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Apr 23, 2014
Dispatches From Cairo: Blood, Money and Revolution
Posted on Feb 23, 2012
We asked Lauren Unger-Geoffroy, an international artist who lives in Cairo, to share her perspective of life in Egypt after the revolution. In this entry, she writes about the NGO controversy and a fuel shortage that are distracting the people from the flickering goals of the revolution.
CAIRO—A week and a half ago on the corner near my apartment a woman went mad and screamed at the metro entrance for hours. Her regional patois and cheap black abbaya, which flapped in the wind as she raved, indicated she was poor. As people coming out of the neighborhood mosque and the metro gathered around, some tried to calm her with words and gestures. But she would not be calmed.
This differed from the usual shouting and general cacophony of our square in that her shrill soliloquy was carried out without someone yelling back. She waved her arms and shrieked on a newly sand-covered space where a butcher’s stall had stood until the day before.
Police had come and torn down the stall, two trucks carrying away every bloody piece of canvas, wood and metal that had sheltered the men who cut the meat. Periodically the forces of order appear and dismantle fruit and vegetable stands, which are usually just crates and baskets, sometimes a piece of wood or metal or an umbrella. The sellers, who come in from the countryside on donkey carts or in trucks with others, stand back passively after quickly removing their wares with the bustling aid of everyone around. Generally after the police have gone, the sellers immediately put everything back, placing the fruits and vegetables on the ground until new crates and boxes can be had.
The police usually avoid the butchers, who have knives and axes. But when the police came earlier this month, the butchers had their turn. I was not there to see the confrontation, but I was told some of the meat cutters were arrested. The next day a truck arrived and dumped sand and gravel to cover the blood-soaked dirt as a hygienic gesture. The butchers have not returned.
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They fill with passengers as they go toward their announced destinations, and people can flag them down anywhere. There are hundreds of these vehicles here, and traffic sometimes gets bottlenecked and the van drivers sometimes are volatile. The requirements for becoming a minibus driver are not rigorous, and it is a stressful job that pays very little.
There are frequent fights among the fruit and vegetable sellers, the bus drivers, taxi drivers, police, etc. Our square is loud and lively, usually with someone yelling about something, donkeys braying. At night packs of dogs bark, and scrawny and filthy cats cruise the garbage piles and the stairs of apartment buildings hoping to rip apart the trash that people put outside their door to be collected by their boweb (doorman).
The fruit sellers sit with their goods usually until about 2 a.m. To keep warm in the winters, they make fires out of trash, as do the doormen/building guards, the flames marking a ragged line of orange lights down the otherwise dark street.
“Why are you talking to those people?” my doting landlady asked me about my conversations with the fruit and vegetable sellers. “They are low people. Not educated, and dirty,” she said disdainfully. “Just buy your fruit and go.” She is well aware that I once let our corner fruit seller’s two wives and children hide out in my apartment during a stick fight between clans. The doorman reports all comings and goings, and the whole neighborhood knows I do not cover all of my hair when I go out and that once someone saw me blocks away in a car with a man who kissed me. Even so, the neighbors consider me a good person, and everyone worried when I was sick last week. My fruit-seller friend sent up his littlest daughter to my apartment with a bag of oranges and bananas for me.
The sellers have little use for politics. They can’t read, in general, and the rare few who have a television and care to watch the news receive only the national propaganda channels.
The subject currently dominating the national media is the purported American attempt to control Egypt through “buying” the military and manipulating the revolution. At the heart of the controversy are U.S. Republican and Democratic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In December, offices of 17 Egyptian and U.S. NGOs were raided by Egyptian authorities. Forty-three people, among them 16 Americans, have been charged with receiving illegal foreign financing or operating without proper licenses. Trials are set to start soon. (Many of the Americans are no longer in Egypt.)
Television presenters have whipped up latent anti-American sentiment and associated the viscerally detested policies of Israel with the American agenda and a fuel shortage being suffered by Egypt. They also have tied the issue to continuation of the revolution and the need for national dignity. A typical argument goes like this: Foreign elements have sent agents and agitators under the guise of helping us. We can do it alone. Other Arab countries have offered to help us. We don’t need the USA’s money.
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