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 electrical blackouts afflicting the country, Ramadan and problems being faced by the new president.
CAIRO—It’s a hot hot hot and often electricity-less Ramadan in Egypt amid a rolling blackout that without warning shuts down the electricity grid for two or three hours at a time, usually at night, in an attempt by authorities to conserve power. The overtaxed generators are insufficient to handle the huge drain used by swelling use of air conditioning. There have been terrifying stories from hospitals of surgeries completed under the light of cellphones, of respiration machines and other life support shutting down, and lives being lost due to the sweltering heat and medical errors made in the darkness.
In my apartment, in a rooftop duplex, the dripping of melting tar through the wooden slats of the ceiling has increased. Taking refuge in my downstairs living room, slightly less suffocating, offers an escape only when there’s electricity flowing to my fans.
In my bedroom upstairs there’s a small air conditioner that keeps the scorching air at bay while I try to sleep or think clearly enough to be productive during the fasting days of Ramadan. I have moved everything that I need into the bedroom. The sun beats down on the building and at night the structure releases stored heat into the interior. The candles in my bedroom have become deformed; those in other rooms are shapeless blobs or puddles. Even my rubber bands have melted. On top of all this, the heat has made many electronic devices malfunction when the electricity is on.
I have flashlights and try to keep them where I can find them as I stagger in the blackness, pulling back curtains to let the light of the almost full moon and the headlights of honking cars below give some faint illumination as I try to light the melted candles in their alabaster bowls. People on the street after iftar clamber and shout as the sudden lightlessness of the usually bright square inexplicably makes them louder. Food sellers sit it out in the dark. People buying for the hours when eating is permitted during Ramadan try to judge the wares by the light of their phones.
After an hour or two of blackout one recent night, my computer’s battery went dead, knocking me offline, and claustrophobia forced me to walk out onto the landing, where I encountered my new neighbors, two brothers, both forex traders, and their families, who escaped last month from the civil war in Syria.
“It’s hot, but not so bad,” said sweat-covered Aboud, who has the other unit of the rooftop duplex. “I have some LED lights,” he added.
His brother Saeed, whose 3-year-old silently clung to his dripping neck, shifted the conversation to business, saying things were going well in that area of their lives. But they looked worried, and Saeed said: “It is just that we are online trying to reach our brother who is supposed to join us here with his kids for Ramadan. We don’t find them. …”
We didn’t speak of the day’s new killings in their home country, or talk about the unfathomable massacre zone that Syria has become. We didn’t want to bring bad luck on their brother.
* * *
Later, after three hours without electricity, the lights came on ... along with the fans! I blew out the candles in my flat and went up into my fragile oasis of coolness and turned on the AC. I tried to get online but the Internet was down. I checked my telephone land line. Also down.
None of this seemed very important as I reflected on Syria’s horror. Or on India’s hundreds of millions who are going without electricity for days at a time.
I wonder if we have become overly dependent on electricity and the Internet. Even Egypt’s Bedouin camel traders are hit by the electrical and Web shutdowns—they, too, now have electronic gadgets and Facebook accounts and email on their smartphones. (I wonder: Where do they recharge those phones when they are in the depths of the desert?)
* * *
During Ramadan the observant fast from 3:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. No food, drink (even water), smoking or sex until after the evening prayer. The days are slower. Most people stay up half the night to have sahour (supper) before the fajr prayer call to fast at 3:30 a.m.
In Ramadan, the five daily prayers that are normal in the rest of the year are augmented by long readings from the Quran, and on Sundays there are passionate sermons in addition to those delivered on Fridays throughout the year. Last Sunday the loudspeakers blasted forth the sermon of our neighborhood imam as he exhorted the people to bear with the fast and be disciplined and not to listen to the cajoling of the unworthy.
* * *
Recently, detractors of the new president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, have been complaining on social media about his “Clean Egypt” program, claiming that his asking the people to participate in a cleanup was out of line. It is not our responsibility to clean the streets, some say. … We pay for the government to take care of that. Yet Cairo residents must walk around mountains of garbage on streets and sidewalks. I have seen street children sleeping on piles of garbage in my area. Several months ago a dead child was found in a mound of garbage not far from where I live.
As expected, many Egyptians—encouraged by liberal and extremist media—are complaining about Morsi at every opportunity, finding Islamist agendas in each of his actions. The political opposition howls without proposing alternatives and attempts to block all the solutions he proposes.
Perhaps he is not the good guy some of us imagined, but why reject projects that will benefit everyone?
In fact, Morsi, who took office at the end of June as the first elected president since the revolution, in some ways resembles U.S. President Barack Obama immediately after his own election. He is, at the beginning of his term, a first, a symbol of a new era, a new hope and potential. I believe that he sincerely intends to make changes that will benefit the country and create a fair and viable system free of the stranglehold of the old plutocrats, oligarchs and other corrupt power tyrants who have siphoned off the riches of the country at the expense of the 99 percent. Like Obama, he is a former university professor and untarnished at the outset by an excess of political careerism.
Morsi’s plans seem sound and logical, but because of his long ties to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood he faces a large percentage of the population opposing him on principle and dedicated to ensuring he will not succeed, even against their own best interests.
Perhaps, like Obama, he will not be strong enough against the overwhelming self-interest of the opposition to succeed in changing the course of his country. Perhaps he will succumb to the deep-rooted system and become corrupted in order to secure his position. He has made a “hundred days” promise to achieve a number of improvements, but the naysayers have declared him a failure even before the effort has begun.
So many snakes in this box, as the expression goes, it’s impossible to tell which one will bite you when you put your hand in.
One of Morsi’s early projects that has drawn fire is to revive talks with the Saudis about the long-debated bridge between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea.
Experts at Nature Conservation Egypt claim that this bridge would effectively destroy the ecosystem in the Tiran Island natural reserve in the Red Sea. The plan was shelved earlier for this and other political reasons, but Morsi, seeking a stronger alliance with the Saudis, supports the project, which is backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
* * *
Between blackouts, families are still strolling late at night in Cairo, many of them window-shopping. The post-revolution return of TV soap operas, historical sagas, religious and food shows—Ramadan television fare—shows the country is resuming its old habits of television-watching en famille during the long days of fasting. Many families cheered last week’s broadcasts of a significant moment for the nation: the groundbreaking Olympic victory by Egypt’s Alaa el Din Abou el Kassem, the first silver medal in fencing for any Egyptian, Arab or African. Alas, a blackout prevented me from seeing that remarkable event as it occurred.
If the current electricity shortage continues, missed TV shows surely will not be at the top of Egypt’s list of problems.
Ramadan Karim, everyone. Be good and true and cool.
Egyptian kids jump into the Nile trying to escape the oppressive heat.