A Trini in Egypt: Life remains troubled
By Natalie Williams
Blackouts happen almost every day in my neighbourhood, eroding the spirit of resilience needed to enjoy life on the ground these days in Egypt.
Sometimes the power stays off for hours. As a result, our regular personal security checks must also now include knowing where the matches and candles are stashed.
For me, this is easy, as candles are a passion (hand-poured beeswax, to be precise). In fact, my friends here tease me about them mercilessly.
“Put it down, Natalie. Walk away from the wax. You do not need another candle,” barks Maxine when we are out shopping for food.
But that was all before spending as much as three hours at home in darkness became a regular thing.
Having a “grab bag” always packed and resting against the front door is no longer a laughing matter, and there is no inward groan at having to fork out good money for a top-of-the-range torch light and batteries for emergency lighting options.
Teasing aside, there is never a dull moment here in Cairo.
At the weekend, about 1,000 women took to the streets of Cairo to march in support of International Women’s Day, their faces and placards echoing one fundamental wish – more rights for women in Egypt.
And although some pundits claimed the marches had a political tone, one journalist told me it was simply a gathering to keep the appeal for more rights for Egyptian women as high-profile as possible, on the heels of looming changes to the Egyptian constitution, if and when one is ever passed into law.
At the same time as these women were marching, some 100 other female activists from Europe and the US were being deported from Egypt, eager as they were to march to the Gaza Strip, where they wanted to host their celebrations for International Women’s Day.
Their plan, thwarted by Egyptian immigration, was to enter the occupied territory via Egypt’s Rafah border.
Rain = News
When it rains here, it is national headline news. In fact, what you and I would describe as a “little rain” causes whole villages to be evacuated.
In the eight months we have lived in Egypt, it has rained, loosely speaking, twice.
So when, recently, the Wise One and I raced to our balcony to applaud joyfully and celebrate drinks-in-hand at the rare thunderstorm over Cairo, which was giving our ancient trees a much-needed wash, we quickly sobered up over the morning newspaper.
News that a 10-minute downpour had turned deadly, causing the collapse of a building at the airport and bringing “flooding” that caused severe traffic jams in an already traffic-congested city, simply boggled our minds.
It is fair to say that parts of Egypt are still in turmoil. Specifically, the clashes that have occurred regularly in parts of Cairo since the 2011 and 2013 revolutions (four days after we relocated to Egypt), are still poignant, and worse, still deadly.
Despite the new Egyptian president calling for an end to “factional protests”, Egyptians are still dying for their cause.
In mid-March, two protesters died and several others, including policemen, were injured in clashes between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and police.
The country remains polarised between the Islamist supporters of the MB and all who oppose them, with many local and foreign journalists and ordinary Egyptians being caught in the middle in deadly consequences.
And tensions have risen on the ground, ever since the powerhouses of the Arab world formalised the intention to list the MB as a terror organisation, a move that left many diplomats and international observers, as well as the man in the street, very worried indeed.
It is one thing to fight for beliefs and power, both religious and political. It is quite another to be labelled a terrorist group while fighting for beliefs and power in these post 9/11 times.
And to think that 2014 started here with four simultaneous bomb blasts in the capital, including one bomb targeting the police headquarters in downtown Cairo.
The negative effect of these constant troubles and street-wide demonstrations is indeed noticeable.
Tourists, upon whom the Egyptian economy relies so heavily for its revenues, are staying away. At least, some Europeans are not coming to visit.
In the past, European holidaymakers visiting popular tourism destinations, such as Sharm el-Sheikh, Alexandria and Cairo, constituted some 70% of all visitors to Egypt.
As it stands now, some 12 European countries have issued travels warnings for Egypt.
The Wise One and his senior colleagues are a bit more measured, preferring to warn against all but essential travel, except for Sharm el-Sheikh and the Red Sea resorts.
And in fact, there are enhanced security measures in effect to protect these very popular resorts, loved by British tourists.
On a personal level, close friends are pretty clear when we Skype, that it “ain’t essential” that they bring me Stilton and pepper sauce just yet.
And so Egypt continues its social and national evolution since being plunged into turmoil, following what many today still describe as a popular military-backed coup which ousted the country’s first democratically elected president last July.
But it is not all doom and gloom in Africa’s oldest city.
There are many glorious signs of recovery and reconciliation.
The news that Unesco will help fund the renovation of the Museum of Islamic Art, which was badly damaged during a suicide bomb attack in January and which contains the largest collection of artefacts across the Islamic world, was a joyous occasion that saw public and private celebrations from Egyptians and foreigners alike.
Just last month, archaeologists discovered another pyramid, dating back some 4,600 years.
And the discovery of a new tomb containing one of Egypt’s pharaohs, who is believed to be the founder of the 13th dynast, nearly 4,000 years ago, brought about celebrations, with people converging on nearby bridges and midans (squares) to celebrate with tea, street food and night-time partying, as only the Egyptians can do.
And mercifully for the Wise One and me, the Cairo Jazz festival will go on, with a wicked line-up of international and Egyptian musicians.
I think it is safe to say that art, culture and music have been kept alive, despite the troubles of the capital, although if you believe some voices, it has not been on the same grand scale as in years gone by.
Foreign investment programmes are still coming into Egypt, with China grabbing all headlines recently with a $24m grant towards development programmes.
It is not clear-cut why daily life here in Cairo is now marred by power cuts and sometimes long bouts of evening blackouts, but fuel subsidies remain the biggest drain on the Egyptian economy – a $20bn drain, if you believe the economists.
Add to this the millions who remain unemployed, the constant protests and strikes and a capital city gripped by traffic gridlock any and every day, and it is difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel for the Egyptian people.
The great poet Khalil Gibran once said: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.”
With the military now clearly and definitively entrenched as the most powerful government institution in Egypt, is this country crying out for a return to its long historical tradition of intellectual thinking and discovery? Or simply for a brotherhood of generals who love poetry?
Journalist and children's writer Natalie Williams has been writing for Caribbean Intelligence© about life on the move in Europe and Africa. For more from Caribbean people abroad, check out these pages.