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Tear Down This Wall - Trapped Inside The New Barricades Of A Divided Cairo

"General strike" on Cairo's walls
"General strike" on Cairo's walls
Delphine Minoui

CAIRO - It just happened one day, without prior notice. On Jan. 26, Moheddin Marwan lowered the iron curtain of his grocery store at lunchtime. When he came back to work the next day, he just stood there petrified, as motionless as the new barricade that blocked the access to his shop.

Stacked up like Lego bricks, the concrete blocks literally cut Cairo"s Sheikh-Reyhan Street in two – erected by authorities to protect official buildings from protesters. As if the center of the city wasn’t disfigured enough after two years of clashes between protesters and police forces.

So the man with a salt-and-pepper beard who protested against Mubarak and voted for Morsi, this 49-year-old grocer from the corner store, rolled up his sleeves, moved the Coca Cola crates in the back of his shop and unlocked the emergency exit door. In a matter of minutes, the “Marwan passageway” was born.

“I wasn’t going to just let my business die like that! One more wall won’t stop the violence. It just poisons Egyptians’ everyday life. Instead of fixing the problems, the government creates new ones!” says Marwan. The sound of footsteps on the asphalt interrupt him. A herd of suits, satchels on their shoulders, flows into the store only to come out the other way. It’s 2 p.m., the end of the workday for public administrations. “That will cost you five gineihs (70 cents)!” jokes Marwan, pretending to be a customs official.

“Why not? You should put up a toll, just like the Suez canal!” answers one of the suits. “I could make a fortune out of it! More than a thousand people go through my shop every day to bypass the barricades!” says Marwan. “The thing is, this hole in the wall is all that’s left of the spirit of the revolution – solidarity between Egyptians.”

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Cairo's graffiti artists relentlessly cover up the new barricades - Photo: Gigi Ibrahim

For a long time, the shopkeeper believed in the revolution. In January and February 2011, he was standing in Tahrir Square, unafraid of the police’s bullets, shouting “erhal” (“beat it”) to Mubarak. His 19-year-old son Muhammad even lost his voice because of the tear gas. “When he started talking again, he sounded like a little girl. The gas had created an infection that we were never able to cure,” he says.

Then, during the June 2012 presidential elections, this fierce opponent to Ahmed Shafik, whom he considers to be “a remnant of the former regime,” voted for Mohamed Morsi: “Not because I like the Muslim Brotherhood, but because he seemed like a nice guy.”

"We'll blow it up"

Now, he’s angry at everyone: the government, for “chasing after its own interests,” but also the protesters, “overly excited youngsters who are acting like hooligans and who make our lives miserable.” The father of two was used to waking up at 5 a.m. to open his store until 11 p.m. But now he’s having problems making ends meet. “The breach in the barricade saved me but my benefits plummeted. After 2 p.m., clients are scarce. When there are demonstrations, I have to close my shop.”

He’s not the only one to criticize the new concrete barricades. In the maze that the center of Cairo has become, cafés don’t have enough clients and taxis barely manage to zigzag through. Everyone has to be resourceful to find ways around the new situation. Like this woman with a scarf who proceeds to climb the blocks behind Tahrir Square, with her heels in her hand. Or this group of insubordinates, who recently managed to bring down one of the barricades – oblivious to the police’s tear gas. The next morning, the wall was back up again. Relentless in their defiance, Cairo’s graffiti artists were already busy covering it up with anti-Morsi graffiti.

These concrete blocks are now part of Cairo’s inhabitants’ daily lives. So much so that singer Youssra El Hawary composed a song about it – within 10 months, her song El Soor (The Wall) had reached 200,000 views on YouTube and become one of the most popular songs of the post-revolution era.

To his surprise, Moheddin Marwan also became quite famous. One of the concrete blocks in front of his store reads “Marwan Passageway” in Arabic. “People like me because I refuse no one. The other day, someone even carried his bike across the shop,” he says.

However, being a good Samaritan earned him a visit from an Internal Affairs agent. “He came here and accused me of smuggling potential protesters. I told him: ‘What do you want me to do? Close my store indefinitely and starve to death?’ He then suggested that I file a complaint to the police. A complaint! Seriously! Nobody will listen. My patience has limits. If the wall is still here in the next few days, I’ll call my son and we’ll blow it up.”

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