Returning Home To A Post-Revolutionary Egypt: One Photojournalist’s Diary

It’s unfortunate to see how much Egypt has deteriorated since the “Arab Spring,” that had sparked so much hope and renewed faith in the country’s future.
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    Concrete blocks surrounding government buildings are the new reality in Cairo. (MPN Photo/Norbert Schiller)

    Concrete blocks surrounding government buildings are the new reality in Cairo. (MPN Photo/Norbert Schiller)

    Over the past three decades I spent more time in Egypt than anywhere else. I first visited the country in the late 1970s as a traveler, and then returned a few years later to study at the American University in Cairo. I also began my career in journalism in Egypt in 1984, before being posted to other places throughout the Arab world. In 1990, I was transferred back to Cairo and lived there until 2003. After I left, I continued to return regularly.

    In April of this year, I returned to Egypt for the first time since the Arab Spring and I was shocked to see what had become of the country. It is one thing to read and hear about what is happening in the news, but it is completely different when you actually walk the streets and witness the changes firsthand.

    If it wasn’t for the 2011 revolution, I’m sure I would have not have been fazed by the expected changes that a metropolis like Cairo routinely experiences. People stream in from the countryside in search of work; satellite towns around the capital pop up faster than the infrastructure needed to support them. The roads are always congested and it’s a miracle that anyone can get from point A to point B without huge delays. Like many Cairenes, I’ve always wondered how much more abuse the city can take. A friend once compared Cairo to a sponge: “You can saturate it over and over, but that doesn’t stop more water from being absorbed.”

    Despite the insanity of Cairo, I never once felt threatened in all the years I lived there.  I can remember countless nights when I roamed the streets in the early 1980s, heading from one seedy nightclub to another and never once being harassed. Granted, it’s easier being a man than a woman, especially at night, but regardless of the occasional verbal harassment, everyone I knew felt equally safe.

    Each neighborhood in Cairo is like a village where everybody knows everything about the next person. Years ago my wife’s cousin moved to Cairo to study Arabic and I was shocked when she told me that she rented an apartment in the auto mechanics’ district. In the end she felt safer there than anywhere else because all the mechanics kept a watchful eye on her.

    A group of Egyptian and foreign residents who walk around Cairo each weekend learning about the historical parts of the city. (MPN Photo/Norbert Schiller)

    A group of Egyptian and foreign residents who walk around Cairo each weekend learning about the historical parts of the city. (MPN Photo/Norbert Schiller)

    Changing architecture

    I didn’t feel that same sense of security this last trip. I stayed with a friend in the very center of the city, a few blocks from the now-notorious Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s latest revolution. This was once considered the European district, home to the old Shepheard Hotel, the Opera House, and the city’s finest boutiques and department stores. Later, with the advent of Egyptian cinema, it also became known as the theater district.

    This section of Cairo was the brainchild of Ismail Pasha, the grandson of Mohammed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt. Ismail Pasha’s vision was to create a replica of Paris on the banks of the Nile, and in many ways he succeeded. For nearly a century the city center was as glamorous as any European capital. It was the winter playground for Europe’s elite, a major tourist attraction; during World War II, it acted as the officers club for the Allied command trying to stave off Rommel from capturing the coveted Suez Canal.

    Today, Ismail Pasha’s dream is in shambles, but that did not happen because of the “Arab Spring.”  Instead, it was the result of decades of neglect, overpopulation and archaic rent-control laws, which allowed renters to live in luxury apartments while paying a symbolic monthly rent.  The once prestigious department stores, tailor shops, jewelry stores, tea rooms, and nightclubs all gradually disappeared to be replaced by tasteless shops selling cheap shoes, lingerie and clothing.  The only way to admire what remains of Cairo’s French and Italian architecture is to look high above the flashing neon light and ugly building facades to the top floors of the old structures. There against the skyline are the last remnants of Ismail Pasha’s dream.

    Once the sun begins to set, the center of Cairo is taken over by street vendors hawking cheaply made clothes, and by gangs of young thugs looking for trouble. The complete breakdown of the once powerful police state left the door wide open for criminal elements to expand their turf.

    Recently, the Egyptian government erected a series of titanic stone walls around the center of Cairo in an effort to protect various government buildings from being attacked by mobs of disgruntled youth. Parliament and, most notably, the once dreaded ministry of interior, are among these buildings. In many ways this is reminiscent of the cement barriers America erected around Baghdad’s “Green Zone” following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, instead of trying to stop insurgent attacks and car bombs, the Cairo barricades are there to prevent the same protesters who helped topple the Mubarak regime from toppling the current one.

    Ismail Pasha vision of Cairo has been reduced to tacky shops selling cheap clothes and plastic trinkets made in China. (MPN Photo/Norbert Schiller)

    Ismail Pasha vision of Cairo has been reduced to tacky shops selling cheap clothes and plastic trinkets made in China. (MPN Photo/Norbert Schiller)

    Semblance of a state

    It’s unfortunate to see how much Egypt has deteriorated since the “Arab Spring,” that had sparked so much hope and renewed faith in the country’s future. It’s even harder to hear people yearn for the days of former dictator Hosni Mubarak. I doubt that most of these disgruntled citizens actually want to see Mubarak back in power, but I’m sure that many would like to see a return to the stability that was associated with his regime.

    I spent nearly two weeks in Upper Egypt working on a documentary film. While the entire country is suffering from a lack of services, the absence of government can be felt particularly hard in those parts. Granted there is not much security in Cairo or Alexandria, but in the big cities there is still a semblance of a state. In the 10 days I wandered around the governorates of Beni Suef, Minya and Assiut, I saw no security whatsoever; not even the traffic police were out on patrol. The cost of living has skyrocketed. The seeds and subsidized diesel fuel that farmers once depended on to make their living can only be found on the black market. In the absence of law enforcement, people are building everywhere without permits, including on agriculture land that was once protected.

    In many towns and villages, residents have taken the law into their own hands, setting up neighborhood patrols and civilian-run councils to deal with daily problems in their communities. In every place we visited, we were warned not to drive at night. I never cared much for driving at night anyway because Egypt has one of the worst driving safety records in the world, but carjackings, illegal checkpoints and the kidnapping of people for ransom were unheard of in the past.

     

    Loud voices

    One night after I returned to Cairo I met up with a few old friends at a fashionable restaurant in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek. All was going well until we got into a very heated discussion about the current state of affairs in the country. At one point a friend and I lost our tempers and began screaming at one another, much to the horror of the other patrons in the restaurant, who stared in disbelief.  Basically my argument was that a strongman was needed now more than ever to stop the country from sliding into the abyss, while my friend argued that the revolution had not run it full course and the last thing that Egypt needed at this time was another strong man at the helm.

    After dinner I left and decided to take a walk in order to digest both my dinner and the conversation. After cooling down, I had to agree with my friend, at least partially. The country does not need another strongman; what it lacks is a visionary leadership that can unify the nation. However, finding such governance in the current climate seems impossible.  When the former regime collapsed, a vacuum took its place — and was filled with not one but hundreds of voices, all with dissenting views on how best to move the country forward. Since the revolution, nothing has been accomplished; the voices have only become louder.

    The funniest thing about our argument over dinner was that both my friend and I lived in Egypt for decades and have an indissoluble love for the country. However, no matter how passionate we are about Egypt and the course it should take, it’s really not our business because neither of us is Egyptian. In the end, it’s up to the Egyptians to determine what is best for them, and we can only hope that their decision will steer the country in a direction where it will still be hospitable to foreigners and long-term residents who have a genuine attachment to Egypt.

    A cartoon on the side of a building depicting Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi lstaring into a mirror and that of the doctored face of former president Hosni Mubarak reflecting back. (MPN Photo/Norbert Schiller)

    A cartoon on the side of a building depicting Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi lstaring into a mirror and that of the doctored face of former president Hosni Mubarak reflecting back. (MPN Photo/Norbert Schiller)

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.

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      • Mango R

        Schiller got it right! This is one of the best layman analysis I’ve read so far. After a 60 year tunnel-visioned military dictatorship and now with the inept Muslim Brothers, Egypt has finally sidelined itself and is rapidly going to the dogs. Poor Ismail Pasha who wanted to recreate a Paris fac simile this side of the Mediterranean! For his sake I hope there is no afterlife.