Manufactured Instability Pops an Expat’s Bubble of Privilege.
The author, a former Midwestern journalist, lived in Cairo with his wife and children for six years until they were evacuated last week amid the public safety concerns related to the Egyptian uprising.
Funny, in retrospect, that I had just gotten into it with my ex-cop uncle in Oregon over that e-mail he forwarded me. Another in a continuing tirade against liberals, this one posed the scenario of a nice family out for a stroll when “suddenly, a Terrorist with a huge knife comes around the corner.” The hero whips out his gun, the love of guns is proven right, etc. Naturally I dished it back to Uncle Warren with a side of condescension. “I always feel safe in Egypt no matter what neighborhood I’m in,” I retorted. “One, violent crime is pretty low, and, two, over here they never introduced the crazy-ass notion that random people have a ‘right’ to walk around with pocket-size killing machines. In the U.S., you fools are awash in the things.”
It was true. Although my American friends considered me brave for living in the dangerous Middle East, in six years in Egypt I’d shown my Caucasian face in all manner of places and never had any trouble. A couple of times gaggles of young men hooted at me from passing cars; one time a guy got in my face about the U.S.’s support for Israel. That was it. Terrorist bombings were rare enough to put them out of mind. Far more likely, the young men I encountered wanted to be my buddy, improve their English by talking to me, try to imbibe some of my foreign-ness to help them climb out of their life-traps, get an American wife. Egyptians are chatty, gregarious, generous. When people lose their tempers on the street it usually becomes a “hold-me-back!” non-fight where no blows connect. Safer than Iowa.
Dark corners lurk for Egyptians themselves: people desperate for money who would stab a taxi driver and steal his taxi; apartments built below code for a kickback that collapse and kill the renters; and the police, who abuse and extort those who fall on their bad side and don’t have the influence to get out. Most people were afraid to criticize their president, and some persuaded themselves that an authoritarian state was a necessary price for safety. These indignities grated on me, and I would increasingly carp about them to my Egyptian colleagues. But those troubles were far from my own life as a foreign resident. For me the only things dangerous about Cairo were the driving (for lack of pedestrian overpasses, people dash across six lanes of high-speed traffic on the Ring Road and sometimes don’t make it) and the smog (which got so bad even in tree-filled Maadi that we moved out to El-Rehab in a far corner of Cairo).
When Tunisia-inspired protests began in the Cairo’s central neighborhoods, I privately hoped they would give Mubarak a hard time, but I was certain they would have little effect on my routine. On January 29 I was taking my son Isaac to the dentist in Maadi when my boss called to say that our employer, Johns Hopkins University, had retained a company that was available to evacuate me, my wife and our two sons if need be. I scoffed. “It’s not like they’re going to start attacking random foreigners,” I said. After all, I had lived in Cairo at a time when the U.S. was bombing another sovereign Arab state, and no one had given me any trouble personally. This current dispute was an internal one, between the protesters and the regime of Hosni Mubarak. It had nothing to do with me. “But there are security vacuums,” my boss continued. “Call the number.” I called the company’s London office and gave them my information, for a rainy day. Then I set aside this alarmism and went back to the family errands. Egypt had been good to us for six years. We were thriving professionally, and our sons loved their schools. Anyway, we couldn’t leave even if we wanted to: My wife Marcia was pregnant and at an advanced stage, 36 weeks, too pregnant to fly. As a concession to the new unpredictability, we had switched to a doctor and hospital nearer our home. Even if things got tense in central Cairo, we would ride it out.
We left the dentist and my phone rang. It was my co-worker Hassan, warning me not to go to Carrefour mall because the television was showing that it was being overrun by—I didn’t hear this right the first time—“looters.” Looters? Instinctively, we knew this was connected to the defiance in Tahrir Square, but the term did not have a match in the mental database of known phenomena in Egypt.
Where did the looters come from? Information was not flowing normally. Although the regime had stopped blocking the mobile phone services, the networks were now congested from people catching up on missed calls. The Internet was still blocked, and our satellite TV wasn’t working. What remained was a haze of speculation and folk wisdom. The first answer offered from that haze was: The looters walked to the mall from the slums. The slums, mythic source of uncivilized people in the mind of wealthier Egyptians; another reason to be happy you have a police state. Envious of the rich, the slum-dwellers were taking advantage of the void of state control after the police retreated in the face of the democracy protesters: That was the folk theory.
Driving back home on the Ring Road, we passed the mall. Cars were pulled over diagonally like shoes tossed in a closet, the drivers out, leaning over the guardrail as if to determine whether there was still an opportunity to be had in the mall, with a couple of guys on the roof.
No need to increase a pregnant woman’s anxiety level. At home I mentioned casually that I had signed up with the evacuation service, as if on a lark. Then it was time to help Isaac do an assignment for his second-grade math class that involved weighing fruit. We walked toward the market. On the street in front of our apartment, a group of neighbors milled around. They all were holding broom handles. As I walked past, one of them spoke to me gently in English. “I wouldn’t go walking on the streets right now,” he said. “There are looters coming here.” I felt a spike of fear in my stomach lining. Then denial and rationality showed up. “How do you know they’re coming?” I asked. (Do looters phone ahead?) The guy shrugged. “People heard about it.” The broomstick crew had agreed: The plan was, if looters showed up, go to your car and honk the horn repeatedly. We went back home. I wished my son hadn’t heard that exchange so that I might have persuaded him it wasn’t real. The sky was clear and blue but somehow looked like a pirated version.
That was four o’clock, when the regime had declared that curfew would begin, when everyone was ordered to stay inside in the interest of public order (and to provide a pretense for cracking down on protests). At four o’clock, the day began to slide rapidly from normal to weird. Friends phoned with reports of unfamiliar dangers appearing outside. On the Ring Road, gangs of people on foot were blocking all lanes to stop cars, then rob the occupants. In Maadi, a friend driving back from the supermarket narrowly avoided being stopped at a roadblock set up by men wearing masks and holding (the mind greatly resisted accepting this object into the picture of existence) machine guns. Who were they? How did they get machine guns in a country with virtually no private gun ownership? The first answer from the tank of rumors was: Maybe they were looters who stole the machine guns from the police. The second answer was: Prisoners are escaping from the jails, hardened criminals. Inside of an hour I began to perceive that in the midst of a country we knew as peaceful, civil, uneventful, it was as if pieces of Baghdad were leaking through.
Marcia and I took this all in, trying to maintain our balance, mindlessly repeating that it wouldn’t affect us. But come to think of it, how was I going to drive her to the hospital to give birth if—mobs on the highway … machine-gun roadblocks …?
Then came a pair of phone calls informing us that the downward spiral had widened, and we were inside it. “Are you OK?” a friend asked. “The news is reporting that looters are inside El-Rehab.” Our apartment is on the ground floor. The doors were already locked. There’s no deadbolt. “Why don’t we close the shutters,” I told Isaac breezily, “since the sun is setting.” As I closed the shutters I noticed that only two members of the broomstick crew were still out on the street. The phone rang again: another friend calling to warn us that the television was reporting that looters had “surrounded” El-Rehab. I turned to Marcia, intending to give her a look to assure her that I knew how to handle this, but when my eyes reached hers, all I had to offer was a look that said: I have no idea what comes next. Sensing the buffer zone around our privileged lives retracting, we formulated stupid reassurances to each other out of earshot of the boys. “Well, if they’re looters, they just want to steal, not to kill people.”
I went to the toolbox and got a crowbar and put it by the door. Then I was afraid our younger son would get his hands on it, so I moved it to the middle of the dining room table. No, I didn’t wish I had a gun, but I still had a feeling Uncle Warren was going to feel like he won the argument, goddamn him.
“I think it’s time to call the evacuation service,” I said. Marcia nodded. The company said they would have a charter flight out the following day in the evening. We had 24 hours to hang out. We called Marcia’s doctor. Yes, she was safe to fly, in his opinion, and he would write us a letter to show to the airlines. He prescribed some medicine to forestall labor. Most of the pharmacies had ceased their normal home-delivery service because of the state of emergency, but one was still operating. The deliveryman said everything was fine on the streets.
The phone again. Our friend Eman lives near Carrefour. Her husband, a hotel manager, was stuck downtown because of the protests and the curfew. She was in her apartment with their toddler son. The looters were done with Carrefour and had begun to look for other gains in the apartment buildings around the mall. Eman was terrified and thought she might die that night. Marcia told her to run to her car and drive out to our place, but Eman had forgotten to put gas in her car, and the gas stations had been closed all day, without explanation.
More calls and rumors of looting and broomstick crews all around the country as we fitfully packed a suitcase, then two. As the boys fell asleep, Marcia and I could not, so we had plenty of time to pack. But how much stuff do you bring to an evacuation? To bring something as frivolous as a hairbrush might seem to mock the situation.
A shop owner told me the reports of looters in El-Rehab were false, deliberately planted by homeowners in order to get the military to provide protection for the neighborhood. Still, as I lay in bed that night, every noise from outside sparked my imagination. I was afraid.
The sun rose the next morning. No looters had come. The broomstick crews set up amateur roadblocks around town with chairs and sandbags. As unfamiliar cars and pickups approached, they did their best imitation of the ID checks that the police had imposed upon them all these years. We dashed to a local doctor to procure a letter understating Marcia’s state of pregnancy so she could fly; gave a house key to a friend in town; then drove to the evacuation rendezvous point at a hotel near the airport; and left the car key in an envelope at the hotel for a friend to pick up.
Suddenly we were in the controlled and sheltered environment of a luxury hotel with private security. Fear paused and doubt stepped in. We felt guilt at abandoning our friends and regret at leaving Egypt at this moment of possibility. We heard a hospital had been looted but that others were working smoothly. We heard that looting was widespread around the country, but we also heard rumors that the looters were really sent by the police, and that the police were responsible for opening the prisons, to teach the people that the alternative to authoritarianism was anarchy. Eman, whose husband had made it back from downtown, certainly blamed Mubarak for the looting and was tired of being afraid. She would leave the baby with Ehab and go down to Tahrir Square to join the protesters.
We had plenty of time to second-guess our decision to leave. As we and other fleeing foreigners idled in the hotel, our charter plane was bumped to the next morning, then to the evening. At midday the evacuation service drove us to sit outside the airport and wait. By then the U.S. government had announced it would fly out any American who asked, and a long line snaked out the terminal door. Marcia became dehydrated from sitting in the sun. Finally our evacuation coordinator emerged from the terminal. “We have the worst possible news,” he said, ashen. The government of Egypt had refused the charter flight permission to land because of a paperwork technicality. Marcia lost it.
We appealed to the U.S. government evacuation crew, and given Marcia’s pregnancy, they put us at the front of the line. Two hours later, we were lifting off.
I don’t mean to suggest that our brief ordeal is worthy of pity. To the contrary, the support system that pulled us out of Cairo echoed the privileges that we had enjoyed as Westerners up to that point. Our experience is relevant to the larger story when one realizes that the entire foreign population is emptying out of Cairo, driven by the same mix of fear and uncertainty. Meanwhile the regime’s bullies are hunting down foreign journalists and human rights activists and cutting off live television feeds. That adds up to pulling a curtain across the protests so they can describe them as they want (such as the absurd claim that the protests are dominated by radical Muslim fundamentalists). It means Hosni Mubarak is still effectively using the fear of violence as a tool to remain in power.
Daniel Lynx Bernard, a former journalist turned foreign aid consultant, lived in Cairo and is going back there when this blows over, with his wife, M. Lynx Qualey, and their two sons going on three, who are temporarily hanging out in Minneapolis-St. Paul.