LETTER FROM CAIRO – MARCH 2014

Now that the third anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 uprising is behind us we can all breathe a sigh of relief; that is, those of us who weren’t arrested, gassed, wounded, killed or have relatives and friends who were not so lucky. I purposefully missed this round of celebrations, having chosen to sit it out in Upper Egypt. Had I been at home I would have heard the detonation of the bomb that rocked a neighbourhood near mine, killing several bystanders on Friday 24 January. A police headquarters was targeted but the adjacent Islamic Museum, a glorious, recently restored 19th century building, full of the exquisite treasures of the city’s past, was grievously damaged. The extent of the loss is not yet known. There were several bombs that day in Cairo. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them was that they seemed so unremarkable. We’ve all been waiting for this kind of futile violence to be added to the list. It was only a matter of time.

Nonetheless, by the afternoon of 25 January Tahrir Square had more or less filled with pro-military fans of General Sisi, widely touted as Egypt’s next president. The square was heavily protected by tanks and truckloads of policemen; everyone had to pass through metal detectors to get in. Their numbers did not seem as great as the first and second anniversaries, whether because people feared more bombs or else had trouble reconciling the idea of celebrating a revolution with the news of arrests and deaths that has filled the press and media almost daily since August of last year. Fatal clashes between those of differing political stances (pro-military, pro-Brotherhood, and pro-revolutionary against both army and Islamists) followed by heavy-handed police dispersals have become commonplace events, alongside the images of blood in the streets and of the wounded being carried away by their distraught comrades.

I was glad to be on the west bank in Luxor, where there was no pretence of celebration and no bloodshed. People were saddened and subdued by the news from Cairo but that didn’t stop them from getting on with their work, farming the land, building their houses. I also detected a note of resentment; while Upper Egypt is calm and industrious, the images issuing from Cairo had ensured that many tourists would opt to avoid the entire country for the foreseeable future. But above all, what you feel in Egypt these days is resignation. Things are the way they are, people tell you, not the way we’d wished, but there is nothing we can do but wait and hope that they get better. The same attitude characterised the years prior to Mubarak’s downfall.

Yet the events since 2011 have surely changed many Egyptians in definitive ways, particularly youth, politicising some, radicalising others, awakening courage and a sense of responsibility towards their communities but also despair because those in power have not changed a whit. Nor are those who have undergone some constructive awakening in the majority, far from it. They must be wondering what it would take to convince the rest of their compatriots that waiting and hoping that ‘a strong man’ and/or the army to solve Egypt’s ills is only deepening its malaise. So far, most Egyptians seem sufficiently sustained by their hopes to over- look the hardship and injustice that surrounds them. And just as in the years that led to Mubarak’s downfall, one can’t help but wonder how much of it they can take, and for how long.

Maria Golia