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March 30, 2011

Letters from Cairo: ‘Egypt is safe’

News and Information

About these reports

Writing from his home in Cairo, Jere Bacharach, emeritus professor of history, updates writes what he’s seeing among ordinary residents of the city and speculates on whats ahead in the struggle for Egypt.

During his years at the UW, Bacharach was chairman of the history department, director of the Jackson School of International Studies and interim chairman of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization. Bacharach is a specialist in medieval Islamic history; he lives half the year in Cairo, half in Seattle.

More coverage from and information about Cairo:

Dear Family and Friends,

Jere L. Bacharach

I have just returned from talking with a group of American tourists, which was great fun, and it was a pleasure to see them.  Barb and I hope we see many more, as Egypt is safe, and the monuments and museums are fantastic.  While that part of my talk went well, devoted to how U.S. tax dollars through USAID and the American Research Center in Egypt are making an important contribution toward the preservation of Egypts cultural heritage, it was my comments on recent developments in Egypt which were of greater interest. It struck me that I should share some of my impressions of what is taking place in Egypt since that heady day, Feb. 11, when Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president.

I used to say that Mubaraks Cairo was noted for three things: traffic jams, the ubiquitous presence of the police, and a sense of safety, reflected in the almost total absence of reports of robberies, rape or murder of persons unknown to the assailant. The new Egypt has seen the return of serious traffic jams and reappearance of  local police, if in significantly fewer numbers than before. What is new and most disturbing to me is a sense of caution, if not fear, among Egyptians that I hadnt noticed before. While there is some evidence that crimes by Egyptians against “strangers” has increased, rumors about such acts have spread like wildfire and have created a concern among Egyptians I had never known. Again, there is no evidence that Cairo isnt as safe as ever for tourists, foreigners and even most Egyptians, but the fear that an act of violence could take place has emerged.

The cause of this fear is easy to understand.  Members of the Mubarak administration, in an attempt to intimidate the population during the uprising, released thousands of criminals from the jails and there immediately followed a string of robberies and lots of gunfire. Many, but not all, of these “thugs” as they are called locally, have been recaptured.  On the other hand, with fewer police present on the streets, guarding buildings, etc., the remaining criminals and others have seen an opportunity to make money fast and illegally. As the police slowly make their presence felt, these robberies and the rare acts of violence will decline significantly.

Barb and I have been told story after story about how a car driven by a single woman was stopped on a major highway, the woman forced out of the car, robbed and the car stolen. It could have happened but not the number of times we have heard from an Egyptian who knew an Egyptian who knew a relative to whom this had happened. One result of these stories and rumors is that parents have become more concerned about sending their children to school. Many Egyptians, including our neighbors, Egyptian employees at the American Research Center in Egypt, and even a colleague from Cairo University with whom I work, kept their children at home for a few more days even after the school system finally reopened.  Parents are also more cautious in how and when their children return home, and the use of cell phones to stay in contact with children has increased. I learned today that even students at the American University are impacted. At the request of their parents, a few students had to opt out of field trips to see Muslim monuments in Cairo.

One positive result of the end of the Mubarak regime is that virtually every group from police to factory workers, from elementary school students to university employees, is voicing its complaints publicly. Students and many faculty at the public universities are demanding removal of their presidents and even the deans of colleges since every one of them appears to have been a political appointment.

There is no simple solution for any of these demands, and the problem is complicated in that a new set of administrators, including new ministers, have not been able to set policies. For example, the new prime minister named a new head of the antiquities department who had been a former dean of the college of archaeology at Cairo University. The established personnel in the antiquities division who had worked under Zahi Hawass, as well as colleagues of the scholar from Cairo University, raised such a protest that the prime minister neither confirmed his nominee nor named a replacement. Nothing has happened, and therefore no one is officially in charge of Egypts antiquities and museums.

Another example is that none of the top staff at the governments TV station who deliberately and systematically lied to the Egyptian population during the uprising has been replaced. A slow but growing concern is that many of the old corrupt players are not being moved out quickly enough. These delays reflect how Egypt is in a state of transition.

But let me conclude with a more positive story.  One of my concerns about Egyptian education has been how hierarchical it is and how when someone in a position of authority says something, everyone below immediately says “yes.” One of our friends has been teaching a UNESCO- sponsored course to Egyptian employees of the antiquities department in the area of Sakkara where the step pyramid is located.  In the middle of his most recent presentation, another employee rushed into the lecture hall and announced that the head of the Sakkara region wanted to see all the employees immediately. Two months ago, the lecture would have been cut short and everyone impacted would have walked to the office of the regional director but this time it was different. One of the younger employees stood up and stated that the head could wait, as they were attending a class approved by the head himself. Everyone sat down, and my friend finished the class. This would have never have happened before Feb. 11, and there is every likelihood that more of these voices will speak up.

What is new in post-Mubarak Egypt is the pride Egyptians have in being Egyptians, and that they have the right and responsibility to express their views.

Once again, Ill end with a local joke. The story goes that Mubarak suddenly dies and meets former Presidents Nasser and Sadat in the hereafter. Surprised to see him, Nasser implies poison the cause of his own death. Sadat says, “Assassins bullets.”  Then both men ask Mubarak what did him in. He replies, “Facebook!”

Jere

P.S.  Unlike Western scholars who believe Nasser died of a massive heart attack, most Egyptians I have met believe that he was poisoned. Conspiracy theories are much more a part of this region than
even the U.S. with its stories about the death of JFK.

Cairo Report – # 3

Final observations:  12 Feb. 2011

Dear Family and Friends,

As a product of the 20th century, I dont Twitter or blog and rarely Facebook, yet all these means of communication played a critical role in the revolution Barb and I were able to witness and then have the remarkable luck of joining Egyptians in the celebration of what must be one of the most widely based, popular, non-violent revolutions in history.  I realize that many, if not all of you, have followed the developments and I will only add some of our personal experiences and observations.

Throughout the week leading to the end of the Mubarak regime yesterday, Friday 11 Feb., we heard of attacks on foreigners and Egyptians, most of which we couldnt confirm but had the effect of making us nervous.  Some were true.  One of our Egyptian friends circulated an e-mail how the compound where he and his extended family live had been attacked one evening, but the combined efforts of his family and neighbors drove off the attackers.  Thursday afternoon, 10 Feb., I went to my local doctor to have a painful corn on my foot treated, and he showed me the wounds on his leg and indicated where the others were on his body from his having to fight off looters earlier in the week.  He then added that he had a gun but wont use it against other Egyptians.  That one incident encapsulated the hidden power of this revolution and why in the end it toppled the Mubarak regime.  The government did everything in its power to provoke the Egyptians, hoping that the mass movement would create the chaos the official TV channel claimed was taking place every day.  It didnt happen.

Thursday night when all of us, including the U.S. President, expected Mubarak to step down, he didnt.  To add insult to injury, his designated vice president, Omar Suleiman, came on TV and gave as patronizing a performance as Mubarak had done earlier.  After waiting 4 ½ hours from the time of the announcement that the Egyptian president would speak on TV to his final performance, hopes among all of us ran very high, including among some Egyptians who called to tell me that they were about to celebrate.  I did warn them that one shouldnt act until the Fat Lady sings, as we say in American slang — and she [Mubarak] didnt.  From his first words, anyone listening knew he was totally out of touch with his people.  What happened next made me very nervous, as thousands of Egyptians marched on the Radio-Television building which is five minutes from Tahrir Square, and thousands of others surrounded the presidential palace which is about 30 minutes from downtown Cairo.  My concern was that the marchers would cross the army lines and try to take the building, creating the confrontation the Mubarak administration was seeking.  And once again the Egyptians stopped.

I have seen Egyptians yell and scream at one another, and use their hands so actively that Italians would be jealous, but I never see them hit one another except when provoked by security forces or riot police.  Traffic jams in Cairo can be a nightmare, and horn blowing is a popular form of aggression, but American road rage where guns and violence follow are, fortunately, not part of this culture, and that was something the Mubarak government didnt count on.  The Egyptians walked up to the military and stopped, but how long that would last before one side blinked I couldnt predict, and I feared those guarding the presidential residence would crack first.

Fortunately, I was wrong.  The military who had made numerous statements that it would not fire on Egyptians must have informed Mubarak the game was over, and suddenly, at 6 p.m., Omar Suleiman spoke for less than a minute, and it was over.

The joyous response of almost every Egyptian was amazing.  Barb and I walked two blocks to the circle where a number of roads come together, and suddenly Egyptians of every age poured into the streets singing, banging drums, waving flags, beating horns to a set rhythm and celebrating an incredible victory.   There was such a sense of pride among them that all we could do was keep congratulating them and watching their outpouring of joy.  I say not all because, sadly, we also know a middle-class Egyptian family who believed every word poured forth on state television, and has not been willing to discuss with us the announcements by the TV personnel that it was all lies and that the appropriate ministry had written their scripts and told them where to direct their cameras.  This same family, sadly, did not take part in the joyous outpouring which went on for hours.

Ironically, I think Barb and I were more impressed by what we saw today in Tahrir Square and in our neighborhood.  Egyptians of every age and from what we could see, all classes, were involved in a massive cleanup of Tahrir.  Egyptians were building a new society, and they were starting in the most visual way possible by turning their city into a cleaner, neater city than we had ever seen.  Informal groups were everywhere, sweeping and piling up bags of dirt, rocks, garbage and anything that didnt look like it belonged there.  Other groups were pushing burnt-out cars and carrying metal fences, both of which had been used as the outer defense wall of Tahrir, to collection points where large garbage trucks and tow trucks were removing them.  Small groups of others were on the bridge next to Tahrir scrubbing away graffiti calling for the removal of Mubarak and the freedom for Egyptians.  There were little children dressed in their “Sunday” best as well as fully-veiled women working alongside large numbers of students sweeping and filing garbage bag after garbage bag.  Even the military was carefully rolling up their barbed wire so it could be taken away by military vehicles.

If there was a central organization it was not to be seen.   The word had spread that Tahrir was to be clean and thousands of Egyptians kept responding all day.  At the same time, there were parts of Tahrir where rock music and patriotic music blared at decibel levels that hurt my ears.

In other corners, those still in their makeshift plastic tent shelters lounged or slept on the thousands of blankets that must have appeared from somewhere because we saw hundreds and hundreds of them being carried away as tents came down.  Suddenly in another area, a speaker began the call to prayer, and checking my watch, I saw it was time, and the crowd stepped back to allow those who wished to pray to do so.  Flags were sold [we bought one], and tea and cookies were passed around while others responded to the opportunity to sell beverages and snacks.  By the time we got home after two exhausting hours in Tahrir, I suddenly noticed a group of a dozen or more students cleaning the main road near our apartment.

As all of you know, the end of Mubaraks presidency is not the final act of a very complicated story.  The army will have to deliver on its promises to remove the 30-year-old emergency law which allowed the former government to arrest and imprison anyone on any charge, to create a new cabinet, to set the requirements for one to run for office, including Parliament and the Presidency, and to start to deal with an economy in deep trouble, but the Egyptians with whom I have spoken are all willing to give their military time because it was their military that ultimately sided with them and brought the Mubarak regime to end.

Barb and I consider ourselves very fortunate to have been in Cairo and to have witnessed this massive, popular, overwhelmingly nonviolent revolution and see a pride by Egyptians in themselves and their future that we had never seen before.  There were times we were nervous, but thanks to our Egyptian friends and some intelligent decisions on our part, we were never in danger.  As some of you know, I was called by a number of Seattle radio and even TV stations and was willing to share my views and our experiences. My five minutes of fame are over and
so are these letters.

Fondly,

Dad/Jere

 

Cairo Report – # 2

Feb. 7, 2011

I begin my observations using my notes from Saturday, Feb. 5, because they feel so out of date as I write on Monday, Feb. 7.  For anyone who has visited Egypt, let alone spent significant time here, it is hard to remember that this is the same city from a little over a week ago.  I dont mean the massive gatherings in Tahrir, which are the greatest popular arising one could imagine, but what is happening in other parts of the city.  The streets are quiet and cleaner than I can remember.  There is almost no traffic, perhaps due to concerns over gas reserves or fear, but the noise of buses, minivans, taxis, trucks and cars is absent.  The air is clean.  This is a city whose air pollution is a constant problem for locals and visitors, and for this brief moment it is only a bad memory.  The only lines I see are in front of the one or two ATM machines which are working as all banks are still closed.  For some of the poorer Egyptians I know, similar lines can be found in front of the bakeries where local, healthy, cheap (because it is subsidized) bread is made.

We spent most of Saturday at home watching TV coverage of developments in Tahrir, walking to local markets where newspapers even in Arabic are missing, to the homes of friends where signs of the neighborhood watch committees can be found, or to local restaurants for take-away food before the curfew comes into effect because the restaurants close even if some of us are still on the street.

If the revolutionary momentum slackens, there will be many reasons, but one factor will be the pressure from the mass of Egyptians, particularly women and children, who have been in their houses for over a week.  Cabin fever has developed and they are bored watching TV.   Parents want their children at school or studying for set state examinations, which have been postponed, but most of all, out from under them.  There are also serious cash shortages.  Families, many of whom dont have credit cards or even bank accounts, count on their monthly or bi-weekly pay to make it through the week and that money is not available.

Yesterday, Sunday, Barb and I decided to visit friends at the other end of the city approximately the same distance from the center of the city, Tahrir Square, as we are south of it.  Taking a taxi to the Metro we were suddenly struck by the traffic and noise.  There were still tanks and troop carriers at key intersections and in front of important buildings such as our local police station, but the traffic had returned to normal.  It was heavy with cars weaving in and out to get ahead of the next one.  When we stopped to alight from the taxi, the car behind blasted his horn for holding him up.  The old Cairo had reasserted itself.  The lines in front of the banks open for a few hours were so long that we postponed getting cash for another day.  The grocery stores were busy and newspapers were back on the stands.  And riding the Metro reminded me of why one of my Egyptian friends hates to ride in it: it was very crowded with most of us standing for most of our hour-long journey.

The Metro station at Tahrir continues to be closed, and I assume will continue to be off limits until the current situation is resolved, a topic I will return to at the end of this note.  Arriving at our station in Heliopolis 30 minutes north of Tahrir, we jumped into a taxi for what on good days is a 15- to 20-minute ride.  Over a half-hour later, fighting the congestion that marks many of Heliopolis streets, we reached our friends.  In the hopes to avoid the same delays, we skipped using the Metro and took a taxi home, swinging to the east of the city hoping for lighter traffic.  It was, but that is only a relative statement.  One problem that is not typical is that there were a half-dozen places where the road narrowed because military personnel had set semi-check points, which means that five lanes squeeze down to three or two and when a car is stopped, it often stopped right there without pulling forward to allow the cars behind it to pass.   I also saw over a dozen tanks and as many troop carriers by the parade grounds where Sadat was assassinated in 1981, and assume that this was a staging area for the military if they had to move troops and equipment to other parts of the city.

Saturday evening reminded me that Egypt is still in flux. As the curfew went into effect, the traffic declined, and by 8 p.m. had disappeared in our neighborhood, and locally created road blocks were restored, asserting local control of who used the streets.  It was quiet again.

Rumors continue to fly about gangs of criminals who fled or were released from the prisons a week ago and are intent on looting and kidnapping.  There are rumors that in one section of the city, some foreigners had been held by a gang for ransom, but they cant be confirmed.   In the area where we live, many foreign residents were required to leave by their company or by their embassy.  Unemployed, retired individuals such as Barb and myself and foreign spouses of Egyptians can make up their own minds and most of them/us are still here.  Some Egyptians were surprised and pleased to see that we have stayed.

This is only part of the story because the protests centered in Tahrir Square and in many other cities in Egypt reminds all of us that there is still a very serious political crisis with major economic implications.  Some if not most of the attacks by pro-Mubarak groups were paid or given support by State Security agents. They destroyed what had been to that point a very peaceful series of rallies and protests after the police left a week ago Friday.  The pro-Mubarak men on horses and a camel could have only reached Tahrir with someone bringing them in appropriate vehicles (and paying for the gas). It would have taken over two hours to ride a horse from the pyramids, and a camel wouldnt have made it over those streets.  These riders had real concerns, as the popular, massive uprising of the Egyptians ended tourism and their income, but it also appears they were paid to express their frustration in a violent manner in Tahrir.

The violence of last Wednesday night also sent many foreigners fleeing.  Many Egyptians with whom I spoke, whether pro- or anti-Mubarak, were stunned and saddened by those events, although Egyptian state television rarely showed pictures which could be interpreted as negative to the regime.

The joy of being a specialist in medieval Islamic history is that no one remembers my predictions so Ill make some now.  The winner of the uprising, so far, is the military.  They have consolidated their position, as they hold the presidency, vice presidency, the office of prime minister, most of the ministries and the majority of the governorships.  They have very strong economic interests in the country in addition to political goals which they feel they must protect, and in a real sense, they fear an open democratic system where their favoritism and corruption could be investigated.  I still believe that they will sacrifice Mubarak to retain control, but now I fear that their stalling will only make the situation worse.

There is an increasing economic crisis.  Tourism is Egypts most important hard currency source of income, and as long as the Tahrir protests remain, tourists will not come.  In addition, there are tourist warnings from most countries.  A second economic  factor is the flight of capital from Egypt.   The wealthy, which include the Mubarak family, are moving their capital out of the country as fast as they can, and Egypts reserves are rapidly disappearing.  At some point, the military elite will have to make significant concessions, including having Mubarak step down to get the Egyptians to leave Tahrir and in order to create a different international image and economic conditions.

But let me close with a different image, the Egyptian sense of humor.  It always has amazed me since my fir
st trip in 1964 how Egyptians find humor in the blackest situations, and this crisis is no different.  One of the popular jokes:  President Obama calls Mubarak and tells him he should write a farewell letter to the Egyptians.  President Mubarak responds, “Why?  Are the Egyptians going someplace?”

Cairo Report #1

“Dear all, We are safe…”

Feb 2, 2011

Dear All,

We are safe and sound with plenty of food as we watch television from the safety of our apartment, an 86 step walk-up, in an apartment house where middle class Egyptians live on the first three floors.  What will happen with the fights between the pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak forces in Tahrir Square is unclear but if the violence continues it will be bad.

What follows are the experiences and memories of a privileged

American living in a wealthy suburb called al-Maadi, about 30 minutes by Metro from the center of the city or Tahrir Square.  My story begins on Tuesday, Jan. 25, a public holiday called Police Day.  I had volunteered to give a talk to a University of Washington Retirement Association-sponsored tour, which had been in Egypt for three days, on the role of their tax dollars in the restoration of Egypts cultural heritage.  Taking the Metro (subway) to Tahrir Square, which is where the hotel is located, I discovered that every exit but one was closed by the police, and I came out of the underground as far from the Semiramus Hotel as I could be.

I immediately ran into large numbers of police — riot police dressed in appropriate gear — who made it very clear that I wasnt going to go across the square towards the Nile and the hotel.  I then started down a main street away from the square but near the old campus of the American University of Cairo.  Every side street was blocked by police.  I then had to go about a dozen blocks until I finally found a taxi that would drive further north by the Ramses Hilton Hotel (where CNN cameras were located the first days) and under the 6th of October bridge, the shot seen on CNN and every other television set for the first two days of the larger protest¸ and then onto Corniche Street by the Nile and south to the Semiramus Hotel.  I gave my talk and both the guide, international television commentators and I agreed that while there were protests this was not the big one, which would come in the fall when Mubarak stood for re-election. We were all wrong.  I couldnt get back to the Metro after my talk and took a taxi home.

Wednesday, Jan. 26, after visiting an excellent exhibit of Coptic art in a 14th century palace in the historic part of Cairo where there was no sense anything was taking place, I took a taxi to Tahrir to visit the American Research Center in Egypt offices next to Tahrir to get my passport which they were holding.  I discovered that ARCE was closed because the staff were concerned for their safety, and I couldnt get my passport.  I then went to my bank across the street and had a very, very difficult time withdrawing $1,000 from my account since I didnt have my passport to prove who I was.  Finally, after an hour the bank manager finally authorized my withdrawal,and I changed my dollars into Egyptian pounds.  This was very fortunate as we would have been short of Egyptian currency as all the banks and ATMs have been closed since Friday.  There was a police presence in Tahrir but nothing like the day before.  Thursday, one of our friends who works for ARCE, picked up my passport which I got that night.

Friday Barb and I went shopping in the morning, returning home just as prayer time was ending.  I noticed larger than normal crowds spilling in to the street but didnt think too much about it.  We then turned on the TV which has rarely been off since then.  To no ones surprise, the security police used tear gas, water cannons, and batons on the crowds marching towards Tahrir Square, particularly over the 6th of October bridge where I had been a few days earlier.

The shock was that the populace, inspired by the Tunisian revolution, were not to be deterred and they kept pressing forward. That night the riot police and eventually all police disappeared from the streets of Cairo at the orders of the Ministry of the Interior.

At home Friday night, we heard a lot of gun fire which we now believe came from a prison relatively close to our apartment where criminal and political prisoners escaped.  Saturday morning, Barb and I joined by our friend Bernard OKane, drove to the local shopping street, Road 9, for coffee at one of the many coffee houses. Not a policeman was seen on the streets.  There were no police guarding the entrances of the home of the Israeli ambassador or any of the embassies in our area. The streets were quiet. We did hear that in the major shopping center outside of our area, Carrefour, the French firm, had been looted but even that is not clear although all the other shops in the mall had been looted.

Since then we have been watching everything on television or walking around our neighborhood.  Each time the curfew starts, men from a number of buildings in our neighborhood come out with sticks and even some with guns and set up road blocks preventing cars from coming down our street. They are prepared to protect their property. There are stories of looting but not on the scale of a Watts or Baghdad after the U.S. invasion. We went to two streets famous for their shops in our neighborhood and saw a lot of stores closed but no evidence of looting. We did hear about a store here or even a church there which has been looted but we have no direct evidence. Each evening we hear some gun fire but we dont know why nor where the shots are coming from.

Since there has been no Internet until noon today (Wednesday), since last Saturday our primary source of information has been the TV followed by the phone. Pro-Mubarak watch the local state TV station and refuse to believe the reporting of CNN, al-Jazeera in English or Arabic, BCC, etc.  In fact these people, such as our neighbors, are very angry at the reporting of “Westerners” since they believe they only lie.

On the other hand, it is very comforting to see how many Egyptians have called to see that we are OK. The best story I have which tells you a lot about Egyptians is the following: A week ago we hired a man to fix our screens and we found him because he was doing work on a first-floor apartment.  He did a great job for a reasonable price.  Yesterday he called to ask if we were OK although he had to remind me who he was. As for shopping, we have been able to find bread — usually the Western type not popular with Egyptians, long-lasting milk, fresh fruits and vegetables — but there is always the possibility of shortages.  The best prices and largest supply of fruits and vegetables was at the Metro stop in a poorer section of Cairo where we get off the Metro to go to Tahrir.  Of course prices have gone up but, once again, being a foreigner even without a local job, makes me much richer than the locals.  Another problem had been the garbage which is normally picked up at night and was accumulating.  Then yesterday in the middle of the morning there were the garbage collectors. Tahrir Square is being kept clean by the demonstrators but the piles of bags of garbage are growing with no sign of collection.

Yesterday, Tuesday, I went with Bernard OKane to see the million-person demonstration in Tahrir Square. We went as close as we could by Metro and then walked with large crowds toward Tahrir. Twice we were stopped by military personnel who asked for some form of an identity card and we were then frisked head to toe.  Everyone faced this with women volunteers checking women. The crowds were amazing: very kind and sharing a general view that Mubarak had to go. There were homemade signs and a few pre-prepared ones.  Others shared food.  Everyone was in a positive mood although the sheer numbers were amazing. We went home very impressed by the positive appro
ach of the Egyptians.

Today Barb and I went downtown in the morning. Compared to yesterday, very few got off the Metro where one would walk to Tahrir. Barb and I had no problem in getting to the offices of the American Research Center in Egypt which is next to Tahrir. We then saw relatively small crowds in Tahrir which were fairly quiet and, as we left, we began to see a few pro-Mubarak groups but when we left at noon, the two crowds had no contact and no sense of tension between them. There was not a clue that the violence which is now being covered on television would take place.

Barb and I know that there are pro-Mubarak groups including the Egyptian family in our apartment house whom we are closest to which makes it difficult to have discussions on current events but we had no sense there were large numbers of them. Both of us suspect that the government is using their own agents and have deliberately allowed groups to gather and create a crisis in Tahrir this evening.

We continue to watch events on TV as our primary source of information. Having Internet connections has changed our situation dramatically so we can stay in touch with all of you, but particularly with our family.