My plane from Jeddah to Cairo landed at the airport at 7:45 pm. The 7:00 pm curfew was in place, but passengers traveling to and from the airport are exceptions to the rule. When I left the terminal, I noticed all the security checkpoints, armored army vehicles and troop carriers helping the police and security forces maintain law and order.
Once inside the city, the main streets were nearly empty and traffic on the side streets was scarce. There were, however, microbuses driving along the alleyways to avoid any road closures, transporting those who had been stuck at work or visiting family and friends. It was clear that all the stores had been closed for some time.
On the day of my visit, Saturday, October 5, interim president Adly Mansour attended a televised military show commemorating the October War. With him was the Minister of Defense, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. However, the day of celebration did see violence following the Muslim Brotherhood’s call for protest against what they consider to have been a military coup. The eve of my trip saw clashes between supporters of the Brotherhood and Egyptian security forces resulting in five dead and at least forty wounded.
The next day, things returned to a semblance of normality. The streets were packed as people returned to work and shoppers took to the malls, restaurants and cafes. Trendy fast-food joints were packed with middle-class customers, especially in the affluent neighborhoods of Heliopolis and the Fifth District.
Visitors to Cairo these days can’t help but notice the Rabaa symbol, the four-finger salute made by Mursi supporters—Rabaa meaning “fourth”—referring to the Rabaa Al-Adawiya protest camp that was violently cleared in August. Posters with the iconic Rabaa sign, as well as other anti-military images line many of the streets in Cairo. I learned that these posters were usually pasted onto the walls during curfew hours; it’s a different story during the day, when vendors walk the streets carrying images of the army leadership and scenes from the October War. Though no one knows the precise location of ousted president Mohamed Mursi, the ever-resilient Egyptian sense of humor assures us that he’s “dining on duck every day” in some military barracks.
Despite the obvious air of political division, visitors to Cairo will notice a sense of popular support for what happened on July 3, the day Mursi was ousted by the army. The anger over Brotherhood rule is still palpable. Many of the Egyptian elite I met during my visit described the Brotherhood demonstrations as seemingly peaceful but actually violent: “They use physical and verbal violence.”
On Saturday morning a car from the presidential palace dropped me off at Heliopolis Palace, where I was to meet interim president Adly Mansour. The trip from the gate to the front door took some time after passing through a series of checkpoints. An official greeted us and showed us to a waiting room: “The [interim] President is recording a televised statement for Egyptian television. He will meet with you as soon as he is finished.”
When the guard opened the door, I found Adly Mansour sitting behind his desk. He greeted me with a warm smile. The interim president has a kind and affable personality, but he is clearly also a serious man—one who embodies the characteristics of a man of the law.
Mansour openly and candidly answered my questions. Throughout our discussion, I sensed he recognized the magnitude of the challenges his country currently faces. Despite his self-confessed reluctance to accept the position of interim president, Mansour is clearly committed to engaging with both international and domestic concerns.
Mansour clearly appreciates the role that Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations have played in helping Egypt on the road to recovery. He believes the West has made mistakes in the past concerning their dealings with Egypt, but claims that Western countries have now “reconsidered their positions.” He is certain that Egypt will get past the current crisis, though it may take some time. He fondly recalls memories of Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a consultant with the Saudi Ministry of Commerce in the early 1980s. He talks of the safaris he and his colleagues used to take outside the Saudi Arabian capital.
With regards to the economic situation in Egypt, a report by the Wall Street Journal indicated that the Egyptian economy continues to suffer the repercussions of two years of continuous demonstrations. Despite increases in the Egyptian stock market and the rising value of the Egyptian pound against the dollar, Egypt is still facing heavy economic pressures that will continue as long as the instability does. This has led the government to consider fixing prices for some food items and increasing the minimum wage. However, these actions could lead to a decline in growth expectations and the government’s inability to handle the budget gap which has reached 11 percent of the gross domestic product.
In a country of 85 million people, the number of people working in the public sector has now reached 6 million, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. However, the Egyptian officials I met with seemed extremely confident of Egypt’s ability to succeed in the transitional period. Many are convinced that what happened on July 3 was necessary to maintain stability and national security.
Leaving the palace behind, I later watch an interview on CBC with Jehan Sadat, recalling memories of her late husband, President Anwar Sadat. Over the course of the interview, I noted her discussion of the events of May 15, 1971, when Sadat successfully purged what he called “centers of power.” According to the story, President Sadat had sent his personal guard to check on the broadcast system that was reportedly under threat from the opposition. That night, he slept with this pistol by his side as his wife waited to alert the children to any surprise attacks. I was struck by Jehan’s candor when she said: “When the president [Sadat] traveled to Jerusalem, I didn’t pack my bags or ask to accompany him. But I cried when his plane took off.”
Later that evening, my taxi driver complains about the negative effects of the security situation on the near-paralyzed tourism industry. Nonetheless, I sense that he supports the security measures taken by the Egyptian army in Sinai. He insists there are “conspiracies against Egypt and its tourism” being led by the violence of “the deposed Brotherhood.” Many are also displeased with Hamas’s position in supporting the Brotherhood, while some have accused them of involvement in destabilizing the Sinai Peninsula.
On the way to a meeting, I pass the neighborhood of Abbassiya, the setting in Naguib Mahfouz’s novel The Coffeehouse. The story talks of a cafe where five friends meet in the years of ideological transformation both within the Muslim Brotherhood and among the Nasserists of the late 1970s. In The Coffeehouse, the childhood playmates remain friends despite their political and ideological differences and the changes that occur in their lives. In the end, Abbassiya always remains their home, as does the trusty cafe.
You can’t discuss the political situation in Egypt without mentioning Sisi. The Minister of Defense is immensely popular and, while many are comparing him to Gamal Abdel Nasser, he has many opponents among the Islamists. Despite calls for his candidacy in the upcoming elections, the military man who led the ouster of President Mursi remains silent. Though there are continued alarmist attacks in the Western media against him, it should be noted that not every military figure is a would-be dictator. Portugal, for instance, experienced a similar situation to Egypt after the 1974 revolution. The communists were, like the Brotherhood, the strongest organized group, which drove them to monopolize power and hijack the revolution. Despite that, Portugal transformed itself into a democratic nation thanks to general António Ramalho Eanes, who led a military campaign to confront the communist officers ending any military threat to the nascent democracy. He was later elected to the presidency.
As the plane took off heading towards London’s Heathrow Airport, I noticed the pyramids on the horizon above the Nile. Witness to centuries of challenges and difficulties, there they stood anchored solidly in the ground, peaks brushing the sky.