The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

A short, hot afternoon in Cairo

It’s 36 degrees in Cairo but it feels hotter. Walking Downtown is a nasty, sticky business.

Midan Talat Harb was quiet around two. Fifteen big green trucks full of hot, unhappy Central Security boys—the foot odor alone should be enough to subdue a riot—and a block of seventy or so of them formed up in the shade next to the entrance to Al Ghad HQ. Outside Madbouli’s bookstore I’m pretty sure I spotted the seventy-something Hagg Madbouli himself, fanning the bottom of his gallebeya gently to stay cool while he checked out the scene.

The trucks and the boys were packed tighter up Champollion Street, maybe because it’s a little cooler there. Table after table of bashawat officers with their handguns strapped to their sides and their imported sunglasses pulled up tight around their eyes, sipping tea in the shade and guaranteeing the stability of the state with their legs comfortably stretched out in front of them. The recruits, meanwhile, were sweating in the sun of Sarwat Street. The uniformed ones stood in rows, their heavy helmets shining like eight balls. The beltaguia perched in their usual little huddles of six or ten, leaning on parked cars and smoking Cleopatras.

By the time I got to the High Court, the steps were packed with judges, with Mekki near the center. A bit of mugging for the cameras, but on the whole this was the solid, dignified face of dissent—a lot of thousand yard stares for the crescent of sweat-slicked camera folk crouching and stretching for their shots.

A smattering of supporters there among the journalists, and a few western diplo-folk as well, skulking at the fringes, picking up souvenir posters and whatever loose talk was going.

The grip ‘n grin broke up around 2.30 and the judges made their way up the street to the Club on Sarwat, By then the most energetic demonstration in a while was underway on the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate next door, with around 150 protestors chanting and waving banners. As usual, they were walled in by half again their weight in blank faced riot police backed up by beltaguia in sweats and sneakers. The officer running things was barking orders at the little guys in their mufti, sending them scurrying back and forth to balance the weight of the protestors inside the line of Amn Markazi as they moved around.

Mekki appeared around 2.40, pushing his way to the middle of Sarwat to stand in front of the syndicate. He’s a big guy with close-cropped hair—solid shoulders and a thick body. Stands out in the crowd. He applauded the protestors inside the cordon and raised his hands. The protestors responded, chanting louder and Mekki pushed forward until he was against the cordon. But once the crowd inside started to push toward him, thinning out the line of Amn Markazi between them, he moved away.

It was an interesting moment. My feeling was that Mekki had the crowd and could have led them through the line of police, but he didn’t. He backed off and was slipping through the gate and back into the Judge’s Club less than a minute later. Make of it what you will.

The protestors kept it up until around 3.20 before dispersing of their own volition. It was still hot as hell, so maybe they’d had enough of chanting and yelling in a dusty roadside sauna, or maybe they just figured that the point had been made. In any event, the beltaguia didn't get any action this time out, and the tea sipping classes got through another afternoon without having to move around too much.