In my Cairo neighborhood, new violence but the same old troubles

Whenever I fell ill as a child, my mother would say, “Go to Rabaa!” By the time I was a teenager, I knew by heart the side streets that led from my house to the Rabaa hospital, less than a mile away. Even though there was a government-run hospital just down the street, my neighbors, even the wealthy ones, preferred the facilities run by an Islamic charity at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. It was a different Egypt then. Now the mosque is in ashes, and the hospital is drenched in the smell of death.

There is nothing special about Nasr City, the eastern Cairo neighborhood where Rabaa stands. It has no culture and little history save for the spot where President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, yards from where supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi recently held their sit-in. Sadat’s killing was part of an attempted Islamist insurgency that only strengthened the hand of his successor, Hosni Mubarak, and his security services. Now many fear that a cycle of violence that has killed thousands will give way to yet more violence and more authoritarianism to “protect” the people.

My unremarkable neighborhood has long been ground zero for the battle between Islamists and the Egyptian state. President Gamal Abdel Nasser planned Nasr City in the early 1960s in hopes of creating the first major urban development project in the desert — away from the unmanageable troubles of old Cairo. As with much else in Egypt then and now, it did not go as planned.
Housing was first provided for army officers to settle with their families, but the area remained largely unpopulated until the 1980s. Back then, Egyptians from all walks of life were returning flush with cash from jobs in the gulf and started buying and building in Nasr City. The once-planned districts turned into a hodgepodge of apartments surrounded by military facilities, as contractors raced to erect buildings before anyone could look into how they were acquiring the land. The main benefactor of this construction rush was the military, which owned nearly half the land and was selling what was meant to be a public resource for profit.

Nasr City turned into a relatively high-end area mostly for upper-middle-class Egyptians who were able to afford it only after emigrating and making money abroad. Among them were members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist sympathizers who had returned with convictions as well as cash. After briefly resembling something that people like my parents hoped might be the Egyptian dream — which they, like many others, eventually realized could be found only outside Egypt — by the late 1990s Nasr City became a carbon copy of the unmanageable problems Nasser hoped to avoid, with just a facade of modernity.
Both sides hoped that the revolution of January 2011 would be a vehicle for progress, but instead it exacerbated Egypt’s chronic problems. Some of the same Nasr City residents who had given up on the corrupt state their fathers left them — by turning to the private sector, emigrating or pushing their sons to do the same — cheered on that very state this summer as it spilled Egyptian blood on the streets. They sought solace in a fascist national mythology that seems to only distract from the incompetence and corruption of the government and its security apparatus. Their neighbors who supported the Rabaa sit-in came from similar roots but believed a different myth: that the Islamic state would be the cure for their country. Instead, a bankrupt group of charlatans and delusional leaders ultimately led many of its innocent followers to their demise at Rabaa.

While in Egypt this summer, I struggled to find a voice of sanity. As the Aug. 14 massacre occurred, I saw people who cared only about the deaths among the security services, rejecting the fact that mass murder was happening just yards from their homes. After nearly 10 hours of shooting, with smoke billowing from tear-gas canisters and burning tents, I found protesters on the same side streets I took as a child. They put gunshot victims in their cars to take them to hospitals. A small and desperate group of protesters regrouped in my street and screamed for people to come and join them. They were met by blank stares and the eerie sound of shop owners playing a hushed recording of the Koran — as though mourning not just the victims on either side but also the state of despair they found their neighborhood and their country to be in. Those who had cheered the military’s bloody dispersal of the sit-in were soon exhausted by the chaos and death.

Many of the army’s supporters are older Egyptians who were skeptical of the 2011 revolution. They feared that if the corrupt institutions of the Mubarak regime were shaken to their core, no one would be able to rebuild them. Some of them quickly denounced security problems and the economy’s downward spiral after Mubarak’s fall, while others remained inspired and patient.

Many young people have blamed these same elders for Egypt’s deterioration in recent years. They blamed them first for acquiescing to military rule after Mubarak’s fall, again for buying into Islamist talk of stability and once more for voting to return Mubarak’s last prime minister to power in the 2012 presidential elections.
I remember a young revolutionary telling his mother, “We sacrificed in order to give you the vote, and now you choose to kill us with this vote.” Now that mother stands with a large swath of Egyptians supporting Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and his campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood. Even more than before, the military’s supporters seek to silence any dissenting voice by crying treason or at best naivete.
Two days after the Rabaa massacre, I saw that same mother lash out at her TV screen, where images of violent Brotherhood supporters flickered. “Traitors! Traitors!” she screamed. “Anyone who is against our military is a traitor!” That night I tried to discourage her disillusioned son from embracing armed resistance against that military. Although he admitted that ousted president Morsi had been a failure, he still saw the military and the state it represents as the greater evil. “We tried the military state for 60 years and know that it always ends with corruption and failure,” he said. But days later, after seeing the number of anti-military protesters dwindle, he seemed content with just being angry and not risking his life on the street.

The uprising that aimed to rid the country of its demons has yielded a status quo that may put Egypt on a more dangerous path than ever. The dream of a better future that mobilized the young revolutionaries 21 / 2 years ago remains elusive; it has been manipulated and exploited by the Islamists and the military establishment alike. The fear is that this generation’s Egyptian dream will turn into the harsh reality that their parents faced. The immediate threat is not simply the return of the Mubarak regime, but the population’s return to political apathy or the debilitating belief that change can come only at the price of chaos. Such views could pave the way for a new order that is more authoritarian and divisive than the Mubarak state ever dreamed to be.

The charred and haunting facade of the Rabaa mosque still stands. It will be rebuilt. But it will be up to Egyptians to either learn a lesson from the military brutality that took place there or look nearby at the Islamists’ brutality that assassinated Sadat and paved the way for Mubarak. The only real hope for a brighter future, however, is to learn from both — and move beyond them.

Mokhtar Awad is an independent researcher on Middle Eastern politics.

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