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by Peter Moskos

November 10, 2011

The Revolution Will Return After This Commercial Break

I'm back from a few days in Cairo. I'm not an Egypt expert. But I probably follow the country more than most people because I have Egyptian friends, my wife has spent a lot of time there, and I've been there a bunch of times.

First the good news: Egyptians are still friendly, holding up well, and there are taxis that actually run their meters and don't rip you off. Huzzah!

Now to the troublesome issues:

Cairo is a very dirty city (except for the metro, which is still clean and efficient). I knew this from previous visits, but it's worse now. Being surrounded by a desert probably doesn't help. But a big part of the problem is that a few years ago a surprisingly effective ancient (and green) system of trash-pickers and pigs and recycling was replaced with foreign companies and big trucks (read: corruption). To undercut the old system (or just because of ignorant fear and anti-Christian bias), they killed off all the pigs.

Evidently there were a few days after the revolution when everybody went out and scrubbed the streets. Those days are gone. I mean, I know they've got bigger things to worry about, but I've never a city with so much trash. And I've seen a lot of trashy cities.

Egypt is also unhygienic. This is also nothing new. But what good is a dictator is he doesn’t even teach basic concepts like germ theory? Even the commies were good with that. And I wouldn’t even mind everybody touching my food with their hands if there was a more steady supply of toilet paper and soap. And is it really too much to ask the popcorn vendors to use something other their hands to shovel popcorn in bags? Evidently, yes (though it didn’t stop me from eating popcorn).

Downtown Cairo is kind of beautiful, if your glasses are rose-tinted enough. But it's sad because what used to be a modern and progressive 2nd-world city in the 1950s is now a third-world mess. Don't get me wrong, there are still cultured and modern Egyptians. But to some extent, they’ve lost the good fight. Many of those with the means have fled to satellite suburbs. And because traffic is such a mess, you can’t get from here to there.

Also, Talaat Harb Street is filled with street vendors. Lot’s of them. Especially at night. This is new and not sustainable. But how it will work it remains to be seen.

Walking around Cairo is like being in New York at 3:30 pm on a weekday. School just got out, but in Cairo it’s all the time. Too many young kids (male kids) goofing off and hitting each other and holding hands and shouting and otherwise letting out their repressed frustrations. At least they’re not drunk.

Post-revolution (which is a misnomer, as I’ll explain) crime is a big problem. Well, at least they say it's a big problem. But honestly, Cairo is still a pretty safe city. And this says something good about a people living in a place without police patrol or even basic rule of law.

Despite the supposed breakdown in law and order, it’s actually easier than it used to be for a foreigner like me to walk around in peace. This is a strange problem somewhat unique to Egypt. The people are too friendly.

Despite being a major international world metropolis for going on three millennia 3,000 years, many Cairenes act like they’ve seen a foreigner. This can be charming, as when a gaggle of 10-year-old girls, each in turn, practices their English and asks my wife “What’s your name?!” It can all be very charming. (Alas, the “Welcome in Cairo!” generation seems to have passed and a new generation has better learned English prepositions). 95% percent of it honestly good natured. People are hospitable. But such friendliness can be very tiring if you just want to walk down the street in peace. But interestingly, as a man, the touting harassment is actually less than it used to be.

On my first trip to Egypt I remember amazing one-sided haggling as taxi drivers would lower their fare when I declined their services because I was already at my destination. Now there are fewer tourists (by far). And people still ask if you want to a taxi or to buy perfume. But by and large, and this is new, they take no for an answer! Perhaps, as my Egyptian suggested, with freedom comes dignity.

The revolution (referred to as "The 18 Days") is not finished. The details of the battles are amazing to here. And yes, it was a big deal to throw off a corrupt US-backed dictator. It’s hard to understand the level of theft and corruption that exists. We’re not talking millions. We’re talking billions. We're not talking baksheesh. We're talking institutionalized massive corruption right from the top on down. Perhaps one-quarter to one-half of the entire economy simply siphoned off. Mubarak’s sons alone have $340 million in Swiss bank accounts. Their top associate? $4 billion. And yes, this is literally the tip of the iceberg. I mean really, isn't there some point when you say, "I've stolen enough money"? But part of what makes the corruption so endemic is that most of this money was probably stolen “legally,” through government contracts in accordance with the rule of (bad ) law.

Also keep in mind this happened not just with US knowledge but with actual billions in US aid to keep this guy in power and reward him for keeping peace with Israel. I’m always amazed people are so nice to Americans after we’ve done so much to screw up their countries. I wish we could be so forgiving of others.

There’s also the minor problem of a potential impending pogrom against the Coptics. Don't know who the Copts are? Well, neither does your average Egyptian. Ten percent of the country is Coptic Christian and much of the other 90 percent has no clue who they are or where they're from--which is kind of ironic since they were there first. It’s as if schools in America never taught white Americans anything about the presence of blacks in America. Or Native Americans.

Ignorance is a big problem.

A few weeks ago a couple dozen Coptics were killed by the army and then, as my Egyptian friend so eloquently put it, “bearded motherfuckers” went on TV urging the people to save the army from the unbelievers. Thousands of sexual repressed young men, idiots all, converged on the main square, and beat the crap out of whomever they could find (they also attacked liquor stores, since they’re all Christian run). And in response the military leaders arrested some bloggers and extended decades of “emergency rule.”

Earlier the military shut down, by force, TV stations (including local Al Jazeera), for reporting the news.

It’s semi-controlled thuggery. The message--not just to the Christians minority but to everybody--is “don’t get uppity. Maybe Mubarak was too much of a pussy to use force—but we will have no such qualms.”

Maybe the military will turn over power after free and fair elections. But seeing how military leaders live isolated and pampered lives, are very conservative, and make millions from the status quo, why would they really want change?

In the end there are only two questions that matter:

1) Will ignorant Islamists win a majority in an election?

And 2) will the military give up power?

If I were a bookie, I’d place even odds on both. But if I were a betting man, I’d bet on a double ‘no.’ And I also would not be surprised if the military uses the Brotherhood--just like Mubarak did--as an excuse to refuse to cede power. But then what's the best we can hope for? A benevolent dictator and another revolution? Can we at least get the trash collected?

All this makes me say that “The 18 Days” was not the revolution but just Day One. So here’s to the good guys, those who want a modern and tolerant and civil and free Egypt: fight the good fight. It won't be easy.

Update: A few added pics now that my wife is back with my camera:The view from our hotel. And we like this hotel. But also notice how clean and tidy one woman keeps her balcony.

"What's your name?!" (times 12) At the Coptic Monistary

At the "eco lodg" [sic] near the monistaries. Since it wouldn't pass western standards of ecological, I figured it stood for "economy lodge." This was a very sweet dog I named, "gimpy whimper wags," for reasons that were all too obvious. He was very sweet, even I didn't want to pet him too much, also for obvious reasons. But at times, who could resist his debonaire charms and he politely limped after us, eager for a head scratch?

Manning the police barricade at the Giza train station.

Downtown Cairo, on a surprisingly clean and beautiful morning.

Anti-colonial leaflets to terrorize the British. From the early 1950s, I presume.

in the coming election, who could be against freedom and justice? Except this is propaganda for the Muslim Brotherhood.

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