Darkness on the Edge of Cairo

Every day I walk from my fashionable neighborhood to the university and pass a pair of very kind, white-uniformed police officers.  They stand in their almost blindingly clean attire, only a block from my crumbling apartment building, smoking Egypt’s cheapest Cleopatra cigarettes and directing traffic.  “Ya Pasha!” they shout, “Habibi!”  This is my daily greeting as I pass and kiss each of them on both cheeks.  Since I came here from Utah nearly two years ago, I have been “a ruler” and their “dearest one” nearly every day.  I don’t smoke but they commonly offer me a cigarette so I will take the time to uneasily chat in my pidgin Arabic.  We talk about mundane things like the summer heat or when I’ll again be visiting America or Europe.  In Cairo, the mundane is really of immense value as a symbol.  It is a social ritual, it seems, representing calm and a certain degree of material prosperity, a sign that one can afford to be concerned about such things pertaining to one’s self and others.  With regularity, however, the calm is now broken on the edges of Cairo, and the darkness, fueled jointly by domestic and foreign powers, is creeping in from the edges of town.  Everybody’s got a secret, it seems.

On May 25th, Karim Al-Shaer and Mohammed Al-Sharkawy were arrested at a local protest and taken to the Kasr El Nil police station near my apartment.  They were beaten and tortured, and Al-Sharkawy was sexually abused, and then turned over to State Security Forces, at which point their long-term futures became even more uncertain.  The two were then allegedly denied medical care and remanded to the Tora Prison for a minimum of 15 days under Egypt’s widely criticized yet strikingly familiar “Emergency Laws” which have been in place, almost without interruption, for the last 38 years.  A second protest on June 2nd saw the detainment of three Egyptians and an L.A. Times reporter who also had his camera smashed by police in front of the Kasr El Nil station.  It was loudly and repeatedly noted by security: “There’s no permit for a protest today for the demonstrators.  There is no permit for the coverage by reporters!”  Historically, no one has asked any questions when faced with statements such as these . . . but that obedience is starting to evaporate.

This cycle of demonstrations and arrests is becoming more frequent as the darkness extends further toward the heart of the city.  The calm that generally characterizes Egypt in the region is shattered in support of journalists and judges who are being oppressed by the Mubarak regime.  The mundane is perhaps most foundationally overshadowed by popular frustration over last year’s forced re-election of President Hosni Mubarak.  It is common knowledge here that voter fraud was rampant and neither journalists nor judges are being allowed to voice this reality.  Support for those who do voice it is then swiftly met with brutality or the credible threat of it.  What’s more, the American government issues only occasional communiqués of concern regarding these events of repression and hails Egypt as a fertile root of democracy in the region.  On June 2nd, the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt expressed “disappointment” but continued to simply state: “We don’t know all the facts.  We know that there are at least two sides to every story.”  A day later, the U.S. State Department issued a statement in which Tom Casey said, “We are troubled by the recent reports that Mohammed Al-Sharkawy as well as Karim Al-Shaer were arrested and, during their arrest and detention, were tortured.”  He continued to soften American concern by adding, “If those allegations are true, that would certainly be a violation of Egypt’s own laws” and “If the allegations are true, what we want to see happen is. . . .”  What a repulsively inappropriate assertion of either doubt or diplomacy, given that a political activist in the region’s first true “democracy” was just reportedly sodomized with cardboard in a police station.  Of course, maybe the definition of “democracy” is somewhat flexible as all of this was taking place a mere two weeks after President Mubarak’s son, Gamal, had met with President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and National Security Advisor Steve Hadley while visiting the U.S. on “private business.”

At my university, I teach economic principles largely to the children of ministers in the Mubarak government or American students privileged enough to spend a semester or year abroad.  When controversial political topics invariably arise, I make uneasy jokes about the room being bugged or offending someone’s father with my impending comments.  Everyone laughs . . . but the darkness is here in my classroom, too, and perhaps only temporarily hiding behind the mundane graphical representation of supply and demand or the oblique writings of Thorstein Veblen.  I still pass the usual white-suited police officers on my street.  I still exchange smiles and handshakes and still get offered cigarettes.  We chat about the mundane . . . the weather, my wife, our dog, and their families in Upper Egypt.  I look at them and wonder, though, about the true reach of darkness into Cairo, from where it originated, and how far it will ultimately travel.  I look at the policeman’s aging face, tobacco-stained teeth, and graying wiry hair, thinking only that this smiling gentleman could very well have been jumping on the stomach of a prisoner yesterday or penetrating another with whatever implement happened to be convenient the week before.  A mundane object like a cardboard paper towel roll assumes a new horrifying aspect in hindsight.

The calm here remains generally widespread, making the surface of daily life courteous, yet it is widely understood to be a façade for the externally supported brutality maintaining it.   The United States has found itself stuck fast in a tarry mass of its own prejudice and financial interests in Iraq and yearns for allies, any ally, in the region.  The price for this is paid by Egyptians who are victimized in the name of domestic political stability as well as by Americans, even Utahns, who find themselves witness to domestic imprisonments without trials, remote European “interrogation facilities,” or warrantless domestic surveillance in the name of insulation from terror.   Hearing I have contracted to stay in Cairo for another three years, people of varied origins — including Americans — often ask me if I feel “safe” in what they perceive to be the darkness completely external to their own lives.   My response to Americans is simply, “Do you?”

John William Salevurakis is Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics, American University in Cairo.