March 18th, 2011

Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, Hiding in Plain Sight

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Photo by Sarah Carr

I couldn’t quite glimpse Hosni Mubarak from my balcony in Garden City, but simply knowing that his portrait was nearby made me unable to shake the sensation of being watched. Not exactly towering over, but nudged by its rooftop mechanicals above the rooflines of the neighborhood’s decadently decomposing 19th century apartment houses was its home, the khaki hulk of the Ministry of Social Solidarity — more Orwellian in name than purpose. Mounted on its façade, the multistory banner depicting the longtime Egyptian president — slumping, casually, in shades — was what really gave the place its authority. I never encountered a more affirming symbol of Mubarak’s power than his pose on that photo: the longstanding ruler was so calm, collected, comfortable.

Dictators survive by avoiding blame and instilling awe. Both served Mubarak well. Russian peasants were said to have hated the czar’s officials — who constantly interfered in their daily lives — but to have loved the distant czar, whom they imagined, were he in touch, would ultimately set their lives right. Perhaps that’s why it was relatively hard to find, in Cairo, many more of the trappings — monuments, murals, political paraphanelia — that mark personally invested, ideologically rigid, and, hence, vulnerable regimes. It’s possible that, walking through Bolshevik Petrograd or late Maoist Beijing, you could have somehow put the omnipresent slogans and statues out of your mind, but in Cairo there seemed to be far less need.

True, Mubarak’s visage still gazed out from many posters, murals, and portraits, but their relatively low degree of frequency reflected the fact that his regime was more of a shadowy, bandit kleptocracy than a mass-murderous personality cult. Every classroom in Egypt apparently had an image of the president mounted on its wall, but they must have only made the president appear as a fixed, unresponsive certainty of daily life, or else an image that would recede in memories as quickly as algebra and playground fights. Many of the old posters were already fading by themselves. The bridges, streets, and stations named after the former president made him seem like a figure from distant history rather than someone who could be held to the consent of the governed.

By refraining from stuffing itself into Egyptians’ fields of vision, the regime also ensured it did not become a default excuse for the sometimes crumbling condition of the country or its inhabitants’ stagnant fortunes. That few, casual images of Mubarak produced — such as the one that hung from the ministry — spoke volumes about his removal from the people. As the revolution that broke out in January helped attest, they made the old ruler seem out of touch. Their isolation, for the longest time, made him seem untouchable.

If you were, like me, a foreigner who could stutter only a smattering of Arabic, you, too, may have read pre-revolutionary Cairo by the words and images on its streets, by the apparent anonimity and diffuseness of its crowds. You might have also noticed, beyond the rare, occasional reminders of the regime, a corresponding lack of tangible dissent. Anti-graffiti statutes or protest permit requirements have rarely deterred people in countries founded on freedom of speech, but in Egypt, as in China, the paucity of evidence written on the proverbial walls, and the day-in-day-out uninterrupted sameness of the jostle on the sidewalks, is what stood out: like many authoritarian states, Egypt seemed to lack of angrily-scrawled remonstrances or frequent public gatherings.

Fleeting glances and first impressions are deceiving. I later learned about all kinds of disturbances disrupting the deceptively calm surface tension of Egyptian street life — from sectarian strife between Christians and Muslims to, more often, the outbreaks of enmity between fans of different soccer teams. But the government was easily able to channel these forces away from any challenge to its authority. The violence against the Algerian soccer team that gripped the country in 2009 was a convenient means for the government to, at the same time, funnel rage outward, toward the Other, and portray itself as a necessary intermediary, a voice of calm and reason.

And the country’s low-intensity religious skirmishes provided the same opportunity — to the extent that some of the January 25th revolutionaries even believed that sectarian strife had actually been a government invention. But it had been a sufficient distraction that, in the wake of New Years Eve’s deadly Alexandria church bombing, many of the same people had been addressing interfaith distrust as a broader social problem. Such were the pressure valves at its disposal that, for thirty years, Egypt could boil off in any direction but Mubarak’s.

That’s not to say that real disruptions didn’t take place, that the government didn’t blink or break a sweat: January 25th didn’t materialize from some online ether, but came on the heels of many earlier demonstrations and labor actions: two major antecedents of the revolution were a 2003 protest against the Iraq War and a 2008 general strike. And wherever there was a seemingly mettlesome crowd — or could have been — there was also an overwhelming throng of police, the visual paradox of a show of force betraying the insecurities of its superiors.

Who were the people in uniform, the latent enforcers of the late regime? “Poor askaris,” whispered a girl I’d met at at the American University. We were sitting on a bus that was moving slowly down a thronged, Islamic Cairo street that doubled as a bustling market, and she was using the word for “soldier” to describe the policemen below, who seemed almost panicked by their chaotic context. The girl explained that many of Cairo’s police were poor conscripts from distant, rural provinces, sent far from home to ensure they wouldn’t deviate from duty by encountering familiar faces on their beat.

The look that these draftees wore never seemed to express the confidence of control; they were less fearsome than disoriented, confused about when to step in to a situation or when to leave it alone. Late at night, I saw a car speeding in the wrong direction on Qasr al-Aini Street, near parliament. The myriad policemen guarding the cluster of government buildings nearby didn’t move or lift a finger; but they did let out a loud, resonant laugh. Around the same time a few weeks earlier, walking near the onramps to the 6th October Bridge, I’d been questioned by a traffic policeman who asked me my name, stared at me for a few minutes, and then finally decided to let me pass.

Photos by Ed Yourdon (top) and Sarah Carr

Moments of authoritarian surrealism — not to mention terror — weren’t uncommon in Mubarak’s Egypt, but they don’t seem likely to have been what touched off the country’s revolt alone. Much more palpable and grating — and often, for the desperate, near-starving lower classes, more harmful and even deadly — was Egypt’s economic stagnation. The last serious threat to the regime, after all, had been the 1977 bread riots — suppressed by force. In 2008, hardly a photojournalist seemed to pass through Cairo without heading to what he or she called “the bread lines” — in reality, daily tumult over limited food rations at government handout stations.

Egypt might have enjoyed its circenses — SMS, soccer, satellite TV — but it was proving increasingly impossible to get the masses their panem. Cairo had millions too many mouths to feed. The government misguidedly boasted about high birthrates, which came at the cost of incredibly taxed resources. The economy — the part that was not funneled directly into the bank accounts of closely-connected elites — was forced to revolve not around profits so much as the creation of jobs (build a wall in the middle of a restaurant and employ someone to open the door between rooms, and another family is provided for).

But there weren’t enough doors in enough restaurants to employ everyone, not enough roofs under which everyone could crowd. Cairo burst at the seams of belief. Shack villages garnished the rooftops of Downtown Cairo’s once-grand residential buildings. Tourists increasingly flocked from the usual sights to gawk at the poor squatting among the tombs in the City of the Dead (a cemetary turned slum) or the zabaleen (garbage collectors) who sorted trash on the rooftops of Manshiyat naser (“garbage city; a slum turned dump).

To say the contrast with the upper middle class was vast would go far beyond the term “understatement”. Endless swells of villas — a Latin euphemism for suburban McMansions — fanned out far into the desert, interspersed by implausibly air conditioned malls. You could live in this Egypt without any knowledge that the country felt all that different from Phoenix or Las Vegas. Elite members of the ruling party secluded themselves in even more far-flung hideaways.

In Cairo, such sprawl served as just another means of cementing — literally — government power. In such a diffuse, disintegrated city, there were few central gathering places. Deprived of mutual contact, sympathy between classes unwound. To spread out Cairo was to divide and rule. Destitute Egypt was often compared unfavorably to Dubai, but the vast distance in place, space, and character between the sprawling, Sunbelt city and its corroding slums core made Cairo seem not unlike a spatially inverted emirate.

Designopolis, a mall in Cairo’s western suburbs (top); Zabaleen in Manshiyat naser. Photos by davidfitzy7 and Michael Slagter

If this scheme had a central flaw, it was that, as of January 25th, it remained incomplete. Government functions — Mubarak’s headquarters, the Supreme Court, State Security — had long dispersed to suburban redoubts, but many remained downtown, including the Mugamma, a sort of navel of all Egyptian bureaucracy that drew ceaseless comparisons to Kafka’s castle and had a (literally) Stalinist architectural shell — the building, like Warsaw’s loathed Palace of Culture and Science, was a dubious Soviet “gift”.

Thousands of Egyptians, in every income bracket, were obliged to file through the Mogamma’s hallways and wait interminably in its lines to process all manner of paperwork — nothing assists authoritarian rule more effectively than the deluge of illusory legality afforded by bureaucratic processes — a task primarily accomplished by hand. Judging from what could be glimpsed behind its clerks’ windows, this was a universe fueled entirely by typewriters and trays of tea.

The infuriating sieve of the Mugamma was a rallying point for criticism and dissatisfaction. One of the films most recommended to me during my time in Egypt was Al-Irhab wa al-Kabab (“Terrorism and Kebab“), a 1992 comedy in which the building is taken seige by an everyman, Ahmed, frustrated by its long lines and intransigent employees. In negotiations with the Ministry of the Interior, the “terrorist” demands a kebab for everyone stuck inside. Superficially, it’s an absurd request, but it wryly commented on both the price of meat (out of range for many Egyptians) and demonstrated that the “real” hostage-taker was the government, against whom Ahmed was negotiating for the release of wearied (and hungry) souls.

Foreigners, too, were obliged to enter the Mugamma. Most came to renew their visas, but such was its significance some appeared to come in the naïve hope that the building was a one-stop shop to resolve any of their problems, rather than frustrate them. A woman might ask, in Italian-accented English, how she can purchase a house in the remote Siwa Oasis. Burqa-clad blondes, reportedly the imported wives of Gulfi sheikhs, were a surprisingly common sight, though for what purpose they came to the building I didn’t know.

On my own visit I caught another sight of Mubarak, tucked, almost inconspicously, into a side hallway, even less prominently placed than the small presidential portraits American federal buildings and passport halls are obliged to hang. The man responsible for what happened in Egypt’s most hated edifice may have tried to remove himself from the limelight of responsibility, but he was ultimately hiding in plain sight. So was the brewing revolt. When you left the anger-inducing queues of the Mugamma, passed the painting of the president, and sought the street, you found that the building had only one obvious exit. It faced directly onto Tahrir Square.


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