They came to the Cairo morgue looking for bodies. This was nearly a month before the Egyptian police confronted the Muslim Brotherhood on August 14. A woman whose husband hadn’t come home in three days, a couple whose son had been absent for a week, three relatives looking for a man, Karam, who had been missing for nine days. He had last been seen on July 2, on his way to his mother’s apartment. He had taken a taxi there and neighbors saw him get out at the main street. There was fighting in the neighborhood between the residents and members of the Brotherhood, and people cautioned him against entering the alley that turned onto another alley that led to his mother’s building.
When Mohammed Morsi took office last summer, the big question was whether he would be able to separate himself from the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that had authorized, guided, and financed his presidential campaign. By this winter, the public seemed to accept the fact that there was no alternative to Morsi’s Brotherhood running the show. As a source close to the Brotherhood’s leaders told me, “Morsi is simply overseeing the presidential portfolio on behalf of the Supreme Guide’s Office, and so in negotiating with him you are simply speaking to a messenger.”
Although it has a state-of-the-art computerized system to deal with arrivals, Cairo’s new airport stubbornly deploys several uniformed officers to triple-check what the computer has confirmed. Armed men glance speculatively at the traveler’s coin-sized arrival stamp bearing the day’s date and a small outline of an airplane, along with six mentions of “Egypt.” Such is the logic of the country—an administration that has achieved supremacy in the creation of idle jobs. Duplicity is its mainstay.
In his quiet film In the Last Days of the City, Tamer El Said brilliantly captures a struggle I’ve had for years: how to pin down what it is about Cairo that leaves us feeling as if we exist in a no man’s land, somewhere between past and present, constantly searching, never quite there.
Dido believed fervently that anarchy was better than the despotism we had. My reservations were inherited. He had hoped I might turn out as political as he was, but I’d failed him in every way. He consumed literature voraciously, but thought writing in a country like ours to be an exercise in passivity, a luxurious musing, not a tool for change.
For those of us who were part of Egypt’s revolution, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s new series of works, “Our House Is On Fire,” captures a reality that surrounds us, yet has been all but overlooked in the continuing story of the Arab uprisings: the reality of a country struggling with despair.
That winter we all became activists. We opened Twitter accounts, many of us, and learned how to dress for winter nights in Tahrir Square. I thought, we all thought, that the euphoria, the sense of possibility, would carry the country for years. As Jehane Noujaim’s documentary, The Square, vividly depicts, not only did we forget, but the euphoria quickly dissipated.