A Walking Tour of Revolutionary Cairo (Photo Essay)

I left Cairo in a hurry on the morning of February 2, approximately 12 hours after receiving confirmed tickets at 4:30 am from an emergency evacuation company funded by group travel insurance from my university. I didn’t want to leave, but I was facing a great deal of uncertainty whether I would be able to continue my work in the archives in the short run or even get food and utilities in the long run. The violence and curfews had kept me and my wife cooped up in our neighborhood ten miles south of downtown Cairo for five days with no internet and satellite TV as our only source of (sensational) information, so our imaginations were running wild that “popular committees” to defend their neighborhoods from regime thuggery had transformed the traffic patterns of the city. On the way to the airport, our biggest surprise was that little had changed, at least on the highway route east of the city center, besides impressive tank columns.

Upon our return on February 25, we discovered that despite the fall of the regime, many of the military precautions were still in place amid continuing protests, and lacking a real head of state and reformed security force. Yesterday morning, I decided to make take documentary walking tour, detailed on the numbered map below (1 inch = 1/2 km), to show both the change and inertia of the landscape in Cairo in the last six weeks. The only remaining large-scale traffic cordon (the red line on the corniche, or Nile-side road) indicates what the protesters and government know to be the REAL prize in revolutionary action:  the state television building (4).

It was when I saw jersey barriers going up at the “bottom” of the red line on CNN (all the private TV offices are near the state building, too bad coverage was mainly restricted to “what’s out our window”) on January 29 that I first suspected I would be leaving: they blocked my commute! I had usually taken the Metro from the south to Sadat station (1), walked north to the Ramses Hilton and caught a van-sized “microbus” north on the corniche to my archive (5, another 1/2 mile north of the map) for 50 piastres (eight US cents). Now, I either have to walk through the cordon, or get off at one of the other Metro stops north of Tahrir that have worse bus connections.

Here’s what March 7, 2011 at 9:30 am looked like in Downtown Cairo:

(1) Midan El-Tahrir (Liberation Square)

Tahrir temporarily became a household word around the world as the center of the protests that toppled Mubarak, despite the utter inability of any newscasters to pronounce the hard Arabic “H” properly (“We now go to our correspondent Jackie in Tariya Square”). The numbers have dwindled here after each successive concession made by the military junta; a big one just landed this weekend, the replacement of Mubarak’s last prime minister, former Air Force Chief Ahmed Shafiq, with former Transportation Minister Essam Sharaf. Nevertheless, a hard core has pitched tents on the central circle and are demanding further purges of the government, especially in the security services, and an end to the Emergency Law that has suspended habeas corpus and other civil liberties. (It has been more or less in place since 1939; you will be able to read all about its first years in my forthcoming dissertation). Their new banner reads “Our revolution is continuing until the fall of the regime.”

So how fitting is it that the the FLAVOR revolution is continuing 20 feet almost exactly below those tents! Nescafe was handing out free cups of lukewarm coffee-like brown-colored liquid to passers-by just outside the El-Marg turnstiles in the Sadat station.

The placard reads “More Desire,” but sex and coffee sounds like a scalding mixture, if you ask me. This is part of a multi-million dollar effort to get Egyptians to drink swill and abandon their deliciously strong traditionally-brewed coffee, which originated while Cairo was the principal metropolitan entrepot between Yemen/Ethiopia and Europe until the end of the 16th century (and therefore incorrectly called “Turkish” coffee). Cairo’s coffeehouse culture, which continues to today, spread to the capitals of Europe and to America, where it nurtured free political debate, newspapers and stock markets. And yet the West must “bring democracy” to Egypt.

As I will continue to report, one of the principal battlefields on which the revolution will be played out is economic. Many Egyptians detest the economic liberalization of the Sadat era (1970s) dubbed the “Infitah” (opening), which ended Nasser’s economic nationalism and socialism, principally because it hasn’t produced real productive investment in industry or created many more jobs, but instead left Egypt awash in crappy multinational consumer goods. An indication of this anger is that all the billboards surrounding Tahrir (including a long-standing neon Coca-Cola sign) have disappeared. These were huge, so it must have been a coordinated effort with engineering support, but I’ve read no news about how it was done.

(2) Midan Simón Bolívar

Revolutionary symbols of all varieties are highly visible in Cairo. It is not all that ironic that this intersection, which Nasser renamed after the great South American revolutionary at the height of the Third-World nationalist wave of the early 60s when he was on the worst terms with the West, is just a few hundred yards north of the United States Embassy, since we helped Bolívar replace direct European control of the continent with our indirect Monroe Doctrine-style hegemony (and as we did here in Egypt in the 1940s. Did I mention my dissertation?). At any rate, Nasser had to manufacture street cred for his “revolution,” which was really only a military coup, and statues are always a long-lasting way to do that.

The US Embassy remains one of the most strongly fortified locations in Cairo. The center of the US diplomatic network in the region, it is a walled 20-story tower-fortress that reportedly cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Since 9/11 the entire street has been blocked to traffic, ending normal commercial life in the neighborhood. Now it seems like they have chosen the LARGEST tanks to position at the top of the street (see below), and this is the only place I’ve seen sandbagged gunners, as if the protesters would be carrying M-2 machine guns and not stones.

It is only right that US embassy gets the best tanks, as we have paid $1.3 billion dollars per year for them directly to our own military industrial complex, which sends kits of disassembled parts to factories in Egypt owned by the military, along with inspectors who ensure that the parts aren’t getting used on the for-profit tractor assembly line in the same building.

(3) The (former) Nile Hilton and (former) National Democratic Party building.

The billboard reads “Vote ‘yes’ for the National Democratic Party: To ensure the future of your children.” We all knew that Friday, January 28, was no ordinary protest when we saw the ruling National Democratic Party’s headquarters go up in flames. There is still no reliable report of who started the fire; by the looks of the video footage of the 6th of October bridge, the main fighting wasn’t going on near the compound, which has walls thirty feet from the base of the structure. This made me suspect the arson was in fact the first step in a military coup to oust the neoliberal crony-capitalist wing of the regime by wrecking their technocratic headquarters. Time and show-trials will tell.

Just south of the sooty NDP hulk is the construction site of the former Nile Hilton, an architectural landmark of the fifties that until recently was getting renovated for new life as a Ritz-Carlton. It looks like work has stopped for the moment, but I can’t find any news about how long this moment will be. (I can’t imagine front-desk chatter of this variety: “Oh, Gerald, how about a room with a burnt-brutalist-wreck-side view?” — “Shertainly, dahling”). Until 1947, this was the site of the British Qasr El-Nile Barracks, until protests forced their army to withdraw its main base to the Suez Canal for another nine years. Maybe it will go back to barracks. These two buildings now form an unfortunate wall of ugliness on prime Nile-side real estate.

(4) The State TV and Foreign Ministry Buildings.

This pleasant promenade, from which one can rent boats down the Nile (lower left) to the 19th century barrages where the Rosetta and Damietta branches of the Nile split apart to frame the Delta, features the State TV building (right, radio tower bristling with dishes), the Foreign Ministry (center, white with Pharaonic architectural features) and farther north, the headquarters of the National Bank of Egypt, the largest-state owned bank. That’s right, the government here owned its own banks before it got popular. The traffic cordon starts just north of the bottom of that off-ramp.

On Sunday and Monday, the front of State TV was the site of protests by Egypt’s Coptic Christians; a bearded priest is speaking in the background. The Copts, which comprise anywhere between 5-15% of Egypt’s population because the government doesn’t want to take an accurate count, suffer from social and economic discrimination although they have also played important roles in Egyptian politics and business (Boutros-Boutros Ghali, for example). The Mubarak regime did a good job at currying its favor by portraying itself as the only protection from a rising tide of violent Islamists. That is, until protesters broke into the State Security complex in Nasr City this weekend and produced documents revealing they hired Islamist thugs to incite communal violence to cause the fear in the first place. The Copts’ choice of protest location is apt, as the state television was the most important source of misinformation about the real perpetrators of violence against their community. (Anyone interested in a good analysis of how colonial-style governing ideology, which continues in Egypt to the present day despite an uncharacteristic denial by Nicholas Kristof, should read “The Construction of Communalism in Colonial India” by Gyan Pandey).

The corniche (looking south from 4), which is usually packed with cars, buses and motorcycles, has turned into a street fair where vendors are selling roasted nuts and sweet potatoes (right) and tea (left), in addition to socks and underwear, and patriotic flags, stickers and buttons commemorating January 25.

There had been three large tanks sitting impressively on the corniche itself, but they have been withdrawn around to the side of the TV building, although the barbed wire is still up around the northbound side of the road so traffic hasn’t resumed yet.

Fitty should have rapped “I love you the way a fat kid loves TANKS.” The army has been extremely tolerant of civilians climbing all over their equipment for photo ops. There has been lasting good will between the general public and the military, who are perceived as apolitical despite recent attacks on protesters and alleged torture of detainees. For some reason, these kids also both had military haircuts (lice?).

(5) Dar El-Watha’iq El-Qawmiyya (The Egyptian National Archive).

Things were pretty normal up here, just thought I would throw in the last stop on my trip. Actually, the Nile-side restaurant across the street to my right, Sangria, was burned down by looters, but the chief librarian at the Dar reassured me that its priceless, irreplaceable collection of government documents from the 19th and 20th century had always been completely safe. Yikes.

(6) 26th of July Street, Bulaq.

In order to get home, I have to walk down this street to the Nasser Metro stop. This is this main drag through the Bulaq neighborhood. Renamed after the date of the Free Officer coup in 1952 from King Fuad I street (Egypt’s first of two monarchs between 1917 and 1936, so there must be some yet older name I don’t know), even before the cordons, this was Egypt’s 23rd street: that is, one on which it is faster to walk than to take the bus.

The traffic here is so bad principally because the authorities hate Bulaq; originally Cairo’s main river port with lower Egypt, it was the site of the first printing press in the Arab world, and the first large industrial plant in Egypt, the railroad shops. It was, therefore, the home of Egypt’s labor movement in the 1920s, and a hotbed of political opposition to the present day. The government has marginalized it and cut it off from normal traffic patterns (notice the ugly flyover that blocks out the sun). However, the small number of thoroughfares allowed protesters to turn the neighborhood into a sort of fortress from the police. The Wall Street Journal has an excellent report of how it was the 13th “secret” protest that emerged from Bulaq that broke the police lines on January 25 and is thus partially responsible for the nosedive in state security morale that made the revolution possible.

As you can see, local patriots have painted the 40 or so pillars of the flyover on this street with the Egyptian flag and army fatigue camouflage, a visual representation of the chant “El-Sha’ab wa-l-Geish, Eed Wahid!” (“The people and the army are one hand”) heard since the army took over on January 28. I’m sure it is only a matter of time before this street gets renamed “25th of January street”.

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About ericschewe

PhD, History. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
This entry was posted in Economy, Egypt, Geography, Protests, USA. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Walking Tour of Revolutionary Cairo (Photo Essay)

  1. aymanscribbler says:

    I enjoyed reading that. I just thought I’d say, though, that the advertising billboards were removed just before the revolution following a ruling by the governor of Cairo and the minister of transport. This was meant to be implemented in all of Cairo and on the Cairo-Alexandria highway for safety reasons. This was a pretty stunning decision as it seems to put appearance and safety before profit.
    You can read about it here: http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/4547.aspx
    Welcome back to Cairo,

  2. The commentary on Bulaq – peak. That’s the sort of thing I come here looking for – the underlying, the close-ups of the usually-ignored dynamics of authoritarian rule.

    Hey, considering the fly-over and the punitive management of traffic patterns: Is Red Hook, Brooklyn the Bulaq of NYC? I mean, what with the way Moses’ BQE/Gowanus islanded that whole neighborhood?

  3. Edgardo Pérez-Morales says:

    This is great!

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