Ali the Shoeshine doesn’t live on the street, or even in Alexandria. He leaves home in Buheira, the Nile Delta, at 6 every morning to be here by 8.30 am. He’s 30, has two toddlers, and has to fight to keep his family going. He charges one Egyptian pound for a spit and polish and hopes for more. He might get 25 customers a day and he takes Fridays off. His take home, once he’s paid for travel and other work expenses, varies between 500 and 800 Egyptian pounds – $90 to $130. That’s what he has to feed four mouths for a month.
I asked him how he ended up on Midhat al-Yazel Street and he tells me how, one day 12 years ago, he pitched up in Alexandria, the big city. He just came wandering, without a clear idea of what he was going to do or where, until he ended up in the next street along, where a guy said, come and help me in my shoe-shine business. The next day he came back and decided to strike out on his own. He moved a street along, pitched to the cafe I found him in and 12 years later here we are.
Did you join the revolution, I asked. His answer is just a tut, the jerk of the head up, Middle Eastern body language for no. Why not, I asked.
Ana mish bita al-hagaat dee, he said, roughly translatable as “I don’t go in for that sort of thing”, or “It’s not for me”. Why, I persisted.
“God created us and gave us what we have. We should be satisfied with it,” he said. But what about all the corruption and police brutality, I say. “We should be satisfied,” he repeats. “Those ministers, they shouldn’t have been stealing the country blind. And the lads, the protesters, they shouldn’t be turning the world upside down.” Quietism. The other rural migrant I had met on the street, Ramadan the concierge, had also shown traces of it. It’s impossible to know exactly how many but Ali’s world view – provide, do not aspire, and trust in the Almighty – is certainly shared by millions of his fellow countrymen and women. Mostly from rural and poor backgrounds.
Hussein is a different story. Middle aged, tweedy and paunchy with an ill-advised starched yellow shirt and sun glasses, he overhears my conversation about local history with Mohammed Shawqi, the cafe owner, and stops to grace us with his incensed views on the world. He’s not impressed with our literary flights of fancy.
“Don’t write about Naguib Mahfouz. Write the real story,” he says, having taken my pen up from the table, unbidden, to stab the air with it. “The army are dying every day. We can’t have democracy here in Egypt. Not now. Every time we concede a demand the protests make a new one!”
Hussein runs a factory in the industrial belt behind the city which makes up a third of Egypt’s manufacturing. But he professes worry about those on the breadline. “There are nine or ten million people in this country living hand to mouth, from day to day. We have to get the ‘wheel of production’ running,” he says, parroting a phrase bandied about by the state newspapers which have curiously become the opposition. “And don’t talk to me about Khaled Said,” as he realised why I was hanging around on this street in particular. “If they try and change the name of this street I will be the first one to stand up and oppose it. Midhat al-Yazel was a hero who gave his life for the country. What did Khaled Said do? Smoke hashish and who knows what else.”
Mohammed sat, deeply sad, repeating “No comment”, “no comment” while Hussein fulminated about Khaled. Among people with traditional manners in the Arab World, “no comment” can be more an expression of disgust than neutrality. What Mohammed meant was more like “that’s so low, let’s not even go there”. After Hussein had gone, he said: “Whether Khaled Said was a martyr, that is between him and his God. But we should remember the words of Abu Bakr, who said he would not be sure of entering Paradise even if he had already had one foot inside it.”
Abu Bakr was the first caliph to succeed the Prophet as leader of the early Muslim community. It was a cultured way to say Hussein should be more humble. We all live in glass houses and shouldn’t throw stones.
Two things happened which ensured that civil opposition to Egypt’s revolution was muted. First, the revolution happened so fast it was over before there was much concerted reaction to it. Second, those who supported Hosni Mubarak and the regime expected the police state to take care of things as they always had. But the army stayed neutral and the police, after having tried and failed at intimidation, stayed at home in a kind of calculated sulk.
This left it to emerge piecemeal after Mubarak had gone. First there was the issue of whether his last appointee as prime minister Ahmed Shafik should stay on. A huge banner hanging from the girls school opposite Tawhid Mosque read: “Ahmed Shafik man of experience, needed by the country”.
You couldn’t calibrate counter-revolution by social class. Many in the establishment were disaffected with the Mubarak regime by the end, whether it was someone like Mustafa Ramadan, a clever lawyer who resented the attempt to allow Gamal Mubarak to inherit the presidency, or even businessmen and army officers. One Friday I attended Alexandria’s Automobile Club, a social club frequented by the city’s old elite. The clubhouse sits on the Corniche, dating back to the time when its traffic load would have been mostly horses and traps with the occasional stylish Bentley. Ten lanes of traffic came crashing past it now, and colonial villas had been replaced by 20 story skyscrapers along the seafront. But inside old buffers still sat by a swimming pool, looking out to sea. One conversation was between a retired admiral and a successful businessman, whose name I didn’t catch, about the New Year’s bombing of al-Qiddisin Church. Both were convinced that rumours suggesting the interior ministry had itself staged the attack, which killed 21 people, were true. No starry eyed idealism about the regime there. Another thread was from a retired businessman who asked me if I thought the revolution was just against Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year reign, or rather the whole 60 years of the republic since the Free Officers’ coup d’etat led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser. His own view was the latter, on balance, and rightly so, he felt, since it was the deprivation of civil liberties and the atmosphere of nationalist emergency installed by Nasser which started the rot in the first place. That afternoon at the club was an object lesson in how autocracies can appear to be monolithic when stable and yet conceal a multitude of resentments, equivocations and plan free thinking among people you would figure for its most committed supporters.
At the heart of the counter-revolution lay the police. A friend of mine lived in the district of Smouha, a mile down the road from Midhat al-Yazel Street, and I went to visit. The street was built just a few years ago and everything still works, as yet relatively unexposed to entropy, eight-story apartment blocks with clean lobbies, liveried staff and new cars outside. Straight opposite the blocks was an old house with gardens, a police house dedicated to a career officer. During the revolution, the men of the neighbourhood had manned a barricade here, outside his house, and a spirit of camaraderie was thrown up, tea round the fire. We went to see him, one thing led to another, and we ended up sitting outside again, chewing the fat.
When Colonel Mohsin found out I was interested in the case of Khaled Said, he wanted to brief me, explain how autopsies create disfigurements similar to the one we saw in the photo on the Internet, give me the phone number of the lawyer, tell me the effects of hashish in the blood. Maybe, he said, maybe, the two agents had lied about bringing the body back. But that was just their inexperience.
Since he seemed up for it, I said, with all due respect, hadn’t the case caught everyone’s imaginations because it hit a raw nerve. People in this country think that police brutality is systematic – isn’t that the power behind the Khaled Said case, whatever the specifics of the case before the law?
“I blame the media over the last four to five years,” said the colonel. “They have the legal right to lie and they boast about it. As the government I need the power to stop them lying, and to have my own media which tells only the truth.” Hmm, I thought. Isn’t that pretty much what the last regime tried?
A couple of the men of the street came to join us as we sat out. The talk expanded. I was in favour of the revolution, Islam said, until they got rid of Mubarak. But now it’s enough. And I’ll tell you another thing. They talk about work. But people don’t want to work. We have jobs posted for 500 or 600 Egyptian pounds a month – about $100. But nobody applies for them. It’s the 25th of Losses, not the 25th of January, Mohammed said, a play on words in Arabic since Losses, khasayir, rhymes with January, yanayir. My company’s losing half a million dollars a day, that’s just in production, Islam said. It won’t be long before their entire investment is at risk.
Usama, who had lived in New Jersey, spoke archetypal American – “Hey buddy how are ya?” He said crime was spiralling out of control, now. Well, wouldn’t the police staying off the streets be something to do with that, I asked colonel Mohsin. He smiled at me as though I was naïve.
“We can’t go back until it is clear we have the authority to do what we need to do,” he said. “We need a law.” It wasn’t clear what he meant, I said. Egypt was full of laws. But people aren’t aware of what they are, he said. It was confusing. He seemed to be suggesting that the solution to a crisis of confidence in the Egyptian police was to give them more authority and power. He was all scare stories, about how an officer had been attacked by a nutter with a sword in Cairo and then attacked again by a crowd when he fired into the air in self-defence, how lots of police and army had been murdered during the revolution but it had all been hushed up.
What you don’t realise, he said, is how the Muslim Brothers are all influenced by Iran. The way they divide themselves up and slip into a crowd, each encouraging those around them to shout slogans? That’s pure Iran. Islam, Usama and Mohammed listened in silent respect. The Mubarak regime pedalled the Iranian hypothesis for years. When I was a correspondent based in Cairo in the early 90s Iran was behind everything last incident that happened. But it was surprising this particular meme could have lasted into the second decade of the twenty first century. Hadn’t the last few years seen the sharpening of a Sunni-Shia division across the Arab World?
As we sat talking he kept getting calls and texts on his two phones. What’s going on, we asked? They are raiding state security headquarters, he said. We all knew who “they” were. Where, we all asked, Cairo? No, here, he said. Alexandria? Let’s go there, I said. The colonel shook his head. It’s very bad. There’s an exchange of fire. My friend didn’t look keen so I sat back down.
You see, he said, turning to me. You see how organised they are? This is the Muslim Brothers who’ve gone to the police station to find their own records and expunge them. Because in the future they’re going to be in high office and they don’t want anyone to know what they were up to. And yet the newspapers tomorrow will be full of stories about how they opened fire from inside the buildings, as though the officers were responsible.
It was fascinating to be taken into the mind of a master conspirator. Mohsin could already spin all possible fall out from what was happening in real-time, in a way which kept his world view intact. The newspapers were indeed full the next day of reports that police inside the building had opened fire on demonstrators. Because they had. I spoke to three people separately who were there, who all said the same thing, none of them Muslim Brothers. This was, in fact, a new stage of the revolution. For some days, there had been reports of document bonfires inside police stations, particularly the hated state security, the political police. That day demonstrators in Alexandria decided to go to the buildings, supposedly abandoned because the police weren’t at work, to check it out. And police inside opened fire on them. It was the political police, not the protesters, who were shredding and burning documents. Colonel Mohsin’s version was a kind of neat anti-matter of the truth.
Didn’t the police store files in a central database, I asked. Well yes, he mumbled, the important stuff. But there were a lot of low level files at local level. It sounded like he didn’t really know what he was talking about but I let that pass.
With every call and text from police headquarters, under attack from determined fanatics, the group was getting edgier. Do you remember, Islam was asking Mohammed, the night we caught the thief and had to hold him down? Tales of car jackings and handbag snatches. Oh and look at those buildings over there, Usama said. I swear they’ve built three stories in the last three weeks. The building in question did seem to lean out precariously with some impromptu scaffolding applied to its upper floors. The group explained how since the revolution – sigh, tut – nobody even pretended to respect building regulations and more. Everyone was building floor extensions just as fast as they could, to be finished by the time law and order were re-established.
Other street residents were passing, with increasing haste as curfew drew near. Several mothers with children, all greeting us fulsomely, like we were fine, strong, decent men they could count on. Heady stuff.
Then there was a car passing with something on megaphone that we couldn’t catch. Colonel Mohsin sent off one of his bodyguards to check what the story was. He came back saying a small girl was missing and her family were distraught. We stood up, ready to break into groups and head off into the night to rescue her. But before we could, the bodyguard came back again to say she’d been found again.
I probed with the colonel what a solution to the security impasse might be. But it was hard to pick up from his answers and reactions anything other than a professional sulk. How about full powers back to the police, together with the undisputed right to citizens to film, I asked. Citizen media was a massive part of the revolution and everyone had mobile phones. If the right to film was explicit and acknowledged it would be widely practised. That won’t work in current circumstances, he said, because there will be excesses and when they are filmed they will get blown out of proportion. Almost as if he were demanding a police right to abuse power. What about if police all wear unique IDs on their shoulders, as they do in most of Europe, I asked? We don’t need that here because everyone knows who the police are, he replied. I was stumped.
Well come on, I said to Colonel Mohsin, there’s got to be something you think went wrong and needs to be done better next time. He went silent for a moment. And then came back with a chilling response. The old minister and spin, in effect. We didn’t spin well enough.
Habib al-Adly, he said, the now disgraced minister of the Interior, was too close to Suzanne Mubarak, the president’s wife. Because she liked him too much, the other ministers didn’t like him and left the door open for him, and the ministry, to be attacked. Plus, he was old school and arrogant. He would never issue denials which meant the media was fed with the opposition version of events and that went unchallenged. We need a proper media department.
That’s it. After twenty years on the force, Colonel Mohsin’s analysis of what went wrong with policing in Egypt is a fragment of palace scuttlebutt and bad public relations. Oh by the way, he said, as we parted. If you’re interested in finding out about Khaled Said’s neighbourhood, there’s a cafe on the corner of the Corniche you might want to go to. What’s it called? He pretends to rack his brains for a moment. Ah, yes. Qasr as-Shawq, the Palace of Desire. Yes you could find out a lot there.
He was telling me he knew where I had been. I had told my friend who presumably, quite innocently, had told him. Now he was telling me. The we know where you live gambit. Old habits die hard.
A key part of the philosophy of counter-revolution is faith in the School of Hard Knocks. A businessman, Mahmoud, largely self-made through links to the regime, has spent an afternoon telling me how everything is going to pot, how the high profile businessmen now being questioned over sweet land deals, some of them his sponsors, are misunderstood – who else would have got land development going along the Northern coast? But then he suddenly lapses into reminiscences about national service and the time he was sentenced to 30 days in jail for desertion because he’d been a week late back from leave. He’d already started a successful career when he was called for service, and, after a week of farcical exercises in the desert, almost absconded altogether in horror at the thought of two more years of hunger, discomfort, excruciating boredom, sitting in the middle of nowhere in a uniform that never fitted.
So I was up in front of the court, said Mahmoud. We have a distant cousin who I’d never met with the same family name, a general. The colonel barked at me, why were you late? At that time he could have sentenced me to six months, a year even, I was really sweating. I told them I was ill. I had food poisoning, I said. My mother took me to the hospital. Why didn’t you go to the military hospital, the colonel shouted? Because I didn’t. Because I was ill and my mother just took me to the nearest hospital. Then he went silent, Mahmoud said. He was thinking what to do. Did you ask the general, I asked him, General Metwalli? Silence, he shouted, but I could see what I’d said weighed with him, he was thinking it over. Finally, he said, I’m going to send you to the doctor to find traces of this food poisoning. If you’re lying, I’ll put you away for six months. But when I got to the doctor, I treated him as a conscript, like I was. He said he couldn’t find anything but I said, well, you can take my word for it that it hurts, can’t you? So I got the paper from him and only had to serve 30 days – and half of those were in the military hospital.
Then, when I got out, I managed to pull strings to get to a desk job in Cairo. I only had to turn up half the time and they proposed me a week on, a week off. But I said, how about 10 days on, 10 days off. I wanted to create a schedule they wouldn’t follow so they didn’t come to rely on me, to know when I would be there or not. The officer agreed. And then I found a conscript I could bribe to let me sign the attendance book whenever I wished. I didn’t bribe him outright. That would have been too dangerous. I just asked him to buy stuff, sugar, coffee etc, and always made sure to give him three times what it cost and never ask for the change. It was over soon enough.
Just as I was thinking what a nightmare, to have that hanging over your head from the time you reach college age, how are you going to get through it, how are you going to get over it, Mahmoud said contemplatively: “It was a great experience. I learned so much. How to work with people, project what you need to, work the system.”
I began to see why he might hate the revolution. He’d spent all those years learning, working and yes, suffering here and there. And they, these kids, were going to render that all worthless. He’d been clever. But they were going to best him, effortlessly, just like that. A friend of Mahmoud’s, the same age but of a more liberal persuasion, turned to me and said: “You know. If we’d only known the regime would collapse if you just blew” – he breathed out like a child blowing out candles on a cake – “we’d have done it ourselves twenty years ago”.
A couple of days after the evening with Colonel Mohsin, I was back on Khaled’s street, when Hisham and Ahmed turned up. They were bloggers and revolutionaries and had come to talk about the documents they had found in the state security headquarters that night I had been over at Smouha.
“We’re calling it Revolution 2.1,” said Ahmed, grinning at his own bon mot. He told me the story of a friend of his who had had a run in with a state security agent in college who had forced him to change his studies, and the night of the storming of the headquarters had come face to face with his tormentor.
How could an agent make you change your major, I asked. Long story. Basically state security police were also on the campuses of all colleges and universities, the friend had got into an argument with the agent and he had simply decided to demote him. Like many countries, you need particular grades in your high school exams in Egypt to be allowed to study particular subjects. The friend had scored high and was in the engineering faculty. Afterwards, he was forced to switch to commerce, a middling catchment subject.
“And that’s it right there. You’ve got to understand there’s a big element of envy in the story between the police and the activists,” said Ahmed. “For example, I scored 99% in my high school exams and the average state security agent got between 50% and 60%. If he sees me on campus, he wants to show me I’m not so special.” The example wasn’t theoretical, I sensed. Ahmed really had scored 99 percent in his tawgihi, the high school exams.
It would be easy to label Ahmed as arrogant as he talked about how awful the prime minister Ahmed Shafik was with his 3,000 Egyptian pound pullover, as though that made him a worthy statesman, and how he’d said just that to a cabby who’d taken him somewhere the day before who was full of common man praise for him. Hisham too, as he recounted how he’d told a friend off who supported Shafik because the friend had said he was afraid to voice his opinion. “’You’re afraid? And you think we weren’t when we went up against the bullets of the police?’ I said to him!”
Both of them were lightning fast, funny, rapier sharp, unafraid of anybody and could be bruisingly direct. Ahmed, who was dark, also had this retro Black Panther look going on, huge, heavy glasses, white T-shirt on sticky rib cage, Afro hair cut, and perfect grunge jeans. He was a hero of the revolution at 20. Forget your average police conscript, I was a little jealous of him.
But he wasn’t arrogant, he was 20. He had no experience of power and didn’t expect deference. He simply expected others to be as smart and principled as him and was impatient when they weren’t. He had no concept he could be intimidating.
“This is the first revolution that wasn’t about bread,” said Ahmed. “It was about freedom, not bread. You know what they say: revolutions begin with risk takers, are completed by the brave, and then ridden by cowards”. So, alright, maybe he was a bit cocky.
I told them an experience I’d had in a cab the day before. The radio was on, the news had come at the top of the hour and the presenter read, “the new prime minister Essam Sharif greeted and congratulated the noble leaders of the January 25 revolution…”, monotonously, without conviction, just as she had, presumably, one month earlier, for the comings and goings of Mr President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak. The cabby was one of those unsettled by the police absence from the streets, worried everything was about to go belly up. Surely they, Hisham and Ahmed, could understand that many people thought they were a simply new National Democratic Party, a new clique that was going to appropriate the Egyptian state?
“But the last thing we would do is be one party,” said Hisham. “That’s what we fought the revolution about.” Though he added: “Now that you mention it, I remember the day Mubarak left there were a couple of us who quite unexpectedly became unhappy. They wanted to stop. We do need to protect the revolution. But we also need to build, now, in society.”
So what about those on the breadline, I asked. The fellah, or peasant, the petty official, all those struggling to make ends meet?
“There’s a simple solution to the economy,” said Ahmed. “Some time ago lawyers representing the unions put forward a proposal for a minimum wage in the public sector of 1,200 Egyptian pounds. I think that would be a simple way to let everyone understand the revolution is for them too.”
Twelve hundred pounds, or about $200, was about six times the current effective minimum in the public sector. Ahmed’s “simple” solution was to raise salaries six-fold. It also didn’t address the tens of millions who worked in the informal sector, prey to both poverty and insecurity. Like Ali the Shoeshine. We were sitting at one of his cafes. I looked up and down but he wasn’t there just then. In my mind’s eye I saw him, though, giving his latest pair of shoes some elbow.
College Boys, he said, tutting. He didn’t bother to look up.