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Posts from the ‘Politics’ Category

April in Cairo

We’re in that Spring/Summer transition here and I have some serious cabin fever. At least on the hot days. It hit 100 degrees last week and all I wanted was to be on a beach somewhere. A few days later it was freezing and I had no interest in going out at all.

Not that I haven’t been able to get away. I borrowed a generous friend’s house in Greece recently to get some writing done. The trip was logistically challenging and the weather was awful, but it was really nice to be back in Europe. It reminded me of what I have to look forward to in Paris. Yes, the boys and I will be relocating to Paris over the summer, and we will spend at least the next four years there.

I have mixed feelings about leaving Egypt. There’s still so much I haven’t done here, on the work front and on the tourism front. I’ve spent way more time stuck in Maadi than I would have liked, and not for any good reason. There are still a ton of places I’d like to see and people I’d like to interview and cultural events I’d like to attend. Oh, and Arabic I’d like to learn. Really, I could use another year here.

What I have, though, is four months, give or take, and I am working on making the most of them. I had planned with a friend to go to a lovely outdoor roast chicken restaurant out near the Saqqara pyramids last Saturday, but the weather turned cold and windy and it looked like sandstorms were a distinct possibility, so we bailed.

The BF and I are heading to Alexandria this weekend, and the weather there looks pretty nice. I’m really looking forward to it—I’ve been wanting to get up there for years, but have never been. I’m hoping this will be the first of many trips I manage to sneak in before I move.

Our leaving Egypt isn’t all bad —although I am dreading the apartment hunt in Paris. I’m not sure why. I’ve done it a million times before, but this time feels strangely onerous. I keep hoping that someone out there knows someone with an apartment to sublet in the neighborhood I want to live in and I can forgo the logistical nightmare. I guess two years between apartment hunts isn’t enough respite for me.

On the upside, though, it’ll be nice to live in Europe again. My time in Greece gave me a little reminder, and it was pretty great. There are all these little things you don’t even notice when you live in the West that, after being in Egypt, are such delights: orderly traffic, clean stores with pretty displays, organic food, safe and reliable transportation. Life is just less stressful, or at least the stresses there are have less to do with daily survival.

And yet, I’ll miss that aspect of life in Egypt. Life in the developed world is so, well, ordinary—at least for someone like me who grew up there. I’m sure if you were raised in the developing world and moved to the West it would feel pretty extraordinary. I remember when I lived in the Soviet Union hearing stories of Soviets hyperventilating the first time they saw Western supermarkets because they had never seen such overabundance.

Lack of options isn’t the issue in Egypt. It’s the uncertainty that gets to one here. We are constantly waiting for the next power outage, water outage or other imminent inconvenience. And yet…in the West where those things are so much rarer people find worries with which to fill their minds and time, so insignificant things often take on oversized importance. Living here taught me not to sweat the little stuff. I’m going to try to hold on to that perspective, but I’m not at all sure I’ll be able to in the long term.

On the political front, now feels like as good a time as any to be leaving. There’s certainly not much happening anymore that’s Arab Spring-like. Parliamentary elections have yet to be scheduled, members of the Muslim Brotherhood continue to be sentenced to death in Egyptian courts (and President Sisi just declared that anyone who was caught digging tunnels from Gaza to Sinai would also face the death penalty), and a court just ruled that the police could deport gay foreigners. How they’re going to decide who is gay, I have no idea.

Terrorism doesn’t show any sign of letting up, either. The assaults on security forces in Sinai continue, as do random bombings and shootings in the rest of the country. The Jerusalem Post recently published an article querying Sisi’s ability to tackle the problem, and it’s a fair question. It’s possible that the Brotherhood and related groups just have too much support inside Egypt to be quashed. That remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the regime’s repressive crackdown hasn’t had the desired effect.

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Dark Days

A sandstorm has had Cairo under a blanket of grit for two days now. It’s pretty awful. Just a couple of minutes outside leaves you with a coating of dust and sand in your hair. Visibility is down to next to nothing and the whole city is cloaked in a jaundiced pall.

The external drabness fits the mood here. People in Egypt seem more despondent than they have been in a long time. It’s been clear for a while now that the government under the nation’s beloved President Sisi is as repressive as any that came before it. Random bomb attacks against military and police still take place in Cairo and its environs, and the insurgency in Sinai against the security forces there continues. Militants dealt a particularly debilitating blow at the end of January in coordinated attacks that killed at least 26 people. And on the fourth anniversary of the revolution, the mother of a 5-year-old boy was killed by police birdshot while marching to lay a wreath of flowers in Tahrir Square.

That’s not the end of it. This week at least dozens of soccer fans were killed when police fired teargas at a crowd trying to storm a stadium. The victims were almost all young men, between the ages of 19 and 23. The senseless deaths seemed to be more than many here could take. One friend of mine said his cab driver was fighting back tears while talking about the tragedy the next day. For the moment, the love affair between the people and Sisi’s government is cooling.

There was one positive development: the release of Peter Greste, one of the three Al Jazeera journalists who have been in prison here since last December for, well, doing their jobs. They were accused of being in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in Egypt, and of reporting false news that damaged national security here.

The charges were preposterous. Greste and his colleagues were well known among the press corps as reputable, mainstream journalists who had worked with a number of international news outlets, including BBC and CNN. And while much of the Egyptian public believed the three were guilty (why would they have been arrested otherwise??), plenty of those in power here knew the case against them was nonsense. Prosecutors were unable to produce a shred of credible evidence against the trio. And yet, Greste languished in jail for 400 days and his colleagues are still there.

The pressure to free them was constant and considerable, and Sisi felt it. Eventually, it paid off for Greste, an Australian citizen, who was released under a recently passed law allowing for the deportation of foreigners charged with crimes. His colleague Mohamed Fadel Fahmy is Egyptian-Canadian; there were reports that he will renounce his Egyptian citizenship so he, too, can be deported. The rumor mill was in full force earlier this week, predicting that he’d be released within hours, but as of this writing he remains in jail.

The most worrisome case is that of the third journalist, Baher Mohamed. He is an Egyptian citizen with no other nationality, so the law allowing deportation doesn’t apply to him. His fate will be decided during his retrial, which is set to begin tomorrow. If Fahmy isn’t out by then, and it looks like he won’t be, he, too, will be retried. Amal Clooney (yes the heartthrob’s wife) is one of the lawyers defending Fahmy and is reportedly coming to Cairo this week to push for his release. Given how things have gone for them with the Egyptian legal system so far, I can’t imagine either man is feeling particularly positive about their prospects in court, but at least Fahmy has a possible get-out-of-jail card in his Canadian passport. And a higher court said this week that it had ordered the retrial because of a lack of evidence in the earlier proceedings, so that could be a good sign.

The whole thing has been a PR disaster for Egypt, leaving many Westerners scratching their heads as to why the government didn’t find a way to release the three a long time ago. From a local context makes more sense; it has little to nothing to do with the men who were arrested, and far more to do with a feud between Qatar and Egypt. Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera, supported the former Islamist regime in Egypt, putting it at odds with the current government here, which outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and is doing everything it can to suppress the group. What’s more, Al Jazeera, which is owned by Qatar, operated an Egyptian channel, which was sympathetic to the Brotherhood. Given that, in the eyes of ordinary Egyptians, the three men were guilty simply by association.

Recently, though, relations between Egypt and Qatar have thawed a bit, and Al Jazeera shut down its Egyptian channel—a move that some believed paved the way for Greste’s release.  One can only hope that the other two men will be freed soon as well. Sadly, there are plenty of other journalists languishing in jail in near anonymity.

UPDATE: They’re out on bail. Good news, at least for now.

http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/retrial-remaining-al-jazeera-reporters-open-egypt-28911884?via=newsletter&source=CSAMedition

Wonderland on the Nile

So this is what it feels like to slip down the rabbit hole.

I mean, I’m assuming that’s what happened here because, struggle as I may, I can’t find much connection at all between reality and what’s going on in Egypt these days.

Egypt’s transformation to Wonderland has been in process for quite a while, but the country seemed to have finally completed the process the week before last, when all outstanding charges against former president Hosni Mubarak were dismissed, including the murder charges relating to the killing of protestors during the 2011 uprising.

After nearly four years of waiting, the tens of thousands of people who took to the streets to demand his overthrow and, more saliently, the families of the people who gave their lives fighting for a new, better Egypt, didn’t even get their day in court.

On top of that, Mubarak and his sons were also acquitted of corruption charges against them, which heightens the Carrollian atmosphere, because I’ve never met an ordinary Egyptian who didn’t think they were corrupt. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t have jury trials.

Egyptians reacted, of course. A few thousand of them took to Tahrir Square, but security forces shooed them away with tear gas and birdshot before too long. There have since been some more demonstrations at universities and other sites around the country but the massive show of popular will we’ve seen in the past is notably absent.

Apathy wasn’t the most visible response. When the verdict was announced, the courtroom erupted in sustained cheers. Television presenters extolled the decision. Dalia Ziada, the head of an organization called, without intended irony, the Liberal Democracy Institute, told the New York Times the country needed to “move on.”

It certainly seems Mubarak has. Within hours of his acquittal, a picture tagged as his first selfie was making the rounds on social media. And while he’d made all his court appearances on a stretcher because of his supposed poor health, in his own photo he was sitting up and looked surprisingly good for a man of 86.

So here we are, four years after the revolution, if we still want to call it that—although now, apparently, we will have to, because last week President Sisi said he is preparing a law that will make it illegal to criticize either the January 25, 2011 revolution or the revolution of June 30, 2013. I suppose that’s one way to finally silence the debate over whether the 2013 events constituted a coup or a revolution, at least inside Egypt.

I’m not quite sure how the proposed law squares with the constitution Egyptians passed amid much fanfare less than a year ago that guarantees freedom of speech. Or how those enshrined freedoms are reflected in another new law that forbids government employees from talking politics at work.

It’s all part of the confusion here. There’s plenty to go around. For example, Egyptian officials insist that homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt—and it isn’t—but at least 25 men were arrested in a bathhouse this week for “debauchery.” So being gay and saying what you think are officially legal—but if you are or you do, you get thrown in jail.

And it gets even more perplexing. Three people were arrested on a Cairo subway for simply speaking English because, as everyone knows, if you speak English you are, de facto, a spy. That same day prominent U.S. scholar Michelle Dunne, who has been outspoken in her criticism of the current regime, came to Cairo to attend the conference of what she tweeted was a pro-government organization, only to be detained for hours at the airport and denied entry. The Egyptians seem to be trying to minimize the fallout but so far have succeeded only in digging a deeper hole.

While there’s a growing undercurrent of disillusionment about the state of affairs here, Egyptians aren’t saying much about the dismal developments, nor are Western governments. It’s not difficult to see why—the West needs a stable Egypt from which to fry bigger fish in the region and Egyptians are tired of unrest and upheaval. All of that is understandable, but one has to wonder how long the subjugation of people’s rights can continue without repercussions.

Dining with History

Autumn has come to Cairo.

Looking at all the glorious photos of fall foliage in the Northeast of the U.S., it feels a little silly saying that, but there’s been a little nip in the air. Sure, the daily highs are still in the mid-70s or low 80s, but at night it’s been dipping into the low 60s. That feels colder here than it sounds. Air conditioners are off and it’s too chilly to walk barefoot in the house. Last night on the way to dinner I left my sweater in the cab, and I regretted it the rest of the evening.

I’ve been following through on my resolution to get out of the bubble more, and last night’s dinner was part of that. Friends of a friend from New York were passing through Egypt on a three-month round-the-world trip, so we met up at a storied establishment in the heart of Belle Epoque Cairo called Café Riche. It opened in 1908 and has been a haunt of Cairo’s intellectuals ever since.

The whole vibe is very un-Cairo. With its wood-paneled walls; its faded black-and-white photos of Cairo’s most influential cultural figures; its scattered disarray of books, papers and random memorabilia; and the klatch of old men gabbing over steaming plates, Café Riche feels a bit like a cross between the Friar’s Club and Barney Greengrass, for those of you who know New York. The night we were there, it felt like almost everyone else in the restaurant was a regular.

Café Riche has been the backdrop of many a seminal event in Egyptian history. An assassination attempt on the Prime Minister was staged from its doorway in 1919 (he survived). That same year, revolutionaries used the basement as a secret meeting space from which they agitated for the overthrow of their British rulers, and in 1952 Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser plotted his own coup from the comfort of a Riche table, this one against King Farouk, who reportedly met his wife at the coffeehouse. And Egypt’s favorite songbird, Umm Kalthoum once held a concert there.

The days when famous writers such as Naguib Mahfouz could be found loitering over Turkish coffee are gone, but the tables are still populated with a cast of fascinating characters. We were having an entertaining conversation of our own at our table, but I would have loved to have been able to talk to some of the other guests. I have a hunch many of the same people would be there if I ever manage to make a repeat visit. That is definitely now on my to-do list.

I fear I may have to erase another item on that list, though. I’ve been wanting to go camping with the kids in the White Desert, which looks absolutely stunning. A while ago one of the embassies issued a warning about going there, and this week Egypt’s most active militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, swore allegiance to ISIS. That can’t be good. The desert may well be perfectly safe, but I’m going to watch this one play out for a while before I dust off my sleeping bag.

We never did make it up to Alexandria, and with the holidays coming up our weekends are pretty packed. It looks like we might have to wait until spring. That’s okay. There’s plenty to explore in Cairo in the meantime.

Routine Drama

We’ve been back in Cairo for just over a week and Paris already seems a lifetime away. I think adjusting to the difference in food was the toughest for all of us.

Not that we’re not happy to be back. We are, very much, but I’m glad the trip—as wonderful as it was—is behind us. Now we can focus on life here. I keep thinking about how little time we have left, but I came across a photo of the day our boxes arrived from New York and realized that was only six months ago. It feels like ages. So there’s plenty we can do and experience in the 10 or so months we have left. I’m looking forward to it.

We’re in the midst of a typically Cairene experience, and one we’ve had before. We’re in deep with another stray kitten. He’s adorable, but would have been impossible to ignore anyway, circling my front yard with the loudest and most incessant meow I’ve ever heard. I got the vet to come examine him, because I was worried he was going blind in one eye (you’ve gotta love a vet who makes house calls). He said the kitten, a little ginger fellow who the boys call Rocky and the gardener calls mesh mesh (apricot) was about 5 weeks old and has a type of herpes virus in his eye that is common in street cats, and gave me a prescription for drops. The vet also said that the non-stop mewling was an SOS call, and that Rocky must have lost his mother. Poor little guy.

We set up a little home for him in our laundry shed. There’s a pipe that he can go through to get in and out. So can the other two kittens I’ve been feeding, who are a few months older than Rocky. At first I was worried they were going to take his food from him, but they seem to have taken him under their wing. And not only for the good. The first couple of days Rocky stayed close to the house, but then we found him wandering down the street with one of the bigger kittens. They’re already taking our sweet little guy out on the town and teaching him the ways of the world. They grow up so fast these days.

Trouble is, now it’s been two days and he hasn’t come back. O swears he saw him at the house across the street, where they put out tons of food each day, and the bawab tells me the same thing. I hope they’re right. I just want to give him his eye medicine.

Things in Egypt continue as usual. Life continues to feel pretty normal, but there are tensions bubbling below the surface that seem destined to flare up at some point. There was a bombing downtown, and 12 people were injured. The bomb went off at midnight, so I suppose it could have been much worse.

The government continues to keep the Al Jazeera journalists and many activists in jail, and some of them are on a continued hunger strike. One young man, who has dual Egyptian-American citizenship, is seriously ill and it seems as though he could die soon. The government doesn’t seem inclined to do anything about it. So the military regime is back in full force.

On the other hand, Egypt does feel considerably more stable, although with the current levels of repression you have to wonder how long that can last. In any case, foreign companies are showing renewed interest in expanding here. There’s a delegation of US businesses set to come next month to explore opportunities for investment, and the word is that tourism is picking up. Egyptians, for the most part, are just happy to have a return to normalcy.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the as-yet-unscheduled parliamentary elections. I saw a news story today predicting that the new parliament will be dominated by military types; I see no reason to assume that won’t be the case.  There is still no party nearly as powerful and as organized as the Brotherhood was, so with them out of the picture Egypt is looking at a political vacuum.

CAT UPDATE:

After nearly two days with no Rocky sighting, I think I saw him across the street last night practicing climbing trees, although it was dark so I couldn’t be sure. The kitten I saw was with what appeared to be its mother, and when I approached him the mother growled at me. I tried to get a look at his eye. It seemed to be okay but I couldn’t really tell. Some locals had staged a TNR (trap, neuter, release) campaign recently, so it’s possible the mother got caught up in that and just found her way home.

Migrations

I’m enshrouded in the fog of jet lag. I got back to Cairo a few days ago after spending a week in New York and Philadelphia for my 25th college reunion. It was fantastic fun and great to get a little break from Cairo.

I had a hard start back in Cairo. We have all the usual end-of-school year stuff to contend with but, as we’re learning, June has an added punch when you have kids in international school: the big goodbye. Both boys have close friends whose families are leaving Egypt when school lets out, so there has been a mad crush of farewell parties on top of the normal schedule of year-end concerts and plays and conferences.

A few days after I got back we threw a party at our house for one of X’s departing friends—this one returning home to China. Fortunately another mother helped and did the heavy lifting of cooking and baking. We’d recently bought a ping pong table from one of the many leaving families, which we had delivered the day before the party, so the kids were taken care of. We just pushed them outside and they played in the garden and had a ping pong tournament. I don’t know what I’m going to do when we’re back in an apartment without a yard. It makes entertaining the boys so much easier.

The glut of families moving on has given us the opportunity to further furnish the apartment. Right before I left I made a mad dash to get it in better shape for O’s parents, who came to visit while I was away. I had a carpenter come put shelves up (they’re falling down now, probably a function of our uneven walls as much as anything), had him build an extra closet and bought a little commode so there would be a bit more storage in the guest room. Oh, and we bought a big sideboard for the living room and moved the one there to the dining room so we have room for glasses and platters and the like.

But I still need more, so have been scouring the moving sales. It’s madness. There are two main Facebook pages where expats in my neighborhood post things for sale, one in English and the other in French. For a couple of days I would see something I liked, take a moment to consider it, and by the time I checked again it would be gone. When I looked more closely I saw that items go within minutes of being posted. Sherif, the carpenter, told me there are a couple of expats who buy everything and sell stuff on that they don’t want, and a few Egyptians who resell whatever they buy from the expats at a profit. So I’m getting aggressive. I did manage to score a lamp and a couple of rugs, which I have yet to pick up, but those were from a friend. By the time I get this place finished, we’ll be getting ready to move again and I’ll have to sell it all.

This is a big week on the political front. As I write this, people are lining up all over Egypt to vote in the presidential elections for General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  Notice I didn’t just say “vote in the presidential elections.” No, pretty much everyone out there is voting for Sisi. Journalists tweeting from polling stations around Egypt have been hard pressed to find anyone voting for his opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi. One journalist reported finding a Sabahi voter, who was promptly set upon by the crowd upon admitting that he’d done so. Sisi won Egyptian hearts and minds when he pushed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi out of the presidential chair, and he won 95 percent of the expat vote, which took place last week.

Women line up to vote

Women line up to vote

Voting continues today, but the result is a foregone conclusion. The government is worried about the low turnout so declared today a holiday, but with temperatures hitting 108 the polling stations are largely empty. The news reports say that the election committee is going to fine anyone who didn’t go to vote. If you don’t hear from me for a while, assume I’ve gone underground to avoid prosecution.

UPDATE: The election committee reportedly declared a third day of voting. They are determined to get that turnout number up!

Spring Break!

We have boxes. Ninety-one of them, to be exact. What we don’t have is furniture, i.e. anywhere to put all the stuff in said boxes. Which means we have piles of books on the floor and heaps of clothes on the bed in the spare room. All you friends I invited to come visit? Hold off for a couple of weeks or so, unless you want to sleep on mounds of ski jackets. Not that you’ve all been pounding my door down… But fear not. I am finally motivated to deal with our furniture shortage. Somehow it didn’t feel so dire when we didn’t need any more than we had. A couch, beds, a desk—that seemed like enough until now.

Anyway…the boxes got here just in time. We had run out of cat food the day before. Yes, we have been shipping in cat food from New York all these months. (Just ask the few visitors we’ve had, or O’s work colleagues, who have all been kind enough to come bearing pouches of Weruva). Pathetic, I know, but we have the most finicky cats in the world (not that they particularly like the stuff we give them) and our vet in NY said that the grocery store brands that are available here are the nutritional equivalent of feeding our children Doritos all the time.

A friend of mine said when I was done unpacking I’d wonder how l lived without all my stuff. I’m having the opposite reaction. I’m wondering why I have it. I didn’t miss it at all (except maybe the kitchen supplies and the bedding), and now that it’s here I feel weighed down by it. It’s been an interesting experience. I didn’t bring any personal mementos—no photos, no letters, nothing at all that had any nostalgic value. I wasn’t conscious of their absence until the shipment came, but there was a lightness that came from not being tethered to the past. Even the books I’m unpacking, with their memories of where I was when I read them and what was happening in my life at the time, bring with them a certain heaviness.

Boxes!

Boxes!

The stuff arrived a couple of days after we got back from our spring break trip to a resort on the Red Sea called El Gouna. It’s a super-secure gated development about a 30-minute drive from Hurgada, and everything has been meticulously planned out. And I mean planned. There is little that is organic about it. Think Disney on the sea. O said it reminded him of Celebration, the Disney town in Florida. T also drew the Disney comparison. Having grown up on the beaches of Southern California, the uber-groomed vibe wasn’t my cup of tea (and the beaches aren’t particularly nice), but I can see why Egyptians love it. It is the absolute opposite of the rest of the country. Not a chaotic moment to be had.

And it is lovely. There’s a beautiful marina surrounded by restaurants, and a little downtown area with eateries serving some of the best meals we’ve eaten in Egypt (if you go, you must try the superlative Zia Amelia, which is run by a couple of Italians). We chose to go to Gouna for the sailing school. I am now convinced that sailing is best learned in childhood. I loved being on the water but ducking under the boom as we endlessly practiced tacking and jibing was exhausting. O and I both wound up with scraped knees; the boys, on the other hand, had no idea what we were complaining about. They barely had to bend to let the thing pass over their heads.065

We’ve had more adventures with urban wildlife, this time in the form of a baby mongoose that seems to be living somewhere in our back yard. We’ve tried to take a picture of it several times but it’s a bit camera shy. Very cute ,though.

We’ve been ever so slightly more mobile since O leased a car for work. During the week he has a driver who takes him to and from the office and I don’t have much access to it, but on the weekends we drive it around Maadi. Anyone who’s been to Cairo knows how utterly insane driving here is. There are essentially no rules, and those that do exist are unwritten and known only to the cognoscenti, which we most definitely are not. Driving here is so nuts that my father once got yelled at by a police officer for stopping at a red light. I keep wondering where that was. Where we live there are no traffic lights. We confine our driving to the Maadi bubble where it’s really not so difficult; still the car has made it easier for us to explore the outer reaches of our neighborhood.

The blackouts continue, but more randomly now. Sometimes we’ll have two in a day, then we’ll go a few days without one. It makes life exciting, never knowing what activity you’ll be unable to finish. I’m learning to cook in the dark, as long as dinner is already on the stove. I get most nervous when blow drying my hair. I live in fear of being left with a head of hair that’s half straight, half curly. It’d be tough to pull that off. The government promises the outages will get worse during the summer months. I think I might have to break down and get some emergency lighting for the kitchen. Then again, our favorite restaurant just started delivering. Maybe I don’t need to be able to see that stove after all.

Politically, it’s been more of the same. A few more university riots, a couple more bombs, a scattering of marches. Ongoing incidents of violence against Copts, and some tribal warfare in Aswan that left a couple of dozen people dead. It’s amazing what starts to feel normal. Then again, I guess that’s true everywhere. From here, it’s tough to understand how people in the U.S. go on as though nothing has happened after mass shooting after mass shooting.

That’s it for now. Off to unpack some more boxes.

 

 

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