By Lauren Unger-Geoffroy
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.
This area is the intersection of an outdoor fruit and vegetable market and the metro. It is also the hub of the minibuses that are the most popular means of transportation in Cairo. They are small blue-and-white vans that go all over the city and its surrounding areas, carrying passengers for the equivalent of five to 10 U.S. cents each.
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.
On subsidized-fuel distribution days, when the trucks come by with their loads of big, rusty butane canisters, the people crowd around and fights inevitably break out. Recently these scuffles have become a little more aggressive amid the fuel shortage, which may be either real or tactically created by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The SCAF has used techniques of this sort often in the past to distract public attention from other inconvenient focuses.
People who scrabble to get fuel but miss out because there are not enough canisters to go around may return to dirt-floor homes to watch their old television sets and be told by broadcasters that fuel was sold to Israel for a fraction of its worth because of a contract made by economic advisers of deposed President Hosni Mubarak under pressure from the U.S. and as part of the 1978 Camp David treaty … all of this information as usual bearing only a faint semblance to the truth but effectively raising the levels of suspicion and xenophobia.
When I talked with my landlady, she tsked-tsked when I mentioned the fuel shortages and our sky-rocketing electric bills. No one is unaffected by the trickle-down effect of this crisis. She agrees that it may be a government strategy to punish the people and keep them dependent on subsidies. She has seen that before. Those still demonstrating in Tahrir Square are no longer revolutionaries, she believes—they are now only vandals and other bad people, there because they have nothing else to do besides make trouble.
According to the state television, there have been thefts and break-ins at stores, which is a new development in the Egyptian “white revolution.”
“Don’t go back there! They are low people there now. They should go home and let the country make this election. We have the parliament and we will elect the president before June, inshalla,” the landlady said, disgusted. “And the boys and girls are there together without chaperones.” She shakes her head and sighs. “Allah knows best.”
And yet, this fuel shortage is so odd. In December, a joint venture was contracted between the U.K.’s Dana Petroleum and the state-owned Egyptian General Petroleum Corp., which owns 70 percent of the Egyptian Natural Gas Co., as well as at least 38 industry-related companies. The details of the Egyptian corporation’s revenues and beneficiaries are deep within the black box of the obscure economic cabal of the government. The new venture will produce oil and gas from a concession on the Gulf of Suez.
Egypt’s Petroleum Minister Abdallah Ghorab, commenting at the North Africa Technical Conference and Exhibition, which focused on managing hydrocarbon resources, said at the Feb. 20-22 Cairo gathering that international investors had pledged $8 billion in petroleum investments this year.
The petroleum risk manager for the consultant firm PFC Energy, Hanan Amin-Salem, stated that the industry’s primary concern is not in fact political instability but “economic populism.”
“Egypt faces potentially incendiary inflation if the central bank reserves fully deplete in the next several months, as expected, which could trigger further political unrest,” she added.
Addressing investors’ worries about Egypt’s political future, Amin-Salem with a pointed look asked the audience, “Who’s in charge of economic policy?”
Shell VP John Berry optimistically assured his listeners that increased global demand for oil and gas, as well as dwindling reserves, would cause the sector to continue to expand.
“Petroleum production will require both more money and more ‘gray brain cells’ per barrel,” he said, referring to the development of new extraction technologies. “Egypt’s more mature oil fields may be ready for EOR [enhanced oil recovery],” and “powerful friends” such as the United States.
Berry said further: “Egypt needs to create a climate where people who know what needs to be done will be able to do it. We need a good leader to create such a climate.”
Sherif Ismail Mohamed, managing director of Ganope (Ganoub El-Wadi Petroleum Co.), one of the five branches of the Petroleum Ministry, talked about the critical issue of fuel subsidies, citing the necessity of reducing petroleum subsidies for the poor on the grounds that they are economically unsustainable and encourage smuggling.
Meanwhile, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s son and a handful of other American NGO employees—staying at the luxurious U.S. Embassy in Cairo—are awaiting trial. Workers of the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and 14 non-U.S. organizations, most of whom are surely without ulterior motives in their humanitarian purposes, were charged in the crackdown on NGOs. The SCAF has jockeyed to simultaneously appease the escalating anti-American sentiment among Egyptians and to reassure the military’s U.S. and other collaborators of the soft outcome of trials intended to be demonstrations of Egyptian national sovereignty.
The move against the NGOs was driven by a powerful woman, Fayza Abul-Naga, the minister of planning and international cooperation, one of the last remaining high officials deeply rooted in the Mubarak regime. By brilliantly tapping into the public’s resentment and xenophobia, she has made herself a nationalist hero and untouchable politically.
The $1.5 billion in aid that America has given Egypt each year since 1987 has long been used as leverage by Washington, and currently the U.S. threat to withdraw that aid is a means to pressure Egypt to back down in the NGO case and to ensure that the Camp David treaty is respected amid Egypt’s shifting politics. However, the Egyptian people know that $1.3 billion of the U.S. aid goes directly and exclusively into the military’s armaments and coffers each year and that the starved infrastructure and welfare of the country see only $200 million. Offers to replace at least that much are coming in from the private sector as well as Islamic and external Arab sources.
Egypt’s de facto ruler, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and the SCAF are obliged to play the game through, to try to keep the support of the nation’s silent majority, but more so to satisfy their U.S. ally—and not for the petty $1.3 billion alone. Military-owned public and semipublic companies, which lie in almost every sector of the economy, include partnerships and joint ventures with U.S. and foreign energy corporations and industrial consortiums: Shell, GAP, Calvin Klein, Thales, Peugeot, Rolls-Royce, to name a few. How many countries have a military capable of bailing out its civil government with $1 billion, as Egypt’s military did just months ago? The fact is, the Egyptian military is no less than an economic giant whose motivation is to safeguard the feudal-like powers and privileges of its social cast, its tax exemptions, its position on the market, its free access to land and, above all, its absolute unaccountability on all levels, at the people’s cost in blood and continued ignorance and deprivation.
If the people had access to the real information, would that change the direction this country will take? Political persuasions are unpredictable. The presidential candidates will begin to declare on March 10. The Egyptian people do not know how to keep their eye on the money. They are preoccupied by so many other issues—spies, fuel shortages, violence and wondering whether they want their religion to be enforced by law. The ticking pendulum swings.
A brilliant friend has made videos showing the true nature of the SCAF economic holdings. I had posted them on three of my pseudonymous blogs and on Facebook. They were all deleted, and one of the blogs has been completely erased. (The videos have been reposted under new names.) My friend participated in the artistic explosion of revolutionary creativity under a pseudonym but recently began to use his real name. I won’t mention it here. I haven’t heard from him in a few days.
One of the videos ends with a view of people standing along a trail of blood soaking into the ground. The blood belonged to Mohamed Mostafa, 19, an engineering student who was shot with a high-velocity rifle at dawn in Tahrir Square by an Egyptian storm trooper. He was a former member of Egypt’s national tennis team and national swimming team and was a member of El Ahly Ultras. The ground was later covered with sand.
The blood-soaked ground looked the same as the earth on which the butcher tent in my square had stood. Where a woman went mad. Where the butane canisters are distributed, first-come, first-served, and where tonight the poor fruit seller who tells me to pay when I can, sits, wrapped in rough cloth in front of a meager fire, guarding his apples and guavas and finally taking a rest on the cold, bloody ground.
AP / Nariman El-Mofty
Egyptian women walk past graffiti depicting a military tank on a wall under a bridge in Cairo.