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In post-revolutionary Cairo, patriotism is newly fashionable

CAIRO — After a long and frustrating day of epic Cairo traffic jams and appointments that were either canceled at the last minute or ignored altogether, a group of us, trying to salvage the day with a good meal, drove out to a casual-but-famous restaurant in old Cairo that specialized in local meat dishes. And then the key got stuck in the ignition. After a few minutes of increasingly frustrated tugging and a phone call to the auto service company, which informed us that the tow truck was in Alexandria until the following day, my friend sighed and dialed his family mechanic.

Said-the-mechanic arrived about 30 minutes later. With his clean, well-groomed hands, jeans and untucked blue-checked shirt, he looked like a suburban dad with an office job rather than a mechanic. He sat beside me in the driver’s seat and went to work, delicately taking apart the steering wheel as he chatted softly to my friend in Arabic. After awhile, as he groped under the dashboard for some wires, he turned to me, smiled shyly, and said, “I speak English, but I don’t have many opportunities to use it. I have a degree in commerce from Ain Shams University.”

Later, my friend explained how Said, the English-speaking university graduate who dressed as if he did his clothes shopping at a suburban American shopping mall, came to be a mechanic – which was clearly not what he wanted to do with his life.

Said’s father was my friend’s father’s family mechanic. After Said graduated from university, his father called my friend’s father, an academic who was then working as a consultant for a government ministry, and asked for his help in finding his son a job. According to an Egyptian law enacted in 1964, every university graduate is entitled to a job in the civil service. But with the population explosion, the waiting list for those jobs was about 15 years – which was why my friend’s father’s connections were so important.

But besides the long wait for a white-collar government job, there is another problem: the salary is a joke. My friend’s father could quite easily find a civil service job for his mechanic’s son, but he had no control over the salary – which was set by the government at 140 Egyptian pounds per month. At today’s exchange rate, 140 Egyptian pounds is about $23 (USD). Earlier that day, at the Zamalek branch of a casual international chain of cafes, a friend and I paid 160 Egyptian pounds for three cappuccinos, a soggy sandwich and a small, mediocre tuna salad. We spent 20 pounds more than a civil servant’s monthly salary on a forgettable lunch for two.

So Said went to work for his father. Later, he expanded the business by opening up an auto parts dealership next to the mechanic shop. He makes a good income and he has made sure that his children receive a good education (“they all speak English”), but he is a mechanic in a class-bound society. His clients, the members of Egypt’s shrunken and frayed middle class, might earn less money than he, but they have professional degrees or doctorates and academic positions. They publish research papers, are invited to speak at international conferences and get paid for consulting work. They command a respect that Said’s father wanted for him, and that Said wants for his children.

And that story illustrates one of several main factors that fed the discontent leading up to the January 25 revolution. The majority of Egypt’s population is under 30, and they cannot get ahead, even when they play by the rules – by attending university, graduating at the top of their class and serving a mandatory year in the army. Then they try to enter the job market, and there is either no work, or the work available does not pay a living wage. Hence the humiliation and discontent.

Egyptians keep telling me that their country was rotten before the revolution. That the social fabric was unraveling due to the fear, corruption and hopelessness. “Now people are taking ownership of their country,” said my friend Inji. “You can feel the difference.” I told another friend that I’d seen a woman in a wealthy area of downtown, pushing a baby in an expensive Bugaboo pram; she wore interlocking Chanel ‘C’ earrings, high-heeled boots, a Gucci scarf covering her hair and a T-shirt emblazoned with an Egyptian flag and the slogan “January 25.” My friend laughed and remarked that no-one would wear an Egyptian flag T-shirt before the revolution. “Except maybe as an expression of irony.”

In post-Mubarak Egypt, patriotism is fashionable. Cars sport bumper stickers that look like vanity plates, with January 25 replacing license plate numbers. Street vendors darting between cars idling in traffic jams sell little Egyptian flags and tissue packaged in boxes emblazoned with the Egyptian flag, or packages of cards with the photos of people who were killed in the revolution. The gift shop in my friend’s hotel sells January 25 T-shirts and the flat screen television in the lobby is tuned to a local version of MTV that broadcasts songs with visuals consisting of photos of people who were killed during the revolution in a loop, superimposed against the now-iconic images of crowds of protesters facing down  security forces near Tahrir Square.

A popular post-revolutionary bumper sticker (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Meanwhile, the results of Saturday’s referendum on a package of constitutional amendments were published yesterday (Monday). Both Al Ahram, the government-owned newspaper, and the popular independent (opposition) daily Al Masry Al Youm, led with the same headline:’77.2% said “yes” and 22% said ‘no.'” Eighteen million Egyptians voted. There were procedural problems, as Mohamed describes here, and there were some violent incidents involving thugs trying to beat up voters, but no widespread reports of irregularities like ballot stuffing. One person told me that extra ballots were printed and flown to remote southern towns when they ran out. In Mubarak’s days, a village peasant would probably have been turned away from the polling station. Now the government was printing extra ballots at the last minute and flying them down, to make sure that no-one was prevented from voting.

All over Cairo, at outdoor cafes in downtown alleys, where men sit on plastic chairs drinking tea from smudged glasses and smoking shisha; and at overpriced espresso bars in the upscale neighbourhoods like Zamalek and Dokki, one hears people engaged in animated political discussions. This, my Egyptian friends tell me often, is very new. During Mubarak’s time, no-one was interested in talking about politics. Why would they bother, when the results of presidential elections were pre-ordained by fraud and violence?

Front page of Al Masry Al Youm (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Front page of Al Ahram (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Al Masry Al Youm was positive on the procedure, if not the results. “Egypt wins for both teams,” reads the sub under the headline. On the inside page, the first deputy of the Nasserist party, Sameh Ashour, is quoted as saying that some of the advertising going into the referendum employed religious themes and this must be rejected because religion has no place in politics. Ahmed Derragh of the National Coalition for Change describes the use of religious slogans to frighten Copts, who compose about 20 percent of the population, as ‘political opportunism.’

For the January 25 youth, the mainly Cairo-based, middle class activists who came to prominence as the organizers of the revolution, the referendum results were a disappointment. They are afraid that the army, which currently rules Egypt, will use a ‘yes’ vote to push too quickly for a presidential election, before there is time to field candidates and before Egyptians have enough time to examine and discuss the major issues, and that this will lead either to a consolidation of the army’s power or to an increase in the Muslim Brotherhood’s power.

Issander El Amrani explains the issues in this opinion piece for Time Magazine. The Sandmonkey, in this brilliant post, explains why the ‘no’ camp failed, why this is a small setback and not a catastrophe, and how the January 25 leadership can learn from these results as they go forward toward the goal of a democratic state.

As for me, I am chasing a bunch of stories simultaneously as I work on finding my way around. I’m trying to avoid the obvious, over-covered stories about the social media and the January 25 youth, although I’ll interview a couple of them, because I knew them before the revolution and following them during.  Today I am looking at how the local art scene was affected by the revolution, and how the revolution brought feminist issues to the fore. I’m also following up on post-Mubarak academic and press freedom and whether or not the January 25 youth feel positive about the future. I’m going to talk to the poor – those that live from meal-to-meal. Do they see a reason to hope now? Why or why not? And, of course, I’ll be traveling out of Cairo – probably early next week. Is there a story that you are interested in? Let me know, preferably by email rather than in the comments section.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to make a payment toward reader-sustained freelance journalism, please click here. You will be taken to my old blog, where I have cross-posted this article. Scroll to the bottom of the post and click on the yellow ‘donate’ button.

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    1. Excellent! No one else is covering your subjects. You ought to later try to publish them together, perhaps under a title similar to:

      “So, You Thought That You Knew What was happening in Egypt”.

      Great reporting.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Tahel Ilan

      the feminist perspective would be an interesting read!
      these personal-level pieces are a much more interesting read than the monotonous stuff out there about Egypt… !

      Reply to Comment
    3. Sam

      Good work. Thanks.
      Would be good to have a twitter button on the page so we can tweet your articles

      Reply to Comment
    4. adina

      Sometimes the best stories come from staying still 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    5. rick

      visit the area with the highest number or no and highest number of yes votes.

      youth organizations of parties or political movements, from MB till communists, 6 april etc.

      women in politics.

      hebrew department of cairo university.

      and a bit more research and interviews than chats in traffic jam & cafés 🙂

      keep up the good work & good luck!

      Reply to Comment
    6. Mike Murphy

      How do the rural people- farmers and laborers feel about the changes? Do they see a brighter future? Did they vote and if so which way?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Rick, thanks. I am already working on all the stories you mentioned. Everyone, if you could send your story ideas to my email address (above, in my bio blurb) rather than leaving them in the comments section, that would be great.

      Reply to Comment
    8. michele shields

      Thank you for the unedited perspective of your experience. I am interested in the Feminist challenges and where women will be in governmental positions.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Larry Derfner

      Lisa, this is beautiful – it’s the kind of reportage I’ve always wanted to try to do but rarely had/took the opportunity – a blend of information, observation and opinion – to write about something the way you would tell a friend about it. And that’s what you’re doing. Great work. I’m really looking forward to the story about the poor. I’m also worried about the next elections.

      Reply to Comment
    10. stessa

      Lisa, your writing is so rich and personal. gives new meaning to the old saying “the personal is political.”

      Reply to Comment
    11. Borg

      I was hoping that you would do some more in depth reporting, such as the recent stoning of El Baradei in Cairo, which has major implications for Egypts future. If you dont venture into Cairo’s grittier areas, you are just taking a vacation

      Reply to Comment
    12. Borg – I am in Egypt for three weeks. There are many more stories to come.

      Ben Israel – No.

      Reply to Comment
    13. O.Selznick

      Lisa, the way things are going in the middle east you’ll have to start raising funds for a trip to syria soon. 🙂

      Reply to Comment

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