Cairo: curfew and patriotic psychosis

Entering Maydan Al Tahrir that has now been occupied for the past 13 days by the opposition asking for President Mubarak’s resignation is much easier than getting out in the evening during curfew. Only a few hundred metres away, tanks block the access to Al Qasr Al Aïni where the Parliament’s headquarters are located as well as other perpendicular streets that lead to it. One has to go all around by the Corniche on the Nile’s banks in order to arrive.
The access to Simon Bolivar Square leading to Garden City, an area hosting foreign embassies and smart buildings is blocked by a check-point: there are two armoured vehicles and soldiers in camouflage and under the streetlights in the middle of the intersection, there are army officers and a man in civilian clothes, who seems to belong to amn al Dawla (political police) or mabaheth (General Information).

Cairo: curfew and patriotic psychosis
“Stop” order the latter with background AK-47 clatter to these late-night individuals who go towards them in an almost casual way. They check their identity cards, conduct a thorough body search on men and only check women’s handbags. Some of them excuse themselves for the “disturbance” while others repeat as rudely as their leaders who came close by to supervise the operation: “If you come here, the ladies will be searched in the same way as men. You have been warned!”

A young man was severely reprimanded for being found so late in such a sensitive area and warned that “next time it will not be like that”. A young girl is led to the officer in civilian clothes because she was carrying an article in English speaking of “revolution” and a sit-in newsletter that was torn into pieces in an extremely mechanical way. “Where were you?”, he asks her with a surprising assurance in a country where tens of police-stations had been burnt and where the political police offices are currently being attacked by an RPG 7 group. “I was with these millions of protesters” the activist replied. “With whom, precisely? The people over there are not all the same!” “With no one in particular! With everyone!” Becoming more of an interrogatory, the interview is interrupted by the ringing of the officer’s mobile phone while he moved away to answer.

Favouring xenophobia to stop the intifada
It’s not very good to be a foreigner in Cairo at this time of general suspicion. Official propaganda denounces all kinds of external conspiracies. Besides the “Iranian conspiracy”, others are thought to be plotted on Egyptian land: a Qataari plot (performed by Al Jazeera channel, banned from broadcasting on Nile Sat satellite) and another one, strangely hatched by Israel, the only state that guarantee Mubarak with their unwavering support! The international press’ special correspondents are particularly targeted by the military, the police and the National Democratic Party’s goons who chase them, assault them and seize their equipment. In such an atmosphere, there are always volunteers to protect their homeland from the hostile intrigues of enemy services. In a building in Munira, a French teacher, suspected spy, had to show his passport to the zealous neighbours who have even interrogated him on the reasons behind his trip to Thailand.

At Garden City at this hour, an Algerian has no chance to avoid arousing suspicion. “What were you doing at al-Tahrir?” asks an officer in civilian clothes. “I’m a journalist. I’m accompanying my wife who’s also a journalist.” He examinates our identity cards, passports and marriage certificate proving to be an effective self-conduct in these times of patriotic psychosis. “How come you don’t carry any tools that are normally used by the press: neither camera, nor pen nor recorder?” “We have learnt to do our job with the least possible means” He verifies our marriage certificate’s authenticity and seems to reflect deeply as if our case was mobilising all his intelligence. He eventually allows us to leave when a soldier accompanied by a rather worried man arrives: A Jordanian, ya bacha”. The insolent young girl is also allowed to go but her “subversive” article is seized without the least explanation.

Sharing of territories by military and civilians
Together with a group of pedestrians, we are escorted to the lit empty coast road, except a woman who leaves to join the sit-in and to whom we note that she’s walking in the opposite direction to Al Tahrir Square. A couple of hundred metres away, young residents armed with bludgeons block the entrance of Aicha Al Taymouria street that leads to Garden City. They are not perched on a tank but they don’t seem less aggressive. Since the 28th January protests, rumours of armed attacks against shops and homes have led Cairo inhabitants to organise their self-defence in a real confusion and sometimes in a strictly cinematographic excitement. We are denied passage on the grounds that “in any case, another lagna chaâbia (people’s committee) will prevent you from going further because you are not from the district”. We don’t look like free criminals but our explanations remain ineffective. We are charitable guided to an army checkpoint about hundred metres away.

“Your identity card!” the officer says. “I’m a foreigner. Here’s my passport”. He focuses on the pages containing visas. “Have you ever travelled to Turkey?” “Yes, recently.” “Where are you coming from?” “From Al Tahrir Square”. “And what were you doing there during curfew hours?” He sits back when he learns that we are journalists and is quite surprised that the lagna sent us to him: “My area starts here. I have nothing to do with these guys. I don’t know them but they keep sending people to me!” “How can we reach our destination?” “Continue walking along the coast road till you arrive in front of the hospital, then turn lest and walk down Al Qasr al Aïni.” “Are there other people’s committees on the way?” “Yes and I don’t recommend them these murderers!” Finally aware of our difficult situation at 11pm in a high security area, he accepts to ask the group sitting at the entrance of Aicha Al Taymouria Street to give us way. The officer’s presence does not prevent the scrupulous security guard from asking for our identity cards as the interior streets are apparently under “civil authority”, theirs in this case and the coast road is under military authority, his! Irritated, he asks us to put away our purses: “She works at Al Ahram”. We manage to escape another interrogatory on the reasons behind the presence of an Algerian who recently travelled to Turkey in the American embassy’s surrounding in the middle of curfew time.

Under the niqab of imaginary criminals
Together with two lagna members who accepted to escort us to Al Qasr Al Aïni, we manage to pass by a first popular checkpoint without any problems. At the second one, as soon as he sees us, a man walks towards us as if he had seen the “Iranian danger” in person. “Journalists!” explains one of our guides. The other goes on to precise: “We are on alert. A monaqqaba (a fully veiled women) was arrested in the area. She had a kalashnikov! “A kalashnikov? Did you see it yourself?” “No, but there are others who have seen it!” Since a week or so, women in niqab are apparently subject to general suspicion as their pious clothes can dissimulate lawless criminals who “spread terror among calm citizens” to use the same stonewalling used by the government television.

We finally arrive at Al Al Qasr Al Aïni. The two men say goodbye and go back. The street is deserted and all those perpendicular streets are all guarded by lagna who observe us without stopping us as the arterial roads are not part of their territory. Citizen self defence and self-management? “No, the Egyptians all want to play police,” explained yesterday a taxi driver to an adolescent who has asked him for his vehicle’s documents and to whom he replied with a touch of humour: “Suppose I have committed an offense: shall you withdraw my license?”

Yassin Temlali
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech

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