Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Crazy Woman is Back: Egypt's Social Rift

The crazy woman is back. You hear her shouting on the street in front of the building, early in the morning and at sunset, ranting yells as indecipherable as an infant’s existential angst. I never see her, only hear her; I don’t know how she survives. For several months there was no shouting, she was off the street; I only realized it when she came back, the way you only realize your tooth had stopped aching when it starts acting up again. I wonder where she had gone to, why she was back.

The street is in an upscale neighborhood of Cairo, but in Cairo proper, even in the best neighborhoods, the comfortable are not insulated from the poor; it has always been that way. In this city, the poor and the affluent cross each other a hundred times a day with easy mutual acceptance and civility. Residents of this neighborhood of embassies and banks share the sidewalks with doorkeepers, servants, delivery boys, shopkeepers, unofficial parking attendants, street vendors; high and low exchange a second-nature calibration of greeting according to status.
So, when the revolution broke out, there was some relief that it had not morphed into what is called here ‘a revolution of the hungry’, in which mobs stormed the villas and high-rises. Only in the new suburbs of October 6th and Qattameya were the gated communities obliged to hire armed guards to protect the villa dwellers from intruders. In Cairo proper, it was felt, that was not necessary.
But lately there has been an alarming up-tick in ‘drive-by’ purse-snatching, even in the most privileged neighborhoods. This scenario is typical: the robber sweeps by on a motorcycle with missing license plates, targets an elderly woman, swoops down on her, snatches her handbag, spilling her onto the sidewalk in the process, and speeds off. The modus operandi is ingeniously adapted to a congested traffic pattern where cars have zero maneuverability in narrow streets but motorcycles or bicycles can thread their way between the cars and zigzag in and out. The typically elderly victims of these drive-by raids often sustain broken bones as well as the theft of their purses.
Almost everyone, by now, personally knows of someone who has been the victim of a purse-snatching or a car-jacking. People avoid traveling at night now; they are more suspicious of strangers. It’s not that there are more thieves or kidnappers, some people sigh, only that before they were afraid of the long arm of the police state. On the contrary, diehard supporters of the revolution counter, the breakdown in order is a plot by the disaffected security forces to create a rising sense of panic that will strengthen the ‘law and order’ –read military- lobby at the polls in the upcoming presidential elections. Both viewpoints are correct, at least partly.
The presidential election in June looms as an uneasy deadline; some frustrated liberals are threatening to boycott the ballot boxes, rather than be faced with a non-choice between various shades of Muslim Brotherhood candidates. The MB wants a president ‘with them but not of them’ went the mantra, until they started to speak of fielding their own candidate. And in any case, bewildered citizens object, on what basis can you elect a president, when the constitution that will define his powers, retroactively, has not yet been written?
Meantime, the strategy of the ruling council seems to be to keep the citizenry off balance with rumors and counter-rumors, periodic shortfalls of gas, and setting Egyptians against each other over soccer matches. The Islamist-dominated Parliament, rather than focus on alleviating the crisis in unemployment and the economy, is playing diversionary politics by threatening to ‘clean up’ satellite television stations.
But there are many in the business community who, although wary of the Muslim Brotherhood, find reassurance in the fact that leading members of the Brotherhood themselves are known for being some of the most successful business men in the country. The most optimistic of these observers count on the military to guarantee security and the Brotherhood to foster business; ‘in five years, in ten years, we’ll be Turkey,’ one highly successful businessman assured me.
He could be whistling in the wind. More serious than the ‘lapses in security’ are the signs of an ugly rift tearing apart the social fabric just where it should be strongest: philanthropy. Philanthropists who had devoted a good part of their lives to charitable organizations are finding themselves under attack by the very people they had served. In one case, a group of women, both Coptic Christian and Muslim, who had successfully and tirelessly worked for years to bring electricity, water, and schools to a dirt-poor Coptic-Muslim village, find themselves resented and unwelcome by the very community that had benefited so tangibly from their efforts.
In another instance, a woman in her seventies who had devoted her entire life to running an orphanage that had been the 100-year-old legacy of her grandmother, and who had taken abandoned baby girls off the streets- raised them, found them employment, gave them a home till they married, and helped them set up house when they did- this elderly lady now finds herself accused in court of abusing the girls and turning them out into the street to become prostitutes. Her shock and disillusionment is so great the philanthropist now goes about like a bewildered shadow of her former self.
More callous observers assign this ‘biting the hand that feeds’ to unsuspected reserves of class resentment or to the effect on easily manipulated minds of a daily barrage of corruption exposés in the media. Whatever the case, it is a sign that the time-honored understanding that lubricated social interchange in the country, and provided for the needs of the least privileged, is breaking down. Take the case of the crazy woman who shouts in the street early in the morning and at sunset.   
Apparently she had worked for a resident of the building once, and when that lady died, the woman could not be rehired because of her mental instability. At some point she had been sent to an asylum, but was so ill-treated there she found her way back on the street, and from then on relied on the kindness of strangers. I have never seen her, but someone who knows her tells me she survives on ample handouts of food by the denizens of the neighborhood basements and garages: doorkeepers, chauffeurs, servants of the villas and high-rises, restaurant waiters. Periodically, some kind soul in one of the apartment buildings reels her in for a bath and a fresh set of clothes, and releases her back on the street.  
Why she disappeared for several months is a mystery that, like much in Egypt, is dismissed with a shrug if you ask the question. Perhaps someone took her in for a while; or perhaps someone got fed up with her mindless ranting and sent her away to an asylum again. Either way, the crazy woman is back on the street, yelling her existential angst to pained if tolerant ears. That is Egypt.

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