In a country where the multi-layered, trigger-happy and ruthless security apparatus Hosni Mubarak had put in place during his 30 years in power is detested and feared, people can be forgiven for not airing their political views in public. Nobody wants to run into trouble, not even the chatty locals you meet in various parts of the city. Even the paranoid can have real enemies.
Strangely, most people are open about discussing the funeral of Mubarak held on February 26th, which was attended by top-level officials, including President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is also a former head of military intelligence. The diminutive leader was photographed as leading the funeral in all dailies on February 27th at El-Mosheer Tantawy Mosque complex in East Cairo. It was a full-honours one, but there was hardly any foreign dignitary of note at the event. Mubarak, who became a national hero for his exploits as an air force officer against Israel in 1973, was named Vice President of the country by then President Anwar Sadat in 1975. He became President after Sadat was assassinated in 1981.
Most people I spoke with, especially among the well-heeled and the aspiring young urban residents, said they felt sad that Mubarak had passed away, aged 91. “We are in mourning,” says Hadeer Mohsen, a young hotel manager at Sofitel Cairo el Gezirah. “Why? He was old enough,” I ask. “But we still miss him,” says the young lady in her early 20s. Was it posturing? Was it a sincere commentary on the current situation in comparison with the past? Was she, after all, right about her analysis?
Questions lingered until I spoke with a history professor from the city who laid to rest all my doubts. “It will take our country many more decades to come out of the consequences of the mistakes and follies of Mubarak,” he says, requesting anonymity. “Let’s not forget he wanted to create dynastic rule,” he adds, outlining lessons for the world from the rise of fall of dictators and authoritarian rulers.
According to Hakkı Taş of Hamburg-based GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies, Mubarak’s legacy is the institutionalisation of a personalised authoritarian regime in post-Cold War Egypt. He says, “Sure he built on the legacies of [Gamal Abdel] Nasser and Sadat, but the current power dynamics and political practices [crony capitalism, corruption, the military’s expanded prerogatives, etcetera] took firm shape in his era.”
Mourning Mubarak is now an official stand, therefore people can easily concur without any sense of fear or foreboding. An editorial in The Egyptian Gazette screams, ‘Civilised Egyptians Mourn Mubarak.’ Do they mean the Egyptian civilisation of pyramids and pharaohs? Or is it about the section that mourns with the ‘uncivilised’ being disowned? Clearly, there is a pun in the headline. Yes, this is a country where its notorious Mubarak-era State Security has been renamed National Security Agency, employing close to 2 million people including thousands of informants and officers rehabilitated and pardoned for gross excesses in Mubarak’s time (1981-2011). So it is understandable that in Egypt, when the state sneezes, people sneeze too.
The gate at Khan el-Khalili is out of the world. The teeming market, built in the 14th century, continues to be a tourist attraction and showcases magnificent Islamic and Mamluk architecture. People go there especially to buy trinkets, but it is also home to one of the old Cairo’s coolest cafes and restaurants. It houses cotton merchants and copperware and glassware sellers. Young shop owners, with their tattoos and taut bodies, bargain to the hilt. If you are not patient enough, they get away, ‘bamboozling’ you. It is their word, not mine. “We have no intention of bamboozling you,” one of them tells me. Yet, he tries to. As an Indian accustomed to quoting rock-bottom prices in crowded bazaars, I seemingly get away, securing my side of the bargain. A few silver necklaces; cat statues; Cleopatra sculptures handpainted in faux gold and ebony; blownglass tea sets with the photo of iconic singer Umm Kulthum embossed on these; and a fancy golden keychain with an encrusted camel—I come away satisfied with the deal, only to be later assailed by the niggling suspicion that he was the one who had the last laugh.
Egyptians, like many Indians, cannot be accused of being punctual. Their approach towards time is familiarly laidback. Even in restaurants, where you take refuge from the dusty roads outside, service is slow and unenthusiastic although they are forever polite. For instance, waiters and waitresses are unflinchingly cordial when they repeat the orders that you have given them without having served them for over an hour. They just remind you with a deadpan wink indicating, ‘Yes I remember the orders’, without saying as much. The only time they are slightly rude is when they say ‘No politics, please.’
Jewellery designers who write your name on near-microscopic layers of metal are a prize catch for their proprietors. These are ageing men who disregard you completely when you enter their room to say hello. You feel like an intruder, but soon you realise they are receptive and warm. They serve you hot tea and are ready to talk. After exchanging ‘peace be upon you’ Arabic pleasantries, one of them speaks with me in good English. “I know you are from India,” he says. Not to waste a moment there—before the shopkeeper comes in—I ask him about Hosni Mubarak. He pauses for a moment, looks at his colleague who looks away, and lets his furrow lines do the talking for 30 seconds. Then he says, “We need more religion here, the religion of peace.” He goes on, “Mubarak and others, they mean nothing to us. They only ruined us.”
The shopkeeper walks in and all of us fall silent. Am I to assume that these old men with antediluvian faces are rooting for the Muslim Brotherhood, the propagandist, religious organisation founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna before it expanded to other countries? These are the worst times for the Brotherhood whose government led by Islamist Mohamed Morsi was thrown out in a military coup on July 3rd, 2013, weeks after which forces killed over 800 Morsi-supporters near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo, considered the worst state-sponsored massacre in Egypt’s history. But then one always gets a feeling that the Brotherhood has more sympathisers in the country than one can ever imagine.
She doesn’t want to talk politics, but is ready to talk about Mubarak as if the late President could be detached from politics. I meet her not far from Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 2011 ‘revolution’ that forced Mubarak out of power. For a young Cairo university student of history, she is bold and, like young women you see all over Cairo, treats men as equal. Even women in conventional Islamic attire here have no qualms about talking to strangers—and with confidence, smiling animatedly. I ask her to compare Mubarak with his successors. Dressed in a loose shirt and fitted jeans, her sunny disposition reflects the sun of Cairo that stares hard down on you. “Mubarak made some concessions in his last years and then the Brotherhood won seats in Parliament. That was a mistake because the Brotherhood is bad news. The government of Sisi is trying to do a lot of things. But I won’t try to compare Sisi and Mubarak because Mubarak’s was a different time when our economy was much better than it is today. Sisi faces far grave challenges,” she notes with a wry smile.
I ask her about Tahrir Square and where she was when the ‘revolution’ happened in 2011, five years after an independent union set the tone for the anti-government, anti-corruption movement with their unprecedented strikes. She says she was at home. “I was young and at that time we wanted to get rid of corrupt lower-level officials and policemen. Policemen were monstrously powerful back then, my parents tell me. But what happened later was not what we wanted. Things took a turn for the worse,” she replies, emphasising that young people had to pay a heavy price for all the political turmoil that resulted in chaos and economic mess. “If I get a chance, I will complete my studies and leave this country though I love it a lot,” she sums up. Before she leaves, I request a photo, she refuses, saying that she has already “spoken too much”. She leaves after pointing me towards the hotel where the great actor Omar Sharif had lived and watched the revolution unfold.
Taş says that there is a message indeed for authoritarian regimes all over the world from Tahrir Sqaure. First, he notes, we are inclined to focus on the ruptures and turning points but the Arab uprisings should be considered together with what came before and will come next. He adds, “Second, now authoritarian regimes are more aware of the potential of the streets and the social media. That is why they resorted to new repressive techniques, which they copy from each other [examples are the anti-terror laws or government-paid troll armies terrorising or dominating the social media], leading to the global diffusion of authoritarianism.”
He is also confident that if a country experiences a democratic transition once, it is more likely and easier for it to experience a second one. “The Arab uprisings brought a new culture of dissent, a political networking, as well as some anti-authoritarian coalitions. These might get re-activated when the conditions are ripe,” he argues.
Squinting in the glaring sunlight at the Great Pyramids in Giza, where local and foreign tourists click photos and speak animatedly, I meditate on what a homegrown political scientist now based abroad had told me a few hours earlier: “In Egypt, we had three phases: the good, the bad and the ugly.” He was talking of the stints of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. He said it was an opinion with many takers. As I ruminate over his words, a prosperous Egyptian family from Mansoura stops to ask me to take their photo and we strike up a conversation. Soon, the topic drifts to politics. One of the women in the group says Mubarak was a war hero and that made him a leader with a stature. Dressed in Western clothes paired with a hijab, she echoes Taş’ views that Egypt is a police state. The Hamburg-based watcher of Egypt had forewarned me, “[Egypt] is one of mukhabarat [intelligence] states, with thousands of informants everywhere. People are afraid of speaking out loud because there is no rule of law in the country and people do not have any tangible protection against the arbitrary acts of the police, including torture.” I ask the lady before she drifts off on a ride towards the Great Sphinx whether she agrees with that view. “Well, this country is a harsh place for political opponents,” she says, before bidding farewell.
Whether it’s a cruise on the Bosphorus in Istanbul or on the Nile in Egypt, river boat rides have many things in common: you’ll find attractive belly dancers and average food; multicultural tourists; and an abundance of alcohol and shisha. As the night goes on, the music gets louder and louder. Where Turkey has its swirling Sufi dervishes, however, Egypt makes up with its friendly captains who allow you to shoot a few photos at the steering wheel on the top floor. Outside the captain’s cabin, one of the singers shakes hands with me and immediately expresses his admiration for Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan. How’s everything in Egypt, I ask him. He puffs hard into his thin cigarettes and comes up with a gem, “In Egypt, most people are dancing without songs”—a riff on an expression that Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had once used. Eerily, his pithy statement reminds me of the gruesome murder of 28-year-old Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in Cairo in 2016.
If you are interested in politics, the best Egyptian writer to read is Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006). The Nobel Prize-winning writer himself had famously said, “In all my writings, you will find politics.” He had written about gay sex, promiscuity, socialism and a raft of issues that are taboo in Egyptian society. For those who have read his works, including The Cairo Trilogy, he is a quintessential and articulate political animal. His writings are all anchored mostly in one place, al-Gamaliya, a part of Old Cairo. A search for the famous alleys he has written about and which inspired hit movies finally leads me to Naguib Mahfouz Café in Khan el Khalili, run by India’s Oberoi Group. Besides its trademark tea, on the menu are mouth-watering delicacies including Koshary, Hawawshi and Fatteh. It was in this café that Mahfouz wrote many of his gripping works. It is an evocative moment sipping tea here; just as it is for me to run into a statue of Mahatma Gandhi on a morning walk inside a park in Gezira, Cairo. It is indeed a country with rich history and heritage, but the ride to democracy appears as bumpy as ever—perhaps worse.