Geopolitics

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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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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