Toughing It Out in Cairo


I admit that when I began these notes in the autumn of 2014, some six months after the election of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the previous May, I wanted to build a case in support of el shaab (the people). By that I mean the unprecedented number of Egyptians who had taken to the streets the summer before, calling for the army to assist in the ouster of then president Mohamed Morsi. The grievances against the Islamist president were many, including violence perpetrated by his Freedom and Justice Party and the most overreaching power grab of any Egyptian president (he granted himself extrajudicial constitutional powers). Amid a rapidly declining economy and a general sense of disarray, popular dissent had escalated. Millions of Egyptians poured into the streets, underhandedly encouraged by long-standing forces of the “deep state”—the army and state security services.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisisi
Abdel Fattah el-Sisisi; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

In the months following Morsi’s removal by the military in July 2013, described nationally as “the second revolution” and internationally as “a military coup,” I kept a notebook of the varying descriptions of Egyptians in the international press. They were criticized for their call to topple a freely and fairly elected leader. The question of morals and ideals recurred. Mention was even made of abandoning “morality” for short-term political gains.

Although I understood that my circumstances were particular, as well as privileged—from the neighborhood I lived in to the school I went to—I was not so naive as to think that military rule would not infringe on my life. There were many precedents in our history: crackdowns on activists, newspaper editors, writers, and “debauchery,” which is legally defined here as anything that falls outside marital bounds. The last of these has been a witch-hunt. I convinced myself that lives like mine were peripheral to a nascent political discourse. Setting out to defend the actions and choices of the beleaguered working class seemed virtuous. I realized only later that these different sets of interests—of personal and political freedoms, and basic standards of living—were all inseparable.


In search of my story, I got in my car and drove east in mid-May 2015 from Cairo to Suez. Nine months earlier, Sisi had announced the revival of a decades-old “mega-project” to expand the 150-year-old Suez Canal. He pledged that the project would be finished in exactly twelve months, and that every Egyptian would see “immediate returns.” I was skeptical about the promised date of completion and drove through the desert to see for myself. Celebratory billboards lined the route leading out of the city, as if the project was already complete. At the site of construction, I was told that the army had been working round the clock.

The new canal was in fact inaugurated on August 6, 2015, twelve months to the day from when the project was first announced, and thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in celebration.…

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