CAIRO — Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh gave me an insider’s tour of Cairo and the ghastly political situation facing his country today.
He took me down 26 of July Street on foot to the bridge over the Nile connecting Zamalek island to the mainland. As we walked up the entrance ramp — built for cars, not for people — he asked me if I ever walked like this in Beirut. “In Egypt you can walk wherever you want,” he said. “There are no rules or laws here.”
Well, I thought. There are laws against involvement in politics. But I knew what he meant. The Egyptian government doesn’t micromanage its citizens. Good on Hosni Mubarak for that one, at least. Egypt may be a police state, but at any given moment it doesn’t feel like one.
“There are no laws in Lebanon, either,” I said. “You can do pretty much whatever you want there.”
As soon as we crossed the river the amount of traffic — both pedestrian and automobile — multiplied exponentially while the economic conditions plunged precipitously. Zamalek isn’t the most charming place in the world, but it’s charming compared to the rest of the city.
“Can we talk about politics out in the open?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “We can say whatever we want.”
“Is it because we’re speaking in English?”
“No,” he said. “We could do it in Arabic, too.”
“You’re not worried about the secret police?”
“Not any more,” he said. “It is a real change from last year. Last year there was no way. But it’s better now, more open. Do you know why?”
“No,” I said. “Tell me.”
“Because of pressure from George W. Bush.”
That is the only piece of good news I have to report from Egypt.
We walked underneath an overhead freeway. I had to shout so that he could hear me. The entire world looked as though it were made out of poured concrete. I could taste the black tang of exhaust in the air.
Big Pharaoh pointed out a set of campaign posters on a wall. I felt good seeing campaign posters in Egypt. It was a long way from Libya where menacing portraits of Colonel Ghaddafi are plastered up literally everywhere.
“Do you know what that says?” he said as he pointed at the Arabic script above the portrait of a man’s face.
“No,” I said.
“It says Islam is the Solution.”
We made our way to the nearest subway station and descended the steps. It was clean down there — much cleaner than the subway stations in New York City — and I said so.
“It is almost brand new,” he said.
“How old is it, exactly?” I said.
“About ten years,” he said.
I was amazed that such a miserably poor country could build a brand-new subway while American taxpayers say they can’t afford to build any new trains.
“It must have been hugely expensive,” I said.
“France and Japan helped us pay for it,” he said.
“Japan?” I said. “Really. Why Japan?”
“To earn some goodwill, I guess,” he said.
As our train pulled into the station I made my way toward the first car.
“Not that car,” he said. “The first car is only for women.”
Women ride in the other cars, too. But the first car is reserved only for them so they can avoid both verbal and physical attention from men if they want to.
“I got in that car on accident once,” he said. “By the time I figured it out the doors closed. I got out at the next stop and was fined seven pounds.” Seven pounds is less than two dollars.
So we boarded the second car and held onto the plastic handles on the railing over our heads.
“Does this train look familiar?” he said.
“Kind of,” I said. It looked more or less like a subway car anywhere else, although it was cleaner and there was no graffiti at all.
“It’s French,” he said. “These trains are exactly the same as the ones in Paris.”
We got off downtown and emerged next to a huge well-lit roundabout. Cairo suddenly looked like a European masterpiece. It was not at all what I was expecting after seeing the squalid condition of so much of the rest of the city. I changed my opinion of Cairo — again.
“This is amazing,” I said. “What a terrific downtown. Look at these buildings!”
“They are from another era,” he said. “They are just relics. They have nothing to do with what Egypt is now.”
“But they’re real,” I said, “and you still have them. No country builds streets like this anymore anyway.”
It felt like an Arab New York, or rather an Arab Rome. Later, though, when I went downtown again by myself during the day, I saw what he meant about how the buildings represented another era. Downtown Cairo is all sparkle and no substance at night. The shops on the ground floor are not what I expected them to be. But I didn’t notice at first because it was dark, I kept looking upward, and I was talking to Big Pharaoh.
“I am going to take you to an Egyptian bar,” he said. “Is that okay?”
“You mean an Egyptian bar where no tourists would ever go?”
“Exactly,” he said.
“Perfect,” I said. “That is exactly what I want to see.”
We walked past a women’s underwear store. “When the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power,” he said as he swept his arm in front of female-shaped mannequins modeling panties and bras, “they will ban this.”
The Egyptian bar was called Cap’dor. Instead of glass windows it had wooden shutters painted red and green. The floor was laid with gray tile and the walls were made of wood paneling. There was not one single woman inside. Apparently that’s how it always is in that bar. They didn’t even bother to install a women’s restroom. Beer was the only available beverage.
“There are some prostitute bars around, too,” he said.
“Is it legal here?” I said. “Prostitution is legal in Lebanon.”
“No,” he said, “but the law is lax. The bar owner just pays off the police and no one cares.”
We ordered two stout bottles of Stella beer.
“Best beer in Egypt,” he said. “The company was started by a Greek guy in 1897.”
The bartender brought us carrots, sliced tomatoes, and ful beans. We dug in.
I wanted to know what he thought of the Muslim Brotherhood. Was it even possible that they are as moderate as they want everyone to believe?
“They are moderate because they don’t have guns,” he said. “They don’t kill people. It’s true. But most of the armed terrorist groups we see now were born out of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
“At some point,” I said, “if you want to live in a democracy you’re going to have to accept the fact that conservative religious political parties exist. You may never like them, but they won’t always be a terrorist threat. Democracy has mellowed out the Islamists in Turkey, for example.”
“Yes,” he said. “But Turkey has a secular constitution. They want to enter the EU, so the Islamists are forced to play by the rules of the game. They cannot step on the freedoms that the Turkish people take for granted. The Egyptian people, though, since the time of the Pharaohs, have been a flock. They follow the shepherd.”
“My biggest fear,” he continued, “is that if the Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt we will get Islamism-lite, that they won’t be quite bad enough that people will revolt against them. Take bars, for example. Most Egyptians don’t drink, so they won’t mind if alcohol is illegal. The same goes for banning books. Most Egyptians don’t read. So why should they care if books are banned? Most women wear a veil or a headscarf already, so if it becomes the law hardly anyone will resist.”
“How many people here think like you do?” I asked him.
“Few,” he said. “Very few. Less than ten percent probably.”
We ordered more Stella beers. He practically inhaled all the ful beans. I didn’t think they were that great. They had little taste, actually.
“There probably aren’t many Muslim Brotherhood guys in this bar,” I said.
He laughed. “Ha! No way. This is a secular working class bar. Just the fact that they’re here makes them liberals.”
They didn’t look liberal, though. Not without any women around. If you want to hang out at a mixed gender bar in Cairo, go to Zamalek or a hotel.
It was odd, I suppose, to see my pale face, blue eyes, and black leather jacket in Cap’dor. No one actually stared, but almost all the other mens’ eyes lingered on mine a bit longer than usual. They seemed curious and slightly pleased that someone from somewhere else decided to hang out in their place.
Big Pharaoh made psst, psst, psst, psst, psst sounds, the way Arabs summon domestic cats. I turned around and, sure enough, a cat was swirling around an older man’s leg.
“Cats live in this bar,” he said.
“You mean they are strays who come begging?”
“No, they actually live in this bar. They belong to the owner. I’ll bet you haven’t seen cats that live in a bar before, have you?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve seen cats that live in bookstores, but never in bars.” I put out my hand and tried to lure one of the cats, but he was having none of me.
I asked Big Pharaoh what he thought would happen if Egypt held a legitimate free and fair election instead of this bullshit staged by Mubarak.
“The Muslim Brotherhood would win,” he said. “They would beat Mubarak and the liberals.”
I was afraid he was going to say that.
“I’ve had this theory for a while now,” I said. “It looks like some, if not most, Middle East countries are going to have to live under an Islamic state for a while and get it out of their system.”
Big Pharaoh laughed grimly.
“Sorry,” I said. “That’s just how it looks.”
He buried his head on his arms.
“Take Iranians,” I said. “They used to think Islamism was a fantastic idea. Now they hate it. Same goes in Afghanistan. Algerians don’t think too much of Islamism either after 150,000 people were killed in the civil war. I hate to say this, but it looks like Egypt will have to learn this the hard way.”
“You are right,” he said. “You are right. I went to an Egyptian chat room on the Internet and asked 15 people if they fasted during Ramadan. All of them said they fasted during at least most of it. I went to an Iranian chat room and asked the same question. 14 out of 15 said they did not fast for even one single day.”
“Egypt didn’t used to be like this,” I said.
“Nasser’s biggest crime was not establishing democracy when he took over,” he said. “Back then, Egyptian people were liberal. It would have worked then. But not now.”
Progress is a funny thing. We Westerners like to think it moves in a straight line. In America that’s pretty much how it is. No serious person would argue that American culture was more liberal and tolerant in the 1950s than it is now. But Egypt, amazingly, moved in exactly the other direction.
“When Nasser took over,” Big Pharaoh said, “people were angry at Britain and Israel. He nationalized all the industry. He banned political parties. He stifled everything. Banned the Muslim Brotherhood. Banned the Communists. Banned all. When Sadat took over in 1970, he had two enemies: the Communists and the Nasser remnants. So to counter these threats, he did what the United States did in Afghanistan during the Cold War — he made an alliance with the Islamists. He brought back the Muslim Brotherhood which had fled to Saudi Arabia when Nasser was around. He used them to destroy the left.”
“That was part of it,” he continued. “During the oil boom of 1973 a lot of Egyptians went to Saudi Arabia to work. Then in the 1990s, two important things happened. After the first Gulf War, Saudi Arabia began to Saudize its economy and said they no longer needed Egyptian workers. When the Egyptians came home they were contaminated with Wahhabism. Egypt’s economy kept getting worse. Unemployed members of the middle class either sat around and smoked shisha or got more religious. That was when Islamism moved from the lower class to the middle class. Now it is moving even to the upper class.”
“Egypt will get over it after a while,” I said, “just like Iran is getting over it now.”
“That will take 25 years! I don’t have 25 years!”
The Iranian theocracy has been in power for 26 years.
I felt bad for Big Pharaoh. Even in the capital Egyptian society hardly had any place for a person like him. Thank the gods I didn’t have to stay there for the rest of my life.
The bartender came around and gave everyone a glass with a green liquid in it. Hey, I thought. Free drinks. I guessed beer wasn’t the only thing they had in the bar after all.
“What is this?” I said.
“It’s the water the beans were cooked in.”
I just stared at him.
“This is bean juice? Are you serious?” Gads, the bars in Cairo are unlike the swanky bars in Beirut. But they’re great at least once in an experience-the-world sort of way.
“Yes,” he said. “You will love it.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said.
“There is a first time for everything,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “Here goes.”
I took a small sip. Jesus Christ on a stick, it was disgusting.
“No,” I said. “This isn’t working for me. It’s too salty.” Too salty was the least of what was wrong with drinking bean juice from the stove in the back. I wanted a glass of red wine.
“A friend of mine recently went to Algeria,” he said. “When he came back he told me that there are far fewer veiled women there than there are here. It is much more liberal in Algeria because there they have tasted Islamism. Egypt does need to experience what happened in Iran and Algeria…as long as I am in the U.S. or Canada when it happens.”
Even though he would rather live in the United States, he is seriously looking into immigrating to Canada. It might be easier for him to qualify for an immigrant visa. “If I live in Canada I will be in the apartment above the party.”
“The apartment above the party?” I said.
“America is the party,” he said. “And I will be living right above it. So I’ll be in the apartment above the party. And I’ll go downstairs a lot.”
“I sincerely hope you can make it out of here,” I said — although I partly felt bad because that would only contribute to Egypt’s brain drain.
“Mubarak is a horrible horrible man,” he said. He is the reason we are in this thing. He has oppressed all the liberals.”
Optimism in Beirut comes naturally to a foreign observer like me now that Syrian occupation troops are out of the country, the Lebanese parliament has been freely elected, and the most popular Sunni Muslim leaders are secular liberal democrats in Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. That feeling is much harder to come by in Egypt right now. I told Big Pharaoh I found his country’s prospects grim and depressing, and how Islamism feels that it is coming like Christmas.
“You want to feel good?” he said. “You want to be optimistic? Go back to Beirut.”
If you don’t already have Big Pharaoh’s blog bookmarked, you can find it right here.