Enjoy EGYPTAIR special offer to NEW YORK from 5399 LE [$674] & to TORONTO from 5185 LE [$648]. Buy before DEC 15th.
— From a text received on 30 November
Who wouldn’t want a deal at Christmas? Who wouldn’t want to fly from Cairo to North America on a national carrier from the Middle East, from a country where 224 tourists never made it home to St. Petersburg after their Red Sea coast holiday?
The congested streets of Egypt’s capital are filled with the ghosts of lives cut short in two revolutions, in the tumult that preceded and followed each. Thousands of people have been arrested in the four years since Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office; some have just disappeared, their families hoping against hope that their loved ones are alive and that they too are being held by the state.
The new president, former field marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, has put the security forces in command of public life. It feels like the late 1980s once more, when the state was first battling Islamist terrorists who assassinated public figures and attacked foreign tourists. Life goes on, forever changed, but somehow not.
If Egypt’s domestic problems were not enough, now there is a new element: the spectre of a widening Syrian war that threatens to pull together every strand of disaffected, militarised, radicalised “enemy” in almost a dozen Middle Eastern countries and turn their local conflicts into something much larger. Not to mention, young men and women who hold European passports but are drawn to take part in a faraway war.
There is a tangible flatness that falls over any attempt to think about what will happen next in the Middle East. Conversation with Egyptians on anything political has become almost impossible. The conspiracy theories grow ever more elaborate. And always, there is a special place in the blame narrative for “the media.”
Was the bombing of the Russian plane on October 30 the work of the CIA, Britain’s MI6, or Israel’s Mossad? Or were the foreign intelligence services conspiring together, all with the aim of punishing Egypt for the 2012 removal of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi? These are the suggested backstories to the tragedy. That Islamic State claimed the terrorist act is hardly mentioned.
Newspaper editorials instead focused on Egypt’s indignation over early reports that the plane was taken out of the sky by terrorists who had evaded security at the Sharm El-Sheikh airport. There was anger over suggestions that Egypt needed to improve its airport controls. And was there a public outpouring of sympathy for the Russian loss of life? Only a handful of bouquets were placed at the entrance of the Russian Embassy.
But perhaps Egyptians can be forgiven if they have compassion fatigue, given the weekly loss of life among their fellow citizens for the better part of four years. Some of the dead are policemen, targeted by Islamic militants, while others are alleged terrorists in the northern Sinai killed by the Egyptian Armed Forces.
More recently, there have been a number of deaths inside security facilities, allegedly caused by police torture. And in the last week of November, Islamic State claimed to have killed four policemen at the Sakkara Pyramid, on the outskirts of Cairo.
Amid Egypt’s uncertainties, refugees from Syria’s war are also trying to find a space for themselves. An estimated 200,000 are believed to have come to Egypt. Four years ago, you might ask a newly arrived Syrian which city he came from. Not anymore. Because what do you say to someone who has escaped from the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus, under siege for years, bombed and starved into submission by the Syrian regime? Or someone who has left his family behind in Homs, now pummelled into rubble by Bashar el-Assad’s barrel bombs?
Two years ago, young Syrian men, with their distinctive long hair and open faces, started to avoid the streets. It was no longer safe for them to move around Cairo. Police had begun harassing them. Some were arrested and even deported back to Damascus.
But recently, Syrians can be seen on the streets once more. The women wear their hijabs close to the head, usually a simple silk scarf, and long raincoats buttoned to the neck and cinched at the waist with a belt.
The young Syrian who cuts my hair at a fashionable salon in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek is learning French. He hopes the language will help him get to Canada. Last summer he travelled to Turkey and paid a large sum of money to smugglers who said they would put him on a boat to southern Europe.
But when he reached the water’s edge, he couldn’t do it. He was afraid. And so he is back in Cairo, cutting hair 12 hours a day, six days a week. He has a job and his youth. And maybe, one day, he will go to Canada.
In late November, in the days immediately after the Paris attacks, I travelled from Cairo to Holland and Belgium. Did I feel uneasy about the Egyptair ticket I had bought well before the Russian plane downing? Yes, I did. Did I mentally note that our plane was still intact after 23 minutes in the air, after reaching altitude? Of course I did.
In both Holland and Belgium armed men wearing uniforms with a dark-blue camouflage and restraining large dogs on leather leads patrolled the train stations. On a train in Belgium, a Moroccan-born woman and I struggled to communicate in French, after quickly abandoning our shared Arabic. It felt like the right thing to do.
When I returned from Belgium to Amsterdam, I chose, without much thought, to transit via Antwerp rather than Brussels, a city that had been on lockdown at that point for three days. I was lucky as the Brussels station that day had several train cancellations, caused by security scares, and huge queues of stranded passengers were left waiting on platforms.
At Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport, as I headed home to Cairo, my boarding pass was sucked into the rollers of the conveyor belt shifting my personal possessions into an x-ray machine. I watched in horror as the flimsy piece of paper disappeared into the bowels of the complicated machinery.
Despite my concern, the security staff told me it wasn’t a problem. And it wasn’t. I was allowed to go through passport control without a boarding pass, to enter the massive terminal and walk for 20 minutes along the shop-filled concourse to reach my gate, where a new boarding pass was issued. I didn’t fit a profile.
Life goes on, forever changed, but somehow not. But with all the security concerns now monopolizing the policies of our governments, ever seeping into our individual psyches, it seems there will be many “special offers” in the coming months, and even years.
Carol Berger is an anthropologist who specializes in South Sudan. She is a former foreign correspondent, reporting for the BBC, The Guardian, and The Economist from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. She lives in Cairo, Egypt.