Day Two in Cairo: “First they Start Softly”


sudanese refugees

By Sarah Eltantawi

Last night as I walked down the street in search of a taxi I heard, “Sara!”  It was Ahmed again from the perfume shop, with a wide smile.  He asked me if I found my phone after all, and I assured him that I did.  He then flagged down a taxi and sent me on my way.

For about fifteen years now, I’ve been coming to Egypt whenever I can.  The more posh of my friends tend to gasp at my preference to live in neighborhoods like Sayyeda Zaineb; and a few refused to visit the time I lived directly in front of a spare butcher shop, where one could hear the loud sounds of dying animals mixing with dozens of ithaan for a good amount of any day.  But I lived there because it was interesting, central, and, safe.  I was often moved by people’s kindness.  One day my car broke down and the neighborhood men fixed and oiled it free of charge.  I got to know the bawaab who would lay newspaper in front of the door and eat simple meals of foul and salad with his family, often offering me some.  I suppose these people would be called poor, but they seemed like they had a lot to give.

I left Egypt last in the middle of November of last year, but have been hearing since that the security situation has really plummeted.  I am happy so far that I haven’t seen or felt much evidence of that, and so continue to walk around pretty much as I please.  In fact, I can’t prove it, but, I feel that tolerance for an unveiled western-dressing woman is a bit higher than I remember, almost as if people are glad to see such types of people reassert themselves in public space after Morsi’s ouster.

Unfortunately my mission to find a pro-Morsi supporter among random people in Cairo remains unsuccessful.  Once in the cab yesterday I fixated on the driver — blackened teeth, thin, tanned and lined face.  He was listening to Qur’an and seemed a quieter sort, so I just sat back and looked out the window.  But it wasn’t long before I caught him looking in the rearview mirror:


“No.  Egyptian.”



“Do you like Egypt?”

“I love Egypt….do you?”

“No.  Not these days.  There’s too much laghbatta (chaos)


At this point, I’m slightly ashamed to say, I felt a bit excited — a dissenter at last!


“So you’re not happy about what happened on June 30?”

“Oh, no.  I am very happy about that.  I supported Morsi!  I stood behind him!”

“But now you’ve abandoned him?”

“No.  He abandoned me.”


Let me safely say at this point that this sentiment is widespread.  This does not bode well for pro-Morsi supporters, who have now been ordered to clear Rabaa al-Adawiyya square by General Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, who gave a chilling speech today urging Egyptians to go out into Tahrir to give him a mandate to “fight terrorism,” within 48 hours.  My sense is that that rally in Tahrir will be absolutely huge.

I am not pleased that Sisi used the term “terrorism,” which I think he did in a strategically ambiguous way.  What is occurring in Sinai is indeed terrorism, while peaceful protesters are not terrorists.  At the same time, these protesters have weapons, which were used last night, for example, in Mansoura.  But Sisi deliberately conflated jihadis with pro-Morsi protesters, and the problem is, he did so because a growing number of Egyptians are doing the same thing.  I am struggling, but not coming up with ways this can end well, unless there is a sudden deal between the Brotherhood top brass and the army.  But I’m afraid the army’s blood lust may be too large for that now, and in any case, the Brotherhood do not seem keen on negotiating.  This weekend will be tense at best.

I am honestly taken aback by the level of hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood.  But I can not go along with the theory that this hatred is the result of an abstract “haalat ikhwaaniphobia” as al-Jazeera Arabic’s analysts keep suggesting, or that this hatred is the result of coordinated brainwashing from fellol, liberals, and shady foreign powers.  I’m afraid the distaste has been well earned by the Muslim Brotherhood, and has been building steadily for a year.  I am getting the sense that the more you know the Islamists in power, the less of a fan you are.

Take the example of an extremely interesting person I met today, Bashir Sulaiman, a Sudanese activist from Darfur who goes by the name “Matar”, or rain.  This morning — well, afternoon, I am jetlagged — I walked bleary eyed out of my room holding my toothbrush and towel when I was greeted by Matar and my hosts.  I stood there listening to their conversation and decided to interview him.  He works for two organizations, the SCC, Sudan Contemporary Center for Study and Development, and COFS, the Coalition for Organ Trafficking Solutions (  It turns out that there is a terrible problem with organ trafficking here, where foreign workers mostly from Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Philippines are drugged and have their organs removed and sold, which are often to clients from the Gulf.  There is also a major problem with organ trafficking among certain Bedouin gangs in Sinai.  Just over a month ago Matar’s apartment was raided by Egyptian security services in coordination with Bashir’s government in Sudan — they confiscated three computers, USB drives, and reams of evidence of these crimes.   He was also part of the sit-in of African refugees in Mustafa Mahmoud square from September – December of 2005, which was finally eradicated by the security services, killing, according to Matar’s estimates, 180 people, including 35 children and 2 women.

Matar is an impressive person.  He told me stories of his life in Darfur, the death of his mother as a young child, followed by the murder of his father.  Given his history in Sudan, his track record of activism, and his many harrowing stories of torture both in Sudan and Egypt, and the fact that when nationalism in Egypt goes up, the fortune of refugees goes down, I would have thought that at last I had found a gentleman who was against “the coup.”

Not Matar — who was fasting.  He is far too familiar with the Islamists and their ways, he tells me.

He is happy on a political level about the splitting of South Sudan, but remarked that, “If it turns Islamist this will be the worst thing.  These people focus on the wrong issues.”  He said the Egyptian army was, “clever,” and this was, “absolutely a revolution.”

“We know that there is a coup under the table,” he added, “but even the coup is outside the army.  This is resistance.  I was there.”

I brought up the legitimacy argument.  He said, “This talk of legitimacy is not reality.  If you are elected, you have to be careful — you are being elected to improve life.  Democracy is not in the ballot box.  Morsi only brought his sectarian group — in this country you have Copts, Jews, and liberal Muslims.”

He added: “The reason you have countless Sudanese refugees in Egypt is because of the Islamists.  I know these people.  Hassan al-Turabi took his orders from Hassan al-Banna.  In the beginning, the Islamists are soft.  Then they entrench themselves.  Once they are in power, the first thing they do is attack Muslims who are not part of their group.  Then they try to co-opt some Christians.”

In sum, we have a man who has been repeatedly tortured by Mubarak’s security services who is dead set against the Islamists and celebrating the second phase of the revolution.


Later in the day I went to the Al-Jazeera English studios near Tahrir to comment on Sisi’s speech.  Media appearances are a kind of special thing, it’s not every day, after all, that someone picks you up in a limo and gives you mints and little bottles of water to hear your thoughts on something.  I must say, though, today is the first day I was told to wait by a ta3miyya stand near a big pink building across from the black fence to be picked up.

I remember something a Moroccan friend said to me as we were lounging on an idyllic leafy hill on the Middlebury College campus about five years ago.  Watching a stream glide by, he said, “You know, ten American days equals one Moroccan day.  The human being in Morocco is used up in fifty years.”

I see what he means, though Egypt must be even more intense.  Life is lived densely here.

One thought on “Day Two in Cairo: “First they Start Softly”

  • July 25, 2013 at 2:27 am

    God bless every one care , love , and fight for Egypt .


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