The highway connecting the airport to the city was empty, belying the chaos that had overtaken Cairo (BBC: Egypt Crisis) since June 30 when millions took to the streets calling for Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi to step down.
It was late Friday night, and the two of of us together with the 12-year-old, were trying to get to our hotel. For the previous three weeks, we had been travelling in Greece. Our tickets via Cairo – a city we’d always wanted to visit – had been booked months before and couldn’t be changed. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious about the trip. Our plan was to hunker down safely at our hotel.
Decisions are always easier to explain in retrospect. The way I see it there are two types of South Africans, those who are always fearful and end up miserable or living in Australia, or both and there are people like us. Positive, but possibly deluded about how much power we have to control circumstances not of our own making.
I am a journalist and my husband a former paramedic who has undertaken earthquake rescue operations in countries like Turkey and Algeria. Our curiosity often outweighs our fears.
So there we were, late Friday night, with a hotel driver in the heart of Cairo. Leaving the highway, we joined a queue of cars, in total gridlock. You’d have been forgiven for thinking that Egypt had won the World Cup. The roads were packed with people; families and young couples, groups of men walking purposefully. They stood atop buses, spilled out of cars, sat three deep on scooters – everyone waving the Egyptian flag. The mood was electric.
After inching a few kilometers in two hours, our driver pulled over. There were some urgent-sounding phone calls as we sat in the darkness, the streets outside swirling with activity. He spoke no English and could not explain why we had stopped. We sat in silence.
“No one knows where we are”, I thought.
A few minutes passed and the door opened. Into the car stepped “Mr Mahmoud”, a smiling young man, dressed in a tight T-shirt and jeans as if for a night out on the town. The travel company had dispatched him to secure our passage to the hotel. A few blocks on, he said we could go no further and should instead take our luggage and walk.
Mr Mahmoud’s cheery demeanour was reassuring. He hoisted up a suitcase and forged ahead through the jam-packed streets, us following as we walked against the crowd. It took all my effort to absurdly pull a suitcase through a revolution while keeping Mr Mahmoud and my son in my sights.
Cars hooted, firecrackers popped, and piercing green laser lights shone across the thousands of people swelling the bridge to Tahrir Square – 1.4km from our hotel.
Just then, a noise behind me and I turned to see soldiers pointing submachine guns at my husband and then at me. Mr Mahmoud calmly asked me to open my suitcase. My shaking hands found the key and finally managed to open the lock. Within seconds, a woman wearing a headscarf descended at my feet, and began rifling through my luggage.
The oddest part was looking up into the face of a soldier whose gun was trained on me, and hearing him say in heavily-accented English: “I am sorry… Welcome”.
Finding nothing dangerous, they motioned for us to move on, dispersing the crowd who were showing what I thought of as prurient interest in the contents of my suitcase.
At last we arrived at the hotel and, at 1am, watched from our fifth floor room the fireworks over Tahrir Square and a single, military helicopter bathed into green phosphorescence by the crowd’s laser lights.
What followed was two days of careful negotiation with the hotel’s travel desk. We heard it was safe to venture out after 9am but not after 12pm when there was a heightened possibility of violence after midday prayers. We were told that America is the enemy and supports the Muslim Brotherhood, that we were not to call what had happened a coup, that Morsi had curtailed freedoms, handed over Libyans to the new Libyan government and to their deaths, that the Muslim Brotherhood had replaced the police with their own militia.
Shopkeepers we met spoke fondly of “our revolution”, showing off spectacular aerial cellphone shots of the massive crowds that came out that night – an estimated three-million people just in the area of Tahrir Square. They came to celebrate Morsi’s ousting and to heed the call by military ruler General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to give him a mandate to fight “terrorism” by a showing him some love on the streets.
Of course our view was coloured by being located in an anti-Morsi neighbourhood. A few kilometres east in Nasr City we would have heard a different story from Muslim Brotherhood supporters. It’s hard to imagine a city whose streets are so clearly mapped by politics.
Being there for that short time it became increasingly clear that outside of Egypt we have no vocabulary to describe its politics. No simple catch-all terms like democracy or dictatorship, coup or “will of the people” can deal with the complexity. As South Africans, we have no language to explain a people’s seemingly unqualified trust in military rule.
Our tourguide, Gamal, said Egypt was being returned to Egyptians. He laughed when saying that to rule Egypt you do so at your own risk. Most of the country’s former presidents never got the chance to retire happily – imprisoned or assassinated. And Sisi, with the might of the military behind him, does not look about to heed the warning that ruling Egypt is not for Sis[s]i[es]
In sweltering heat we walked the two blocks from our hotel to the remarkable Egyptian Museum, the street flanked on either side by tanks, the soldiers in them firmly focused on the road ahead, and the weapons in their hands.
At the astonishing pyramids in Giza, it’s as if we are on a private visit. We stand in a desert sanctuary, our feet sinking into the rocky sand. The skyline shimmers in the distance. The tourist police lounge about while a disconsolate camel driver does not want to take no for an answer. The oldest wonder of the Ancient World has endured for thousands of years. But it’s also a reminder that the age of pharaonic power – of one powerful political or religious leader – is an ancient idea, more suited to a museum exhibit than to the modern world.
* This piece was first published in City Press newspaper – August 11, 2013.