A Trini in Egypt: Curfew time

River Nile
By Natalie Williams, writing from Cairo
 
Things have taken a significant turn for the worse in my newly adopted homeland of Egypt.
 
Less than two weeks after being evacuated back to London and then returning to Cairo, hopefully to pick up the pieces of our fresh start in the capital, we are once again facing the cycle of severe instability, security risks and disruption to a simple life. 
 
A state of emergency has been declared and we are living under curfew. The streets of Cairo and our neighbouring communities are now like a war zone.
 
We awoke at dawn to an unusually quiet Corniche – a beautiful boardwalk, lined with ancient banyan trees, that runs along the River Nile.
 
Gone were the noisy hustle of early traffic gridlock and the steady flow of the Nile boats that I had quickly grown to love watching over my first morning coffee.
 
Only a handful of Egyptians ambled along the water’s edge when I leaned in to breathe the morning air.
 
Eerie silence
 
It was as though overnight, the spirit of this great African city had vanished.
 
An eerie silence dampened the morning din to which I had grown so accustomed.
 
Today in Cairo, there is a palpable sense of alarm and foreboding. Reports confirmed that the armed forces had made good on a promise to forcibly remove thousands of Egyptians protesting and staging sit-ins at two main squares, not too far away from my temporary home.
 
For 48 straight days they had been camped out in these areas, demanding reinstatement of their ousted president, who was removed from office in what many called a popular military coup on 3 July.
 
The all-powerful Egyptian military, not to be messed with since the ancient times of pharaohs and pyramids, had made it clear in official statements days before that its patience had run out.
 
Using teargas, bulldozers, snipers and, if you believe some reports, live ammunition, Egyptian police and military forces surrounded the two main hotspots occupied by protesters, moving in when they continued to defy warnings to go home.
 
 
 
Background
 
In one corner were the Egyptians who wanted their first democratically elected president – a Muslim Brotherhood elder called Mohammed Morsi – back at Egypt’s helm. 
 
On 30 June 2012, Mr Morsi had become Egypt’s fifth president and its first to be both civilian and Islamist, taking office after the 30-year rule of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. He lasted just one year in office. 
 
In the other camp, another group of Egyptian people were fearful he was going down a hard-line Islamist route and were angry that he was doing not enough for ordinary Egyptians, though plenty for his Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
 
It is worth pointing out that Egypt has the largest military force in Africa. 
 
The combined personnel of the army, navy and air forces can descend in large numbers, close to 470,000 men. 
 
And historically, it has always had significant influence on and a watchful eye over Egypt’s political landscape, as far back as the pharaonic period.
 
More recently, since the birth of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, analysts say the military is once again reasserting its might.
 
But the Muslim Brotherhood is no Johnny-come-lately presence. 
 
It is Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organisation, one of the staunchest defenders of the Holy Koran. It has been around for some 85 years, since 1928.
 
President Morsi would have been the group’s real ticket to official power, had he not been ousted by the military (or the collective voice of the Egyptian people, depending on your perspective) and had his regime stayed in power.
 
Divided country
 
The BBC says at least 600 people were killed in these violent dawn clashes with the armed forces.
 
Thousands more were injured. 
 
Because this is such a deeply divided and intensely polarised country, it will be a while before we know the true figures of the death toll; both sides of the political divide play the numbers game (my number’s bigger than yours).
 
The authorities have also clamped down on journalists and media personnel, stopping free movement and access to the protesters in the squares and mosques.
 
Egypt’s generals say they gave ample warnings and clear exit routes from these squares and encampments. They have denied using excessive force.  
 
Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city – founded in 332 BC by Alexander the Great and situated on the Nile delta – was also hit by violence, with more than a dozen people killed there.
 
 
Before the curfew
 
Before the curfew and this state of emergency, life on the ground was exciting and vibrant, albeit too dangerous to move around freely, and daily life was quite restricted.  
 
Throw in gunfire mixed with constant police sirens, military helicopters whirring overhead, random fireworks, Arabic music, blaring car horns and the hauntingly beautiful Muslim call to prayer, and you have the symphony to the disorder that is everyday Cairo.
 
In my own area, the usual bustle of life on an island in the middle of Cairo, lying in close proximity to the famous Tahrir Square, has been amplified because of the daily massive demonstrations, the pace hectic and chaotic for foreigners and locals alike – protesting Egyptians and apolitical citizens. 
 
But not today, nor for the foreseeable future. 
 
 
 
 
Trinidad experience
 
The Wise One and I have lived under a state of emergency and curfew before – back in 1990 in my homeland of Trinidad and Tobago.  
 
I was an investigative journalist covering an attempted coup on an island paradise, while the Wise One was practising the art of diplomacy as “our man in Port of Spain”, as the Brits love saying.
 
There are some uncanny similarities with that episode in Trinidad’s history and Egypt’s modern-day revolution.
 
The Caribbean-based violent attempted coup was also in July and was also carried out by a group of gun-wielding Muslim fundamentalists, who felt strongly, just as ordinary Egyptians do, that their country’s wealth (Trinidad oil wealth, in our case) was not trickling down fast enough to improve the lives of ordinary folks.
 
Like West Indians, Egyptians tend to do things in a dramatic way. 
 
Before the curfew, when we were able to venture out a short distance, we saw young people at the side of the road breaking up huge concrete boulders into smaller, more manageable missiles.
 
Women would bring their new-born babies and young children to stand among crowds of thousands of protesters (both camps say 19 million supporters came out).
 
The elderly, and sometimes even the infirm, would sit on chairs along the main bridges linking Cairo to Tahrir Square, drinking steaming cups of mint tea and smoking fragrant strawberry-flavoured shishas, in a show of solidarity for their younger revolutionaries across Cairo.
 
The scene today
 
There are dozens of pop-up hospitals for treating the injured; and on a more unpleasant note, parts of the city have become makeshift morgues and giant urinals over the 48 days of protests.
 
Times are undeniably hard for Egyptians.
 
It is the desire for a better standard of living, one year after voting for the first time in Western-style democratic elections, that has sparked anger, discontent and civil unrest.
 
Banks are closed, while the train service across Cairo has been shut down; and so the economic and social turmoil continues.
 
Yet in my heart I cannot describe life here as grim, and I see this journey as a cacophony of contradictions worth experiencing.  Why?
 
Before the state of emergency and its curfew, you only had to walk a mere half-mile away from the action, so to speak, to know that life goes on as normal.
 
 
Pre-curfew Cairo
 
Some 20 million people live in greater Cairo and for me it is the strangest thing to witness business as usual just a stone’s throw from protesting camps, throngs of passionate demonstrators and trigger-happy army men.
 
The capital would be steeped in chaos, but overnight, Cairo would ready itself for another day of hustle.
 
The fruit sellers would be back once the placards and broken bottles and stones were cleared.
 
Shop owners would clean up (a bit) and then throw open their doors; restaurants and cafes would lay out their tables; and the all-important herb sellers (Oi! I mean basil and coriander) would still set up shop on the corner outside the Western-style supermarkets – they too ensuring their OPEN signs were in the right position (well, protesters need food and water too).
 
Come nightfall, this ever lively atmosphere would continue, bringing with it for me a surreal attraction and strange sensuousness. 
 
Spectacular sunsets, somehow embracing very bad pollution and an overcrowded skyline of brightly lit skyscrapers, would light and lead the way for the dozens of neon-coloured boats, permanently covered in fairy-lights, to sail up and down the mighty River Nile (mostly empty). 
 
From my vantage point, the waterfront dwellers and nightlife would burst in with music, food vendors, musicians, fragrant shisha smokers, young lovers, families taking a night stroll, taxi drivers, police sirens, army patrols, boat people and ordinary Egyptians keeping up their energetic dance of life, well into the wee hours of the morning. 
 
All conspiring to keep the Wise One and me awake at nights, while somehow still keeping a smile in our hearts.
 
Now, as I look across the still waters of the Nile, an unnatural silence suffuses this great African-Arab nation. 
 
Sombreness grips this city of 20 million people. 
 
I feel compelled, as a peace-loving Trini in Africa, to blow a wish out across the river, toward the desert sands, past the great pyramids of Giza, to stop in an area called Saqqara – the ancient burial grounds of some 16 ancient Kings and maybe even Cleopatra, the last Queen of ancient Egypt: a wish that her persuasive powers might caress this great country once more.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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