LETTER FROM CAIRO – FEBRUARY, 2014

Egyptians are not dog people; they love cats. The ancient Egyptians had fierce and beautiful cat goddesses, so maybe some of the old ways, trickling down though the ages, accounts for the preference. People didn’t necessarily keep cats as pets, but they were a feature of the streets. Cairo was Cat City.

You saw them everywhere, playing, watching and rendering the welcome service of rat control, free of charge. Shop owners fed them, setting leftover rice and whatever they could spare in bits of tin foil on the street. During religious feasts when animals are slaughtered, the cats were given their share of meat, laid out like little buffets on the sidewalk. People did not engage with the cats other than feeding them, they just accepted them as part of the landscape, something entrusted to their care.

Lately, however, cats have grown scarce in my neighborhood. No more fluffy kittens prancing around building entries, no more feral toms prowling the alleys, no more screeching cat fights at night. I first noticed the shift because I wake up early, when just after dawn you can hear dogs barking, not just a few but large numbers, their combined, agitated chorus echoing through the sleeping streets. Cairo always had the odd pack of homeless dogs, but I realised that people were now acquiring dogs and keeping them in their homes, not from some newborn love of man’s best friend, but for security. They are afraid of being robbed, assaulted; they are afraid of one another, something we never would have dreamt was possible but is becoming very real.

Since the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organisation at the end of last year, scores of their leaders and supporters have been arrested. Pro-Brotherhood demonstrations continue to take a weekly toll of lives. The media savages the Islamists with as much fervour as it lauds the army; all pretence of objectivity has been abandoned. Average Egyptians who stand with the army against the Islamists are harsh, even pitiless, creating an ambiance of unease and mistrust that until recently was alien to this city. Nor are the Islamists the only victims of this latest iteration of Egypt’s ‘my way or the highway’ governance. Activists who sparked the 25 January revolution and anyone demanding justice for the victims of state-sponsored crackdowns are being rounded up and sentenced to jail.

While some Egyptians lament the injustice, the loss of lives and dignity, they remain silent for several reasons. One is that they wish it would all end, the demonstrations, the arrests, the over- weening exercise of power the current military-led government, like those before it, has proved unable to resist. They know that some will die in the process of ‘setting Egypt straight’, but they want to live, or at least survive, and above all they want to believe that what is happening, despite the misery it costs so many, is ultimately for the best. And of course they fear arrest should they speak out; it’s an old story. Indeed, as Egypt approaches the third anniversary of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, it seems there is nothing very new about 2014. Except that Cairo, nowadays, is going to the dogs.

Maria Golia

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