Back Street's Back

Letter From Cairo

Al Ahly fans in Cairo. (Amr Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters)

In Cairo last week, on a crowded public bus near Tahrir Square, passengers were trapped, pressed tightly together and choking on tear gas, as the vehicle struggled to maneuver around a standoff between hapless police conscripts and a crowd of young men making a stand along the bank of the Nile. The commuters were furious. "Who are these people?" some spat as the bus inched past stunted teenagers throwing rocks and making obscene gestures.

That question has been asked again and again over the last two years as nearly identical scenes have played out with numbing regularity. Most Cairenes, President Mohamed Morsi, his cohorts in the Muslim Brotherhood, and the generals who ruled the country before them have agreed on a quick verdict: that "these people" are hired thugs, pawns either of shadowy remnants of the old regime or of unnamed foreign governments. As Morsi charged last week, they are "the counterrevolution incarnate."

Some among the rock-wielding crowd might indeed be paid agents. Sometimes groups of them arrive in the city center in the back of mini pickup trucks. Some young protestors appear to take direction from older men with mustaches and bad leather jackets. Sometimes their faces bear knife scars, broken noses, and other telltale signs of lives spent in Cairo's underworld. Often their eyes are glazed, and their speech is erratic from the use of cheap pills. That -- and the fact that the Mubarak regime cultivated an auxiliary militia of drug addicts and criminals in poor neighborhoods for use when it was more convenient for civilian forces to carry out oppression -- suggests that some of the chaos might, in fact, be organized.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the protesters as paid thugs, or to blame the unrest on revolutionary anniversary pangs, Muslim Brotherhood misrule, or a court's verdict -- although those are all elements of it. True, it is difficult to systematically track the demographics of a stampede, but what most of those rushing to escape birdshot and tear gas canisters have in common is that they are male, urban, young, and unemployed; they have very little to lose, and even less confidence in a political class that does not represent them. For them, the mantra of the uprising that began two Januarys ago -- "Bread, freedom, social justice" -- remains an urgent and unanswered demand.

If anyone doubted that Egypt's unrest would continue until the urban poor saw a concrete improvement in their daily lives, the events of the last few weeks should have convinced them otherwise. For the majority of the Egyptian population that grew up poor and has known no president other than Mubarak, life has been hard and has only gotten harder. The narrow streets of the urban slums admit little air. Decent work, already scarce, has become scarcer. Prices have continued to rise. Prospects for a dignified life -- a steady job, marriage, and escape from the family home -- have grown steadily more remote.

Before the 2011 revolution, some of the poor had turned to the streets, to pills, to hashish, to brawling, to fun. With the army hesitant to appear involved and the opposition in disarray, that street culture is now likely the biggest check on the Islamist project. The dispirited urban population is perhaps more heavily armed now than at any time in modern history. Families -- "honorable people," as onlookers describe them -- still join protests by day, but they melt away by night, and a leaner, angrier group takes their place.

The violent protests are still sporadic, yet to merge into a coherent movement. In the meantime, though, the young, urban poor are already changing the streets. Since 2011, that population has rushed to fill whatever space the state's contraction and the police's retreat have left open. Soon after Mubarak's departure, minibus stations popped up on snarled street corners where police once stood. Stoned and rowdy street venders have gradually taken over Cairo's Talaat Harb Street (formerly Suleiman Pasha Street), an avenue that Egyptians of a certain age remember as the most elegant in the Middle East, as more beautiful than Paris. Unemployed young men have repeatedly blocked major traffic arteries in the capital and have destroyed the lobby of a five-star hotel. City streets and alleyways are rougher and more lawless, as more people compete for fewer resources. Tempers fray and manners are forgotten. The level of street crime, which was always miraculously low for a city of more than 20 million, has risen.

For years before the 2011 uprising, many anticipated a "revolution of the hungry." Some of Egypt's poor took Mubarak's fall to be that very revolution, expecting Mubarak's fabled billions to return to the country and fund apartments for everyone. At the time, a rich Cairene, a woman accustomed to speaking sharply to those she considered beneath her, was shocked when a worker she had hired refused to obey her instructions. "You must understand that you had your time," he told her. "This is ours."

But when Mubarak's imagined billions did not return, and when his ouster did not immediately usher in a new age of prosperity and freedom, disillusionment set in. The middle class might be able to give electoral politics and stability a chance to work their magic; the unemployed youth probably can not. For them, the flux of the current revolutionary moment represents their last chance to salvage a better future for themselves and the country. The long-anticipated and feared revolution of the hungry may have already begun, albeit in slow motion.

Egyptians have shown a talent for retreating from the brink at the last minute. Despite regular bouts of unrest and civil strife, the country has struggled onward. But given the dire economic outlook, the toxic political atmosphere, and the increasing impatience and desperation on the street, it might not always. Those who gave their lives in the uprising did not do so for Egypt to enter a limping race to the bottom. Those who continue to fill the streets will not rest until that course is reversed, or until the government can restore at least some hope that their demands for bread, freedom, and social justice will be met.

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