It’s over a week now since the sit-in at Rabaa was violently dispersed by the Egyptian armed forces, and the country went from ‘tense, but more or less holding it together’ to a stage of chaos and widespread bloodshed. I spent the afternoon of August 14 wandering obliviously through downtown Cairo in the company of a new Egyptian friend, naively pleased at how empty the streets were, as it meant that I could cross streets with impunity. By 6pm we had bought some koshary and, with all the cafes closing around us, we ended up eating it on a friend of a friend’s hotel overlooking Taalat Harb Square. By this time I had caught a glimpse of a television in the hotel and figured out that something big was going on; my friend off-handedly pointed out that a 7pm curfew was in effect and walked me back to my hostel at ten to 7, blue dusk falling and the streets empty. I got back to my room and found my email clogged with messages of concern. Are you OK? Are you OK?
I’m fine, but that’s not the point. I spent the next few days more or less housebound (hostel-bound), listening to the helicopters and the gunshots coming from Ramses Square on Friday and Fath Mosque on Saturday. I fretted about getting food, because everything was closed and besides, the sounds of nearby shooting didn’t make me inclined to pop out for a snack. On Saturday evening my friend came to see me, bringing a damp bunch of roses that he had bought from a street-seller, and took me on a whirlwind tour around a local market, buying up vegetables and bread and cheese as the stalls closed down and they swabbed down the floor with bleach. We passed St Joseph’s church, guarded by soldiers with guns. My friend picked up a spend cartridge from the ground and handed it to me. I thought: if I was a different kind of person, I would write a poem about this.
I have been thinking that I should write about this, but what to write? If this were Sudan or South Sudan, I could perhaps write some sort of trenchant, insightful analysis, but this is Egypt, and I’ve barely been here two weeks. The simple fact of being here while things like this are going on doesn’t make you understand it any better. Last Friday, during the gun battle for Fath Mosque, I was glued to Twitter and the Guardian’s and Al Jazeera’s liveblogs, just as I would have been back in the UK – the only difference was that I could hear the gunshots and smell the smoke. There’s something deeply surreal about these sorts of events happening in the heart of a vibrant, highly developed city. After my time in South Sudan, I tend to associate violence and insecurity with pervasive underdevelopment. Not so here; the men with AKs are wielding them next to western chain stores. This morning I saw a couple of tanks, painted in desert camouflage and with an array of army boots resting on the top, parked outside a branch of Costa Coffee.
Every Egyptian person I meet wants to know what I think about what is going on. I try to tell them: I don’t know what I think. I am listening to people and trying to learn. Most people I speak to are holding a great weight of anger about the coverage of this crisis in the international media. “What would Obama do, what would Cameron do, if there were a group of armed terrorists holding a sit in in the middle of Washington or London?” one friend asked me. Non-Egyptians, people outside the country seem to know exactly what they think. “The world needs to act!” people say. “There was a coup!” But a coup with immense popular support. Vast swathes of the country believe that the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists. Vast swathes of the country felt genuinely terrorised under Morsi’s rule. “They were trying to change Egyptian identity,” I have been told by more than one person. “Whatever is happening now, it is better than what would have happened if they stayed in power.” One friend likened it to an operation – painful in the short-term, but far less damaging in the longer-term than letting the illness go unchecked.
In the meantime, life goes on. On Sunday, I was back at work. Over last weekend – literally while a gun battle was going on a few hundred metres away – the pavement outside my building was repaired. People are holding curfew parties; curfew playlists were trending on Twitter; this evening at 7.30pm – half an hour after the curfew started, and the streets otherwise deserted – a wedding procession drove down the street, lights flashing and horns blaring. Cairo remains Cairo. I still don’t know what I think.