Scenes of frustrated chaos dominated reports coming out of Egypt this summer. Journalists braved crowds in Tahrir on June 30th, and when Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Morsi was toppled a few days later, reports were read out amongst jubilant crowds exulting in revolution.
On June 30th I was woken by the sound of helicopters outside my flat in Heliopolis. I could see children waving flags with their families, while loud music blared from microbuses packed with protestors.
For the next two months, I lived in a Cairo operating under an unfamiliar duality of routine and chaos. Watching CNN on a temperamental television showed scenes of stone throwing and sexual harassment. Outside my apartment Egyptians remained steadfast to ancient routines.
“The people lost their dignity under Mubarak, and after the revolution they did not get it back”
An Egyptian student, who had been part of the civilian protection force in 2011, told me that corruption, economic difficulty and an impenetrable political system had not only been continued, but cemented under Morsi: “The people lost their dignity under Mubarak, and after the revolution they did not get it back”.
The beginning of July saw skies filled with military helicopters flying low, with jets leaving trails of the Egyptian flag, and daily reports of protestors killed in clashes with the army. However the calm routine of Egyptian daily life remained; the shops stayed open, women selling fruits on street corners continued to shout at passers by, and young men sat late into the night puffing determinedly on rusty shisha pipes.
The military roadblocks did not paralyse Cairo; rather they forced a new norm of unpredictability on taxi drivers and commuters. An Egyptian I spoke to on the metro apologised for the crush of people: “less people are driving now because the military make it really difficult to get across Cairo. People who never would have used the metro now take it every day”.
Divisions already growing in society were pulled further apart by the military’s new ‘war on terror’. General Sisi’s face appeared throughout market places, on street corners and in shop windows. On 26th July, people marched in the street in answer to the military’s demand that they show solidarity by way of a mandate for action against terrorism. I joined a part of the protest that evening, where I met an elderly couple sitting and watching the crowd march past. They held a huge poster of Sisi and waved it at me in encouragement. Another man opened his arms and pointed to the crowd: “Welcome to Egypt”.
Driving across Cairo the night before, the microbus I was in had been stopped twice by heavily armed police. They scratched at the tinted plastic on the windows, and searched our bags and under the car seats. They smiled apologetically as they said they were looking for weapons; they had already found several that evening. As the car passed under the 6th October bridge, I could already see thousands of pro-Morsi supporters getting ready to counter Sisi’s mandate.
“Killing certain people has made everyone else afraid”
The functioning unpredictability continued to be a part of routine in Cairo for the rest of my time living in the city. Cairo was a nocturnal place; accentuated by the pressure of the midday heat and the millions fasting during Ramadan. After Ramadan however things changed completely again. The military dispersed the crowds in bloody clashes, and introduced a curfew from 7pm to 6am.
For the first time since I had been in Cairo, streets emptied in the late afternoon and shops closed. Lonely stray dogs would bark in the street throughout the night, unused to the silence.
Mahmoud Ahmed, an Egyptian student at Cairo University, told me that even though the curfew has stopped violence, he feels “imprisoned.
“Nobody hangs out in the morning, I haven’t been able to go out since all this started. But no people in the streets, no violence”.
Curfews are not unfamiliar to many Egyptians; Mubarak in 2011 also introduced a curfew in an attempt to stop the protests. However unlike in 2011, the streets have almost entirely emptied.
I asked Anwar Abdelhadi, a graduate student living in Alexandria, why people were following this curfew when it had not in the past been a deterrent. He replied, simply, “Bullets. Killing certain people has made everyone else afraid”.
The dynamic between routine and chaos had shifted by the time I left Cairo at the end of August. The curfew combined with a military unafraid to use snipers on the crowds, meant the streets had quietened. Routine continued behind closed doors, and the smell of tear gas, whether real or imagined, hung damp in the air. It seems chaos has been replaced by something far more deadly.
All images: Emily Tripp