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The sum of our disappointments

Egypt
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© Sarah John

If there were an award for the ‘world’s best capital city’ issued not on the basis of aesthetics, functionality or value for money but for the inhabitants’ ability to endure the malfeasance of the so-called responsible authorities, then Cairo would win hands-down. Egypt’s capital is both holding together and falling apart; it’s a paradox. Everything functions, sort of, because people adhere valiantly to their daily routines. Asi

A distressing item at the forefront of many minds is the way the current government handled a stream of disasters it either directly or indirectly caused: the military bombing of a group of tourists in the desert last September (blamed on the tour operator for being in a restricted area); the October flooding of Alexandria that destroyed lives and livelihoods owing to poor maintenance of city drainage (blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood); the November 2015 Russian plane crash in Sinai (not blamed on an ISIS bomb, despite international forensic investigation proving otherwise); the torture and murder in February 2016 of young Giuglio Regeni (blamed on a gang of thugs who were summarily assassinated); and the (ongoing) disappearances of hundreds of civilians (not blamed on anyone but vigorously denied).

Such blunt disavowals have undermined confidence in leadership that consistently acts unilaterally. While most countries try to defend their land, Egypt’s administration has lately defended the reasons for giving two handsome chunks of it away (the Red Sea Islands of Tiran and Sanafir) to Saudi Arabia, no less – a country for whom average Egyptians hold little affection. The state said the islands were never Egyptian, Egypt just looked after them, and anyway they will be needed for the new bridge to be built across the Red Sea. While some Egyptians are impressed with the technical audacity of an engineering project of this scale, most Cairenes are either horrified by the environmental implications or else saying: wait a minute, we can barely cross the street around here, and you want to lay a road through the Red Sea?

If Egypt had popularity ratings, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s would probably be rather low, although many Egyptians empathize with his reversal of fortunes. He was lionized when elected, before the challenges and responsibilities he bravely assumed proved too great, but his behaviour has lately failed to meet even their (much reduced) expectations. ‘Sisi’s tears seen seven times in the media’ ran the headline of a recent article in an independent Arabic daily, describing the occasions on which the president openly wept: twice with family members of purported victims of terrorism; twice while others gave speeches praising him; once during Victory Day celebrations while watching a video of himself appealing to Egyptians to help him fight terrorism; again when asking Egyptians to support his decisions regarding relations with neighbouring Arab countries; and once while fondly remembering the deceased Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

In June, having completed two years in office, el-Sisi made another TV appearance, calling for ‘full trust in the monitoring bodies and their procedures’, saying ‘the culture of combating corruption should prevail’. This did not stop his administration from prosecuting the head of the Central Auditing Organization and sentencing him to a year in prison for finding that corruption was in fact systemic and that 600 billion Egyptian pounds ($67 billion) were lost to it in 2015 alone. Later in June, an administrative court annulled the agreement with Saudi Arabia to hand over the Red Sea islands, but citizens arrested when protesting the handover remained in jail.

This summer, Egypt’s population reached 91 million, a fearsome figure for anyone who is aware that this desert country’s water resources are unjustly distributed and already insufficient to meet the needs of uncounted thousands of average Egyptians. Yet despite what everyone knows and/or feels and knows everyone else is feeling, the centre still holds in Cairo. People are toeing the line, propelling themselves forward with an abstracted determination not unlike auto-pilot. There’s little joy in it and less hope, but each day that passes without some great catastrophe adds up to something. The question in the minds of many Cairenes is whether or not it adds up to a life.

Maria Golia is a long-time resident of Egypt and wrote this column from 2007-12. mariagolia.wordpress.com.

New Internationalist issue 496 magazine cover This article is from the October 2016 issue of New Internationalist.
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