Last June I left Egypt after eight years as CNN’s Cairo bureau chief and correspondent. I wrote this back then, but never finished it as I was buried under an avalanche of packing cases. But now I’m back in Cairo, if only for a few days, I’ve decided I really have to get this out.
Covering Egypt was the experience of a lifetime. I’ll admit: a lot of that time was spent on the road, in Iraq, Israel/Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East, in Africa, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But my home was Egypt.
And over the eight years, I saw dramatic changes here. The first few years were relatively quiet, but things really started to take off in early 2005 when agitation for political reform in Egypt took off. The people of Egypt had rediscovered their ability to raise their voice, and, I suspect, they won’t be going silent any time soon.
Raucous street protesters demanding the resignation of long-serving president Hosni Mubarak became routine. The protesters passionately denounced the entire Mubarak family, the pervasive intelligence services, the police, and the ruling, sclerotic, National Democratic Party.
The regime has never been able to come up with a convincing or effective response to the barrage of criticism, and instead has chosen force and intimidation to silence its critics. At almost every opposition protest, demonstrators are massively outnumbered by riot police, cops and plain clothed agents, commonly described in Egyptian Arabic as “baltagiya”—thugs—often armed with nasty looking short black rubber truncheons. As a result, protests often turned violent.
For me, covering Cairo street politics became a contact sport. You are shoved around, you shove back. To meekly obey barked orders from the authorities is a sign of weakness. You bark back and, if you can, you throw your weight around.
And thanks to Egyptian street food—of which I am particularly fond—I now have plenty of weight to throw around.
I’ll miss the street fighting, the street food, and the street smarts that set the people of Egypt apart. Over millennia, Egyptians have developed a wicked, subversive sense of humour that hones in on the powerful, pompous and pretentious, reducing them to mere mortals.
I’ll miss that wit, the jokes, and I’ll also miss the courage of those in Egypt who speak with razor-like acuteness that cuts through the often-clumsy government propaganda and group-think a succession of military-dominated regimes fostered over the last half century.
I already miss Tahsin Bashir, a retired Egyptian diplomat who passed away a few years ago. Tahsin, a small man with a high voice and keen, insightful mind, liked to quip that there were more mummies in Mubarak’s cabinet (at the time—the current group of ministers is relatively young) than in the Egyptian museum.
I’ll miss the likes of part-time novelist (and full-time dentist) Alaa Al-Aswani, whose best-selling book, the Yaquobian Building, lifted the heavy lid of silence off sensitive aspects of Egyptian life—political corruption, fanaticism, terrorism, sexual exploitation and harassment, homosexuality, just to name a few. Through his eloquent, vivid, poignant prose, Aswani conveys the full weight of decades of disappointment and dashed dreams—but with an affection and love for Egypt that is infectious. (His novel has been made into a movie by the same name. See it.)
And I’ll miss George Ishaq, the feisty coordinator of the unruly Kifaya (Enough!) Movement. Kifaya’s noisy street protests resound with a delicious lack of respect for authority. George, a retired teacher with a shock of white hair and an impish grin, delighted in dishing out analyses the country’s dire political and economic straits so well spiced with humour, irony and indignation that sometimes I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry for Egypt.
And then there are others for whom politics is a pointless sandstorm. Like Zahi Hawas, director of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. The tireless Zahi is fanatically devoted to Egypt’s ancient heritage. Zahi is the only official in Egypt who always said yes to whatever I asked for. Once, at 630 AM on a weekend, I called him at home to get permission to climb the Pyramid of Khufu to shoot a story. Of course, was his immediate reply.
And then there are the ordinary Egyptians who never made it into any of my reports, like Ismail the munadi. A munadi is one of those quintessentially Egyptian professions without which Cairo would surely collapse into utter, irrevocable disorder. A munadi is the workingman’s valet parking. Ismail would take my car keys, and car, and let me go about my business. Hours later, even at 3 AM, I would come back to find Is mail, who would quickly locate keys and car, and with a broad smile, takes my five Egyptian pounds, showers me with thanks and wishes for a happy day, night or rest of your life.
This reflexive charm and courtesy act as a balm that gets you through what can be the most trying of days. Egyptians consider scowling, grumpiness, and short, curt answers to be bad manners. I couldn’t agree more.
In a country where poverty is pervasive, where the vast majority barely scrapes by, it always amazed me that so few people were bitter or resentful of those more fortunate.
My hair is a lot greyer than it was when I first came here nine years ago, but my sense of humour is, if anything, in better shape than it’s ever been. And for that I have the people of Egypt to thank.