Slightly less horrifying traffic in Cairo
By Sarah Eltantawi
I write to you in 46 degree heat in Cairo, sitting directly in front of an indispensable fan, so let me begin with electricity. Electricity has not been cut this summer nearly as often as it was last. There are different theories about this, including that President Sisi actually cares about regular Egyptians, that factories are paying the price, or that electricity is still cut in poorer areas. One of those areas is Faisal Street in Cairo. I think here of one of my aunts who lives on Faisal street, a street that was quiet and beautiful, next to a tir’a (a reservoir of the Nile) when she bought it forty years ago, which today it is one of the most crowded and least serviced streets in Cairo, despite the demographics of the street cutting across the class spectrum. While a few years ago I remember being caught in traffic jams so indescribable that I would turn off my car and take out a newspaper, today the streets of Faisal have been widened and such jams don’t really happen anymore. A lot of Faisal’s residents thank Sisi for that, though his regime didn’t announce the project or take credit for it.
While I am not comfortable cheerleading the current regime of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, I do not oppose him either, and I recognize that he enjoys ardent support in Egypt today. My stance on Egypt is not about one regime or another (I supported Morsi’s as long as it seemed stable), it is fundamentally about protecting Egypt from something worse, acknowledging what is going well in the country (no matter where it comes from, including if it comes from Sisi’s regime) and maintaining analytic and historiographical nuance. This posture isn’t very inspiring, I admit, even to me. It’s not very sexy to fear something worse; it was much easier and more absolutely wonderful to cheer Tahrir in 2011. This conundrum reminds me of an adage about marriage: the worst ones are characterized by neither deeply loving nor deeply hating your spouse. It’s that soul-crushing purgatory of ‘I am not sure what can be better’ that makes one the most miserable.
Electricity is cut on Faisal street regularly, even today, as is water. My aunt and uncle fill jugs and buckets with water, and have become adept at showering and washing dishes with this water during the long daylight hours when it is shut off. And yet it is this particular aunt who becomes most strident when people criticize President Sisi. She, like many Egyptians, believes he saved Egypt from Islamist rule, which would spell the county’s ruin if it went on long enough. She is conservative, a hijab wearer, someone who prays five times a day. There are countless women exactly like her who support President Sisi with ardent passion. She is patient with water cuts and structures her day around them. She doesn’t blame them on the person of Sisi.
Some will say this is the voice of the disempowered, but I think it is the voice of the practical. She knows how crowded the city is. She knows the country is poor. She believes some people are doing their best and other people are not. She does not feel like a victim. She would rather be ruled by Egyptians than foreigners, even if the foreigners are more efficient. She is loyal, she is proud, she does not think of herself as “poor” relative to western countries, she feels in many ways rich. To tell her she is underprivileged, someone who doesn’t understand and who needs someone who doesn’t even live in Egypt to explain things to her, is to her unimaginable and absurd.
Today my aunt is in the hospital, battling a serious accident. She has not been doing as well as I would like, and I am deeply worried and sad. But during a recent visit when I mentioned to her how the American media found nothing positive to say about the Suez Canal expansion, she actually sat up in her bed and cursed.
The hospital my aunt is in is on Haram (Pyramid) Street, up the street from the Pyramids at Giza. It is also the same street my maternal Grandmother Bayaya Mawad Amin Mahgoub Salam (she made me memorize that) moved to from Helwan when my mother was a teenager, back when that street was nearly deserted. The family used to regularly picnic on the sands in front of the pyramids. My grandmother built a three story house near the pyramids herself with her relatives, brick by brick. As more money came in, more building would commence. That street is now named after my uncle.
My dear grandmother died in 2005 in that very home. In her final days she was in and out of the same hospital my aunt is now in, and I can tell you without any question or hesitation that that hospital is in much, much better condition today than it was back then. That is not actually saying too much – the hospital is still in pretty shabby condition – but it is cleaner and more systemized. It’s as if it got a really good scrubbing. There are various things in Egypt that seem that way; cleaner in an understated way, so that you’re not quite sure if you’re noticing improvement (after so many years of decline, it makes sense one would doubt themselves); things seem more efficient, more logical. People attribute these improvements to Sisi’s rule, but again it’s difficult to confirm that, since if his regime is making these improvements they are doing it quietly.
When my grandmother died in that house she built in 2005, I had the tremendous honor, probably the memory I most cherish, of preforming the ghusl (ritual Islamic washing) of her body before she was wrapped in the white funeral shrouds. A woman from the neighborhood whose sole function was to instruct relatives how to do this correctly handed me the soap and told me what to do. As much as Islam frustrates me, it is rituals like that one that keep me somehow in the fold. My grandmother died during Mubarak’s rule, and regarding that topic she repeated one adage: “al namus al-shab’ana ahsan min namus al ga’ana.” “A full mosquito is better than a hungry mosquito.” At the same time she loved all Egyptian presidents, in a way, from Abdel Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak, she even loved King Farouq; anyone that took up the task of leading Egypt. When she came to live with my family when I was an adolescent on the quiet suburban streets of California in her final days, she would scream, “I want to die in Egypt! This place is so quiet it is like I am already in the grave!” We sent her back and she got her wish.
A professor of mine in graduate school taught me a useful phrase: “native intelligence.” In may ways I defer to this form of intelligence more than I do to the “intelligencia”, even though I have had my fair share of “book learning.” The reason I respect native intelligence, particularly in times of crisis, is because the lives that produce this form of intelligence are lives that have had to struggle to survive, who not only see, but feelvthings as they really are, in that way that struggling to survive produces starkness; and these are people well practiced in making difficult decisions when all of the options are bad, as they are today in Egypt. There is an idea in Cairo that every single person, no matter how urbane, descends on some genealogical level from a village, which means most people, with rare exception, are acquainted at a cellular level with a very tough life.
I do not believe these qualities of starkness or acute survival instinct exists in many of our analysts who labor under particular ideologies that are historical, contextual, in their own way sometimes propagandistic. By definition, much of the intellegencia is privileged; trained in institutions to think they are uniquely qualified to comment, trained in particular modalities of “morality”, some of which emerge from French post-structuralism or American democratic theory, paradigms that may or very well may not have purchase in 21st century Egypt (I tend to think they don’t.) This intelligencia tend to create a habitus around themselves (to borrow my own phrase from German criticism) that reinforces their views. Having been in those circles and in ‘native intelligence’ circles, I don’t really think the former are smarter or better or more wise on Egypt. Not at all.
Here are some of the fruits of “native intelligence” that might surprise you:
A lot of these people instinctively oppose political Islam and believe their religion (those that are Muslim) is at the end of the day just and peaceful. (I can’t speak for Christian communities as intimately, but they sure have every right to oppose political Islam.)
2. A lot of these people identify with the optics, family background, religiosity, use of language and rhetoric of president Sisi, including the aspects westernized Egyptian commentators make fun of. I am reminded of one commentator who frequently makes fun of Egyptian men who wear their pants above their waists. This is virtually every man over 50 in Egypt. Many of them have valuable things to say and are great people. ( I don’t understand why this is funny. So much critical analysis comes off to me as a bit racist in the final analysis.)
3. Many are socially conservative (but also not in ways that would surprise you) and deeply family oriented, and often extremely kind hearted, taking in orphans and worrying about the poor.
4. A lot of people can tell when someone is cheating them, or, in current parlance, “riding on the back of the revolution” to accomplish goals that are not in the best interest of Egypt. The vast majority of those who opposed Morsi’s regime on June 30, 2013 were conservative Muslims. This is frequently misunderstood.
5. A lot of these people deeply love Egypt as an entity with relatively stable borders for thousands of years and put it first above pan-fill in the blank, particularly notions of “pan-Islamism.”
6. A lot of these people love their military, and virtually every Egyptian has a relative that is in or has served in the military.
We, the intelligencia, may feel repelled by these affects, but in an extremely large percentage of Egyptians, they are deeply held. Are we not battling and fighting and writing for “them”?
What I personally most admire, trust and identify with is native intelligence political analysis, which is very to-the-point. It goes something like this:
To Egypt’s west, we have Libya, a country being torn apart by Islamist gangs, including ISIS. To the east, we have Syria, which was better off under Asad before the uprising because the jihadists entered the country and are trying to take it over. We have Iraq, which has been invaded, occupied, sectarianized, and destroyed by outsiders on the pretense of trying to “liberate” them from a dictator (these same people also call Sisi a dictator). The the south, we have Sudan, which has already been broken up. We have Turkey and Qatar that actively lobby against their current president (a symbolic marker for their safety and security). We have an ISIS insurgency in Sinai which many believe, with some reason, is aided logistically by Hamas in Gaza. Therefore, a strong military and state is in our interest at this time.
This is thinking that focuses mainly on foreign policy, but as far as it goes, it’s difficult indeed to argue with the logic. As for domestic analysis, for most people, nothing has changed and has never changed from 2011 – present except that during Morsi’s rule security in the country was down the tubes and regular people were afraid to leave their house. That’s the domestic picture to a lot of Egyptians.
The “native intelligence” thinking continues thusly: what happened on July 3, 2013 was not a coup, it was a response to an overwhelming demand to oust the Muslim Brotherhood that took place on June 30, 2013 (I believe that is largely true). We, the people, demanded that Sisi run for president and we voted for him overwhelmingly (that is also true).
I think the difference between my analysis and that of many of my colleagues on the left and of political scientists as a whole is that I do not dismiss native intelligence, and I think they do. I have heard the following from some of these analysts: “Objectivity can only be found in non-Egyptian sources” “Egyptians are not educated enough to make good decisions and are ruled by their terrible media” “The only thing that counts is votes” (not bothering to do any fieldwork) “Sisi is oppressing 2/3 of Egyptians” (It depends on what you mean by ‘oppress’, but this is, I think, a huge exaggeration.)
With respect to the Suez Canal, the government was of course engaging in propaganda to promote its expansion. Most people know that, but understand why: people are badly in need of a boost in morale. As for the economic benefits of the canal, the analysis here is mixed, but I think one could definitely detect a zeal on the part of many anglo-newspapers to dismiss the venture entirely. This is deeply offensive, and a product of these journalists at newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post mainly talking to Muslim Brotherhood-sympathizers or the liberal “twitterati” who tend to rubbish anything this regime does. Those feelings may be sincere, but there is also a huge payoff in terms of getting quoted and and published in English-language publications for taking that uncompromising stance, which fits in with the narrative of “counter-revolution.” It is an uncompromisingness, a stance of sarcasm and ridicule, a lack of patience, a black and white world view, and a heavy analytic apparatus that is often imported, that offends native intelligence and inspires its distrust.
Much of the intelligencia is deeply offended by the human rights abuses that have taken place in Egypt, particularly the inexcusable massacre at Raba’a. And they should be. But native intelligence also sees itself as defending human rights. Their logic goes: if this regime falls, there is a very strong chance jihadists will flood the country, and then Egyptians will be treated to ISIS-like human rights abuses that dwarf what Egyptians are currently experiencing. The phenomena of ISIS, by the way, has been covered incredibly badly by this same intelligencia. The aplogetics among their ranks for ISIS is shocking, as are the aplogetics for the Charlie Hebdo massacre, problematic aspects of sharia, and several other thorny topics that are considered for some reason no-go areas for condemnation.
Native intelligence supports the Sisi regime in the short to medium term until the jihadi threat, one they believe is much more dangerous than military dictatorship, is under control. And to preempt: there is no current leftist or centrist voice that can realistically take power in Egypt at this time. To accomplish that, the Islamists, who had much more of an opportunity to organize during the long years of dictatorship, would have to agree not to contest elections and give others a change to organize. The Muslim Brotherhood actually promised this after the 2011 revolution, but they went back on their word.