I returned to Alex a couple of weeks ago following a not uneventful month in the UK. My first Friday back at church found me greeted on almost every front by ‘we saw you on TV!’, and from one of the leaders an observation that they would need to find a new church celebrity when I left… But any fears of my life back in Egypt being mundane were swiftly dispelled: riots and gas continued as if I’d never left (though my landlord tells me that they weren’t gassed in all the time I was away); I witnessed a stabbing; I managed to get lost in hitherto undiscovered (by me, at any rate) labyrinthine back streets of the city.
The riots started early last Friday, and with no apparent order. They started over by the train station around 3.30 (or first came to my attention then) with a carelessly thrown petrol bomb coating the wall in flame, and continued on and off through until about 10pm. Things would be calm for an hour at a time, and then suddenly out of nowhere there would be gas and fire. We managed to escape the worst of it: apart from the general tinny smell of the tear gas in the air, only one canister landed particularly close, but the wind blew it all into our neighbours’ building. About 7pm I went shopping with my landlord; in the back streets life continued much as normal, with the melody of sirens, percussion of tear gas launchers, and chorus of yelling and chanting added to the general soundtrack of street sellers and livestock. It was livestock that we were after – chickens, in particular. Now I’ve only ever bought chicken that has already had its doings done to it, so this was a bit of an eye opener. Essentially, the process works like this:
One chooses one’s shop. There are quite a few to choose from, and one knows when one is nearby: they stink. One chooses one’s bird: turkey, pigeon, goose, duck, chicken and more. If one doesn’t fancy bird, rabbit is always an option, and no wild bunnies these: sleek, in a variety of colours and patterns, large, small, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter - one would have thought one had walked into a pet shop. No rabbits for us though. Apparently they’re expensive. The price is determined by live weight, so three chickens are selected, and thrown roughly onto a scale. Oblivious to their doom, poor things, they look around in the inquisitive way chickens seem to have. One caught my eye; I stared him down. Price determined, they’re taken into the butcher’s room, heads held back, and throats neatly slit, before being dropped unceremoniously into a big barrel. I wondered for a split second what the purpose of this was – but then the barrel started to shake violently, and continued to for about three minutes. I take it that the birds were unhappy with their lot… Three blood soaked carcasses are duly taken out of the barrel, and thrown into a big metal contraption in the corner, which starts to whir and gush out quantities of water. When it is done, it emerges that the chickens have, by some act of sorcery, been entirely plucked. They’re then gutted, quartered, vigorously scrubbed with salt water, and bagged. Nothing going to waste, there is a whole army of cats waiting to snatch the scraps. The whole process takes about ten minutes – now that’s what I call fresh chicken.
The next day I had arranged to meet a friend to go exploring the area that best equates to old Alexandria. (It isn’t really an ‘old city’ in the proper sense, mostly because the British, as was their wont, flattened the place in 1882 to teach a local ruler a lesson.) As I walked down from my flat to the seafront a chap started out in front of me across the road. This could turn into an object lesson in looking both ways before crossing the road; certainly there was a squealing of breaks, and something that came very close to the classic action sequence chase involving the protagonist taking a shortcut across a car bonnet. I was preparing to give an internal tut-tut and carry on when I noticed a man and a woman attempting to hide behind a palm tree. Now the classic image of a palm tree as tall and thin is not far from the mark; this would not be an apt description for the couple in question. As a hiding place, it left something to be desired... As the first fellow managed his negotiation with a moving car, the other man let out a yelp, and made a run for it. He slipped, a knife appeared in the hand of the former, and a struggle ensued on the ground – again not dissimilar to a film in which the victim struggles valiantly to hold off the wrist of the chap trying to force a knife in. The victim’s wife jumped on them both, but to no avail – a scream, and the scuffle broke apart. Bystanders came and took the knife from the first fellow, and kept him there; the victim’s wife went off and talked to another bystander; and the victim himself sat on a kerb clutching his blood soaked leg, and letting out frequent shouts. Deciding that the volume of the shouts probably meant that he was okay, I carried on my way. When I came back a few hours later there was no evidence of any quantity of blood on the ground, so I presume all was well.
This unpleasant little episode is a small example of a widely noticed decline in security over the time that I’ve been here. This doesn’t include the riots – they’ve been going on all the time I have been here – but rather individual petty and violent crime. Egyptian friends, and others who have lived here for a long time talk of pick-pocket gangs, drug crime, and muggings on the increase. This could have various causes. One is that the police are feeling bereft of support since the revolution, and have frequently been on strike – with the obvious consequence that fear of consequences of crime declines. Another would be that it is a response of individuals to an insecure feeling in the country: all the old certainties have toppled, and very little has replaced them. This kind of thing can conceivably lead to societal breakdown. A third could be the fact of the revolution itself. The driver of the revolution was a sudden falling away of fear of the authorities, including (indeed, largely) the police. One of very few advantages of an authoritarian regime is that only the really desperate will run the risk of incurring its displeasure. Apart from in cases of more general social breakdown (authoritarianism combined with incompetence or pure rent-seeking), this generally equates to low crime rates. Of course, the disadvantages of authoritarianism may be said to counter this.
The decline in security accompanies a continuous and increasing decline in the economy. There are constant queues at petrol stations; it becomes impossible to get hold of dollars, pounds or euros from official sources; the black market in both thrives. The state can’t afford the subsidies it offers on fuel or food, but nor can the government afford to stop them if it wants to survive – and yet if it doesn’t move some economic reforms, it won’t be eligible for the IMF loan it has negotiated, which would in turn open up loans from other sources. The government instead turns to the rich Gulf states, appealing for loans and aid in the name of Muslim unity. Qatar has stepped in offering large loans and a guarantee of a natural gas supply, but this itself arouses suspicions among Egyptians, with a rumour, among others, of their demanding a twenty year lease of the Suez Canal in exchange for their help. (I am certain that this is untrue. Given the British acquired it in a not dissimilar way, a government that acquiesced to such a deal would be risking their lives as well as their posts.) All together, this contributes to a depression in the country, destroying the optimism that I found post-revolution.
On that rather pessimistic note, I shall leave this edition of Alexandrian Notes. I shall be leaving Egypt for good before the end of the month, and will endeavour to write another before then. But no promises…