Thursday, 12 January 2012

Cairo through Bifocals, Dimly

It's rather disconcerting, being in Cairo these days. I imagine it must be like looking through bifocal glasses: close up, daily life carries on as usual, the social and cultural calendar as busy as ever; but in the bigger picture, every day brings 'fresh alarms', and the current crisis in the country is the sole topic of conversation, whether at dinner or lunch invitations; over tea on the Marriott Promenade; trying out new flavors of macaroons at the competing patisseries in Zamalek (mango at Fauchon and Earl Grey at Tortina); strolling around gallery exhibition openings; at book launches; power-walking around the jogging track at the Gezira Club.
There is a sense of an impending crisis to mark the milestone first anniversary of the January 25th Revolution. There are those who predict popular outrage if Mubarak is let off his trial without a guilty verdict, but almost no one who expects the actual death penalty called for by the prosecutor, and even fewer who would condone it.
Conspiracy theories are encouraged by the seeming collusion between the Scylla and Charybdis of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Military. At a book discussion yesterday attended by the author, Bahaa Taher, whom I'd met when sharing a panel a couple of years earlier, that was the scenario that dominated the discussion. Taher himself in no way underestimated the strength, organization, and professionalism of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he warned against taking their ostensibly moderate views at face value, recalling their history of international ambitions and ulterior motives. As for the Salafis, as one woman shuddered, "what they would like to establish in Egypt is Saudi Arabia without the oil."
There is some self-reproach but a great deal of frustration among women like her- the educated, privileged, secular elite- about their inability to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood in offering the kind of social services- educational, medical- that have bought the MB their support at the voting booth.
Meantime, life carries on in Cairo, but the outlying provinces, and especially the highways leading to them, are riskier to venture into. The Sinai in particular; St Catherine's Monastery, once a tourist mecca for international and Egyptian visitors alike, is a ghost town.
Ominously, the best and brightest young people, those with the most expensive educations and international experience, are starting to leave the country. But it's hard to blame them, when the latest scandal in the domestic media is the shocking political brainwashing cropping up in this year's middle school mid-term exams: "Write an essay on the great role played by the Supreme Military Council in recent events," runs one essay topic. "Write a letter of congratulations to the Muslim Brotherhood Party on their electoral victory," runs another. "Conjugate: the Revolutionaries have destroyed the country," runs a grammar exercise.
January 25th risks being the day the idealists of a year ago come back to Tahrir one more time to take back their revolution.

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