Egypt

One Cairo Street: Extraordinary Scenes, Everyday Life In A Time Of Revolution

Gang fights, clandestine excavations, a thriving black market for cigarettes. In post-Mubarak, post-Morsi Egypt, life and violence go on for the people of Bab El Bahr Street.

Clashes in a Cairo street near Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2013
Clashes in a Cairo street near Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2013
Serge Michel

CAIRO — Located behind Ramses Square, Bab El Bahr is the sort of street Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz described in his novel Palace Walk. But where there were once donkeys, there are now Vespa scooters, and television sets have replaced mashrabiyas.

This neighborhood is now one of bathroom tiles, sewing machines and black-market cigarettes. Street peddlers sell licorice juice to the sound of tinkling glass, barbers shave their clients on the sidewalk, people in cafes smoke hookahs. There's even a fattawa, a muscular man, sort of a noble thug and big-hearted gang leader. His name is Miso. He has reigned over the neighborhood for 10 years, and at nightfall he manages the street barricade meant to protect the area.

On Aug. 18, Egypt’s interior minister begged people to remain inside their homes because of the numerous robberies that had taken place throughout Cairo. But those on Bab El Bahr would not hear of it. “We have special authorization,” Miso claims. He is 31 and built like a wrestler, wearing orange sneakers with immaculate white soles, skinny jeans and has a shaved head. “You have to fight a lot if you want to be a proper kebir el-sharea (street legend),” he says soberly.

What he shows us could not be more different than the picturesque descriptions of Mahfouz’s novels: bullet holes on the walls and shops that were burned down by the Muslim Brotherhood during Aug. 16’s infamous “Friday of Wrath.” Ramses Square was where the members of the Brotherhood used to gather, but fights also took place in the surrounding streets.

Miso works as a wholesaler for two Chinese cigarette brands, Capital and Denver, that are imported for the black market. In kiosks, a pack is sold for 4 Egyptian pounds (57 cents), but those that are taxed by the government cost four times more. Most of the members of Miso’s gang work for him as delivery men.

He points to a banner. It says, “Mando, our hero, we won't forget you” next to a picture of a tall and husky boy. “He was 17,” Miso says. “He was deaf-mute. Killed by police fire, but he was just looking at the fight, like me, like Sameh.”

Sameh hasn’t left his apartment for almost two months now. He lost his job as a pastry seller, which paid 500 pounds a week ($71), and he doesn't know how to feed his three children anymore. He walks around on crutches and shows off the bullet holes in his right leg. Nerves and veins were severed.

A turbulent night

“How did the fight start?” Sameh is asked. He glances at Miso to inquire whether he can say the truth, and making sure his children can’t overhear, he turns down the volume of the television set on which two American superheroes are being pursued by a monster in a ventilation system.

“It was an hour after Egyptian Army General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s televised address, so around 10 p.m.,” he recalls. “The owner of a small grocery store had dug a hole at the back of his shop to look for ancient objects, objects from Pharaonic times, Roman times, Islamic times, whatever. A six meter-deep hole with galleries and all. The owner of a shop opposite, a broom seller, saw that he was going to find something. He told him he had to share. He asked for 5,000 pounds ($710). The guy from the grocery store refused, so they fought. And the whole street joined in, on one side or the other. Almost a hundred people were fighting.”

That evening, at that time, Cairo was a boiling cauldron. El-Sisi had just arrested the elected president and had suspended the Constitution. Pro and anti-Morsi crowds were facing each other in several spots of the capital. On Tahrir Square, Morsi opponents were celebrating their victory. At the camp in Rabaa El-Adawiya Square, supporters of the fallen president were building up barricades. Pro-Muslim Brotherhood television channels were being closed down and some of their journalists arrested. People were being reported dead in clashes on the north coast, in Alexandria and in the Nile delta.

But the people of Bab El Bahr were fighting over lamps, amulets, jewelry or coins from the Islamic period. (The neighborhood was constructed in the 12th century, at the time of Sultan Saladin). “Plenty of shop owners are digging,” Miso says, laughing. “In any shop that has a room at the back, hidden from the street, they dig. Sometimes, houses fall down because of the tunnels.”

The fight lasted almost three hours, with people throwing stones at each other, firing shotshells and fireworks — the ones they had planned to use for the end of Ramadan. Miso and his gang were on the side of the broom seller who wanted the loot to be shared. The rival gang defended the grocery store owner. “When you find something, you share it,” Miso says. A neighbor called the police but wound up changing his story. He told them, “The Muslim Brotherhood are attacking our street!”

A few minutes later, the police arrived from Port Said Street and started shooting without warning. Nine people were injured and one died, the young deaf-mute. The dueling shopkeepers were arrested. The grocery store owner died the following day at the police station, “from God's death,” i.e. a natural death, Miso explains.

“I hope they all go to hell”

These excavations, right in the center of Cairo, surprise and worry archaeologists who thought they were restricted to Pharaonic sites. “They probably dig at random, but they could very well find interesting objects,” says scientist Abbès Zouache from the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology of Cairo. “There used to be palaces in this neighborhood.”

Sameh is angry. “The police, they know us, they know we’re not doing anything bad,” he says. “They’ve never done that before. We don't understand.” He wanted to press charges, but the prosecutor tore up his declaration and the police searched the hospital to confiscate records that might implicate them. When asked whether he hopes for financial compensation, he sneers. “Hell, they don’t even care about the dead, so why would my leg be of any interest to them?”

On the television screen, the two superheroes defeat the monster and make way for the news bulletin. The presenter says that 102 police officers have died over the last couple of days in the clashes. At which point Sameh says, “Police officers and Muslim Brotherhood alike, I hope they all go to hell.”

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