CAIRO, FEBRUARY 2013

One Feature of the ‘new Egypt’ is car- jacking, part of a recent trend of rising crime. Illegal arms circulate freely in a country were they were once so rare there were jokes about it. For instance, the one about the farmer who wanted to kill his wife, so he put a gun in her soup (like poison, a more traditional weapon, because he didn’t know how guns work). The economic situation is partly responsible for increased theft, alongside an uneven police presence, but not all of Egypt’s new hooligans resort to violence; some use their wits in illuminating ways.

A lawyer friend told me about a scam he’d heard of from an alleged relative of the victim, a cab driver. The cabbie picked up a passenger in central Cairo whose destination was somewhere in the city’s desert outskirts. Whereas cabbies lately tend to avoid such distant fares for security reasons, the passenger was an older man in traditional galabiyya; his head-gear, prayer beads and respectful manner suggested he was a religious academic, a sheikh.

When they reached the desert highway, the sheikh took out his wallet, removed a E£50 note (around five pounds sterling) and threw it from the window. The cabbie wasn’t sure what he had seen, but a few kilometres later, the sheikh again took E£50 from his wallet and sent it flying. The cabbie was now compelled to ask why. The sheikh responded that Islam calls for charity and this was his way of distributing it. Whoever found the money probably needed it; it was all in Allah’s hands.

Another E£50 note was similarly donated while the cabbie contemplated the situation. Now that the sheikh had his attention, he took a crisp new E£200 note from his wallet, and threw it away. This was more than the cabbie could bear: ‘That one’s for me!’ he cried, stopping the car so he could recover the money. While he was out searching, you guessed it, he saw the sheikh driving away in his cab.

The story may be apocryphal, but it beautifully illustrates the state of Egypt’s political affairs and may indeed have been invented to do so. Egypt’s new constitution was recently passed in a poorly attended (32%) referendum. Written by an Islamist-dominated assembly, it was put to vote before its implications could be properly assessed and debated. In the run-up to the referendum, President Morsi took measures that basically placed the executive branch above the law, moves seen by many as reflecting the agenda of his backers, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The new constitution’s wording opens the door for the application of Islamic Law, while doing little to guarantee civil rights, especially those of women, children and minorities. Yet the constitution passed because the bulk of voters either approved or believed that an imperfect charter is better than none at all. Controversy now rages as to whether the referendum was legal or rigged, or if the constitution can be changed, but parliamentary elections are just two months off, with Islamists, the best organised parties, positioned to sweep the vote.

There were hopes, even among non-Muslims, that Egypt’s elected president, a religious man, would embody higher values than his greedy predecessor and that his government would foster the building of a just and democratic Egypt.

Many citizens feel that recent leadership has instead gone through the motions, organising elections that far from fulfilling post-revolution hopes, seem little more than ‘small change’. And while a people hungry for stability is running after it, their real wealth – Egypt’s multifaceted character and possibilities – is being cleverly spirited away.

Maria Golia

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