October 10, 2013
By Hamza Hendawi
CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's capital has long been proud of its nickname, "Mother of the World" — a metropolis of 18 million throbbing with the vitality and fun of other great cities, even if at times it seemed unmanageable and chaotic.
But Cairo's spirit has been deeply scarred by 32 months of turmoil and bloodshed from two "revolutions," constant protests and crackdowns, and a military coup.
Residents talk of an unfamiliar edginess. People are more suspicious of each other, whether because of increased crime or constant media warnings of conspiracies and terrorism.
Families are split by bitter ideological differences. Fights are sparked by a word or a gesture seen as supporting either the military or the Islamists who were ousted from power by the armed forces.
The mood goes beyond ideology. With police battered by the upheaval and rarely enforcing regulations, many people flout laws with no thought of the consequences — whether it's the cafes that take over sidewalks or thugs who seize plots of land.
A curfew in place for nearly two months has put a damper on Cairo's nightlife. It has been eased to start at midnight, but that was usually the hour when streets and parties were just getting lively.
Political violence has killed more than 2,000 people in the city and wounded many others, starting with the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak. That was followed by demonstrations against the military rulers who replaced Mubarak, the protests during President Mohammed Morsi's year in office, and the June 30 "revolution" that prompted the July 3 coup against the president.
"Political differences have made some people lose their humanity," said Shaiymaa Awad, a 32-year-old Morsi supporter.
Awad said she was in a bus recently that drove past Rabaah el-Adawiya, the mosque where hundreds of Islamists were killed in August when police cracked down on a sit-in demanding Morsi's reinstatement.
When she broke down crying, "other passengers looked surprised, but none of them understood why," Awad said.
The Rabaah mosque is not the only city landmark now more famous for one of the violent incidents of the past 2½ years. Others include:
— A historic bridge over the Nile, once a favored romantic spot for couples, that was the site of a battle between police and anti-Mubarak protesters.
— The towering Nile-side state TV headquarters nicknamed "Maspero," now known for the army's killing of more than 25 Christian protesters.
— Moqattam, once simply the rocky plateau overlooking the city where couples went to steal kisses, now remembered for a bloody street fight between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and opponents.
New neighborhoods joined the list Sunday, when Morsi supporters and police clashed, killing at least 40 people. With more streets strewn with debris and blackened by fires, Cairenes fear the city is turning into a Baghdad or a Beirut at their most violent.
"Blood is everywhere," said Belal Fadl, a popular satirical columnist and scriptwriter.
"It is good that life goes on after every episode of bloodshed, but it is terrible from a human perspective," he said, adding that people now react to violence "as if they are watching it on a silver screen."
Cairo has long been an unruly, tough place — densely populated, heavily polluted and choked with traffic. With few parks or green spaces, and almost no street entertainment, residents have few public outlets for escape.
Yet it also was the place where all Egyptians — rich, poor, intellectuals, laborers and migrants from the countryside — were jammed together, forced to get along by smoothing over their differences with a sense of humor.
There was no contradiction seen between deep religious piety — another Cairo nickname is the "City of a Thousand Minarets" — and raucous street weddings with beer and belly dancers.
The city has gone through rapid lurches. The anti-Mubarak uprising saw an idealistic, "revolutionary" optimism. Under Morsi, conservative Islamists were emboldened, scolding the public to adhere to "God's law" and vilifying Christians and secular Egyptians.
Now the mood is defined by a media blitz demonizing the Islamists, idolizing military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and intimidating critics.
One recent morning, a police officer shouted at a man whose car had broken down on a busy overpass. The man had a beard — a hallmark of an Islamist — and the policeman angrily accused him of intentionally trying to snarl traffic.
Later the same day, workers in one of the city's country clubs berated a bearded colleague for putting worship ahead of work. "You cannot be at the mosque all day while we do all the work," one barked.
The Aug. 14 crackdown near the Rabaah mosque left perhaps the deepest scar. The bloodshed gave Islamists a strong sense of martyrdom — but much of the rest of Cairo's population showed little sympathy, embittered by Morsi's presidency.
While the largely pro-military media hardly mention the deaths of Morsi supporters, the Sept. 19 killing by Islamic militants of a police general led to an outpouring of emotion for his widow and children. The interim president received them in his palace, and the education minister personally escorted two of the general's children to school on the first day of classes.
The curfew imposed during the anti-Mubarak uprising was openly ignored, but uncustomary discipline has marked the nighttime restrictions put in place since August. Many say they are doing so to aid the crackdown against Islamists.
Mahmoud Ziad, a 23-year-old student who regularly takes part in protests of the coup, said he is haunted by seeing friends shot to death Aug. 14. He has other friends who used to oppose military rule but now support el-Sissi.
"I ask them how can they be happy after all those who were killed. How can they support the killer?"
The other legacy is a seemingly constant state of rebellion. Residents always found ways around rules imposed by overbearing force and bureaucrats. Now they simply break them.
Double- and triple-parked cars clog the streets. Drivers blithely go the wrong way on one-way roads. Police, if they ever show up, are challenged with much bravado.
"The line that separates freedom from criminal chaos has disappeared in Cairo," said Mohammed Hashem, a veteran activist and publisher who transformed the city's literary scene in the past decade with his patronage of young, experimental novelists.
In a city that was once extremely safe, crime has become more frequent.
Ahmed Mokhles, a 32-year-old doctor, said a youth on a motorcycle snatched his $450 mobile phone out of his hand while he was talking on it. The motorcyclist was slowed down by traffic, and Mokhles nearly caught up with him. But two men on another motorcycle — accomplices, Mokhles believes — blocked him, and the thief escaped.
Everything can conspire to build up stress — a blazing hot day, rising prices, unmoving traffic, family woes.
Allam Oudah, who earns $180 a month as a security guard and drives a taxi to make ends meet, described rushing his daughter to the hospital when she got diarrhea, not just for treatment but also because of mounting diaper costs if she wasn't quickly cured.
When asked to turn on the air conditioning in the taxi, he broke into a sarcastic rant: "For 10 pounds, I'll point all the fans at you. If that's not enough, I'll fan you myself."
Fadl, the satirist, said that despite its recent problems, there is a resilience in the city.
"Give Cairo a little respite from its troubles, and it will quickly regain its old spirit," he said.
Mustafa Ibrahim, a poet, noted the true meaning of the capital's name — "al-Qahira" — Arabic for "the conquerer."
"Cairo conquers its own residents as well as anyone who thinks he or she is bigger than the city," he said. "Cairo can crush you, but it maintains its charm and spirit," he said.
By Leon Jenkins