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Continuing life in Cairo

Egyptians adjust to life amid protests and political turmoil

Managing Editor

Published: Monday, January 16, 2012

Updated: Monday, January 16, 2012 17:01

Egypt 3

Photo courtesy of Nashrah Rahman

The Great Sphinx of Giza stands on the west bank of the Nile in Giza, Egypt.

Egypt 4

Photo courtesy of Nashrah Rahman

My winter break began with the sound of gunshots. I heard them at the brink of dawn and woke up in a daze, forgetting for a few seconds where I was. As the gunshots continued, I struggled to decide what to do: Should I wake up everyone else? Were we safe inside the house? Most importantly, what was going on? Then I remembered what my mother had told me the night before when she picked me up at the airport: "The situation is still unstable; some of [the] neighboring houses have been burgled and fights between protestors and military forces often break out early in the morning. Egypt's revolution has not ended."

My family moved to Cairo in the summer of 2010 due to my father's job as a diplomat. Once a stranger to Egyptian politics, I began to follow the news on Egypt ardently and shared the Egyptian people's joy when President Hosni Mubarak finally resigned in light of the protests and the military took control. In a bizarre way, the revolution helped bring me closer to the country that is now my home.

The situation in Egypt took a turn for the worse in December 2011 with the beginning of free parliamentary elections. After the first round of elections saw Islamists dominate votes, the military justified extending its ruling power as a way to protect Egyptian society from a potential Islamist takeover.

Protestors returned to Tahrir Square in Cairo to challenge the continued military rule only to be greeted with armed violence. Mass demonstrations broke out once more as tension increased between protestors and military forces. Amid such volatile developments, I returned to Cairo for winter break.

The media, caught up in reporting the events in Tahrir Square, did not prepare me for what to expect of everyday life in Egypt.

When we first moved to Cairo, one of my favorite discoveries was Khan-el-Khalili, a marketplace bustling with restaurants, coffeehouses, souvenir shops and street food vendors. I loved walking down the narrow alleyways that rang with the sound of shopkeepers engaged with tourists and locals in lively bargaining. Khan-el-Khalili today is much quieter. The shopkeepers are less jovial and more determined to get the price they set in order to make ends meet in a country that is economically unstable.

Last summer, when the mood was still jubilant after Mubarak's resignation, the Egyptians I met were excited to speak about the revolution. I remember befriending two women while waiting for an appointment at the dentist's office and starting a casual conversation about the protests. Seeing that I was not Egyptian, the women were curious to hear my opinion and listened politely even when they did not agree with my views.

However, when my mother and I accompanied my brother to the barber shop this winter, even a vague reference to the revolution was marked with tension. My mother asked if they were open on Fridays with the intention of making an appointment for my father. One of the barbers flashed us a tight smile and replied, "Why wouldn't we be open? Yes, of course we are open!" He thought she was implying that business might be disrupted because protests are generally scheduled for Fridays. Such protests usually begin peacefully with the gathering of thousands of Egyptians from all sectors of society and professions, but they often end with military violence.

The barber's pointed remark made me recognize another source of contention that arguably rivals that between the demonstrators and the military. There is a disconnect between the demonstrators and a large number of the people they claim to be representing.

I realized over the course of my stay this winter that the latter group—consisting of shopkeepers in Khan-il-Khalili and small business owners like barbers—is the one economically affected by the turn of events in Egypt. The drop in tourism and disruption in business have made it hard for them to wholeheartedly embrace the ongoing revolution. As a result, I returned this winter to reports of burglaries—desperate attempts undertaken by some to sustain their livelihoods in the middle of renewed violence.

The intertwining sectors of tension in Egypt manifest most visibly in the epicenter of the revolution: Tahrir Square. The area is always filled with protestors huddled in several groups and street vendors trying to sell T-shirts commemorating the revolution. I drove past this point of modern history several times this winter, always awestruck by the protestors' dedication to their cause. I also knew that not everyone who drove by felt the same way as I did.

The gunshots I heard my first morning in Egypt continued for nearly 10 minutes straight. Later that day, my family asked the guards who protect our residential compound if they knew what had happened. "Don't worry. These things happen nowadays; it was probably a scuffle between protestors and others in support of the military," was the nonchalant response.

Even in such troubled times, life in Egypt goes on. People go to work, spend their afternoons in coffee shops and their weekends shopping. Tourists still visit, albeit in reduced numbers, to see the Giza pyramids. With the military's latest announcement on Jan. 1, 2012 to accelerate the election timetable in response to the protests, one hopes that Egypt sees real peace soon.  

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