Cairo lurched to life Sunday, looking ghastly, like Dick Cheney rising up cadaverous and pale each time the Secret Service shocks his heart back into beating. Shop shutters creaked up, taxis raced rabbity and skittish on the underpopulated streets, clouds of auto exhaust mushroomed skyward in the heat.
The Muslim Brotherhood called for two demonstrations against the military regime, but cancelled them at the last minute. We went to Maadi, past the planned destination of one march. An armored personnel carrier, gun rampant, blocked the gates of the Supreme Constitutional Court building, a stone monstrosity patterned vaguely on Abu Simbel. They guarded what everybody knows is empty as a raided tomb: There’s no constitution inside.
Early in the morning, troops raided hundreds of homes across the country, arresting Brotherhood members. So one aspect of the Mubarak years is back: the knock on the door. By evening, the government affirmed that its security forces killed at least 36 prisoners in its custody. The official line was that “terrorists” attacked a detainee convoy near Abu Zaabal, north of Cairo, and the victims died in the shoot-out. Anonymous authorities told the press, though, that one truckful of prisoners had managed to capture a guard. The victims suffocated when other guards fired massive rounds of tear gas into the crammed, barred van.
The corpses are collected in a makeshift morgue at Abu Zaabal. For an insight into the country now, Google “Egypt” and “makeshift morgue”: over 80,000 results. Can’t this be turned to account? Perhaps it’s an opportunity for the architectural profession, always both servant and reflection of Egypt’s national ideologies. Hundreds of unemployed architects drift wistfully round disused construction sites as the economy erodes, and like the rest of the proverbial Arab Street, they could easily defect to Extremism and Terror. Rather than just shooting them, which is tempting, why not set them to work building prefab makeshift morgues, for transport to massacre sites as needed? A variety of styles could be drawn upon to suit the victims (neo-Pharaonic for Nasserists, the International Style for secular liberals, Moorish revival for Islamists). Who would want to repose like this –
— when this could be the placid scene of their forensic dissection, a quiet haven for the State to decide and then dissemble the responsibility for their death?
But that’s for the future. Today the Cabinet contemplates a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. General Sisi (who remarked that “We are cautious about every drop of Egyptian blood”) told the Brotherhood in a press conference yesterday that “There is room for all.” Apparently the morgues are not yet full.
Generalissimo-worship goes on. Sawt el-Umma, one of the most reliable anti-Brotherhood papers, published the photo at top on its cover yesterday: “Egypt is all Sisi.”
That picture illuminates on so many levels. First about Sisi, who sells himself as an Egyptian Everyman. Something about him allows everybody to read exactly what they want into that round bland visage, so average in every way except the sinister Ray-Bans. When Morsi made him Minister of Defense, rumor fingered him (so, probably, did Morsi) as the Muslim Brotherhood’s man in the military. Now, those ties betrayed, he stresses his US education, his Western connections. But mostly his odd counter-charisma (he’s been known to reduce audiences to tears with vapid patriotic arias) consists in being Chance the Gardener, sublimely like everybody else and a repository of what they want to hear. We will fight terrorists, but there is room for everybody. Calm will come, we just need to kill your enemies first. At an hour of division, when people are being written (or shot) out of the body politic like lepers, here he is with a new, comforting definition of citizenship. You’re a true Egyptian, everybody can be Egyptian, as long as you are simply me.
And it illuminates citizenship. Cairo is not a city of citizens. Citizenship is intimately tied to anomie, the loss or gradual eschewal of traditional ties – village, tribe, family – – that leaves one isolated yet free, lonely but autonomous, one’s identity up for one’s own shaping in collaboration with an abstract polis, an imagined community that sets the borders to your dreams. You derive meaning from the nation when other meanings wither; you become a member of the State when there is not much else to be a member of. We are not governed by our parents but the City, Pericles told Athenians: “Fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws.” This has never been Cairo, where nobody fears the laws and magistrates – prevailing attitudes go from active contempt to anarchic disregard – but many feel devout reliance on old hierarchies and loyalties, habits and genealogies, traditional patterns of life.
Each neighborhood is its own world, composed not of abstract Egyptians but of daughters, cousins, fathers, clients, patrons, protectors. In shaabi (popular) Cairo, Asef Bayat writes, people turn to “local leaders (kibar, shaykhs, Friday prayer leaders), problem solvers, and even local bullies” when facing life’s dilemmas, rather than to the recourses of modernity, the law and the NGOs. This is the charm and terror of Third World cities, by which I mean contemporary cities from Lagos and Jakarta to large parts of London and New York. They are not “modern.” They are in-between. The rapid changes of migration and uprooting don’t transform residents into citizens, but mean they carry their traditional worlds with them into exile, on their backs. The beauty of this urban life comes from the tension between the microcosms it encompasses. You live in a village in a city of 18 million. Each day you leave it for a time, to pass into a modernity that is sometimes promiscuously fascinating, sometimes fearful, sometimes arid and unbreathable, sometimes just confusing. Those are the times when you go downtown, to visit the Mugamma or meet the Man. Then you return to your quarters, which make up the rest of the city, where nobody is a citizen and certainly nobody is Sisi, where a different and entangled definition of the self prevails.
In violence or crisis, the city breaks up. Whatever reliance on the State most people felt slips away, like a frail undergarment irrelevant when armor is needed. Each neighborhood starts sealing itself off. Patrols guard the perimeters; alleys become borders. Modernity starts shriveling up like a dying spider. Its rites and pleasures, the evenings in the downtown café, the casual conversations, the days of consorting with strangers, wither. The pretense of equalities, the promise of a wider belonging, is inaccessible now.
It’s nice enough for the regime for a while – they want people terrified. In the end, though, the military are always modernizers. They want a state full of citizens, visible and submissive, regimented in orderly lines – just like the picture says. Come out of hiding; come out, wherever you are! (Already yesterday, Sisi banned the “popular security committees,” struggling to bring the neighborhoods back under police control.) The cafes and conversations of course will have to go. But something even bigger will replace them. Bathed in the warm and public light of State surveillance, a shared and happy fate awaits you: You can be Sisi!
The thing is, and it’s not widely recognized: The Muslim Brotherhood were modernizers too. They also had no use for traditional loyalties, local hierarchies, closed ways of life. They wanted people out in the open, detached from their older ties, only ranged and regimented not by State power but under the august aegis of Islam. Their diehard supporters were and are middle-class professionals trained in secular expertise — doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers — who felt ill-used and under-salaried by a government indifferent to their skills. They hoped that religion’s promise of equality would bring more material fruits than the blandishments of socialism and structural adjustment. The Ikhwan was impatient with the lifeways of Cairo’s poorer neighborhoods and shaabi quarters, except as recipients of charity, expected to drag their denizens out to vote in return. Those places lacked the streamlined purity the Islamists demanded of a reformed and purpose-driven life. The Brothers are Puritan modernists and architects, building a kind of Bauhaus of the soul. The junta and its Western apologists try to present the battle as between modern, secular rationalists with heavy weaponry, and sinister Islamist adherents of superannuated tradition trying to “turn back the clock.” But it’s not. It’s a battle between two modernities to seize State power. The local and particular, the diverse and unexpected, will all get crowded out.
Sawt el-Umma is not very smart. They stole the template for their cover from an American TV show, pasting Sisi’s pictures on. Twitter quickly caught on:
So many ironies, I lose count. Of course, the more Sisi imagines an Egypt where everyone is the same, the more he produces a multiplication of neuroses: not nearly as nice as those of Larry David ensconced in Beverly Hills, though. They’ll be paranoid fears, malevolent and murderous. Those who don’t want to be Sisi will be (just like the people who didn’t want to be the Brotherhood’s ideal Muslims) un-Egyptian, non-citizens, lepers. The regime sounds more and more Big Brother-like in identifying its enemies. The “Egypt Fights Terrorism” banner that permanently glimmers in the corner of State TV’s screens insinuates itself in people’s dreams.
Crowds fed on State propaganda have attacked both Egyptian and foreign correspondents in recent days. An Egyptian-American reporter Tweeted yesterday that, at Ramsis Square, a “cop urged men around me to beat me up. ‘She is an American!'” And so the State Information Service issued a bizarre set of guidelines to foreign journalists on covering the unrest in approved fashion. “Egypt is feeling severe bitterness towards some Western media coverage that is biased to the Muslim Brotherhood,” it complained. “Some media sources are still falling short of describing the events of June 30 as an expression of a popular will.” And “Several media sources are seeking to focus on Western political stances that are adopting an approach different from the Egyptian one.” Thus, in the new Orwellian environment, Minitrue sets the message of the day. Even non-Egyptians need to be Sisi.
In a village up near Abu Zaabal, where security forces slaughtered their prisoners yesterday, there is a secret place hardly any Egyptian knows about: a leper colony. Claudia Wiens photographed it beautifully back in 2009, when about 750 patients were still confined there, with several thousand cured lepers, unable or unwilling to return home, in surrounding areas. There is, as she shows, a loveliness to their life and their community so far from public knowledge, even if the medieval fear that kept them segregated there is hideous. I was thinking of them yesterday as the news of the prison convoy deaths came in: after I’d watched Sisi, and the foreign minister Nabil Fahmy, oleaginously defend all the bloodshed on TV. “Egypt Fights Terrorism” stayed unmoving over the talking heads. Egypt is making more lepers. In Abu Zaabal, they are counting the corpses from yesterday’s killings, and disputes over the numbers already drown out the question of how, and why, they died.