Reporter's Notebook: Coffee and politics in Cairo

By MELANIE LIDMAN, JERUSALEM POST CORRESPONDENT
February 3, 2011 03:02

Failure now would mean staying home rather than in the streets calling for change, one Egyptian man said.

4 minute read.



VIGILANTES TUSSLE with a suspect in coffee shop

Egypt cafe riot 311. (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)

CAIRO – The owner of a coffee shop tucked in a alleyway, just a few minutes’ walk from the epicenter of the demonstrations in downtown Cairo, is not happy.

“Please, pay up,” he tells the crowd at 6 p.m. on Monday, three hours after the curfew went into effect. “I want to go to my home, at least I hope I can get to my home,” he mutters.

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The 50 customers ignore him, continuing to place new orders.

It’s a type of coffee shop that’s repeated perhaps a thousand times across the city – a narrow alley filled with red and green plastic chairs and beat-up wooden tables.

As the sun sets, naked bulbs and bare neon lights cast a glow over the broken pavement and the chipped cement walls. There seem to be three things on the menu: tea, Diet Pepsi and hookahs (water pipes).

It’s the type of place where the waiter only comes around once an hour, if that, but a teenage boy comes every 10 minutes to replace the burning wooden chips on the hookahs. The place is filled with middle- aged and young men, though there are a few women as well.

Arguments echo down the 20 meterlong passage. When Egyptians speak, they point and gesture, and the alley is full of frantically waving arms as men interrupt each other, jumping into conversations at the next table and across the way. They argue over the weakness of the Muslim Brotherhood (“We don’t need them,” one man insists), opposition figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei, whether the army can be trusted not to use force against the people, the international media’s portrayal of the demonstrations. The new government sworn in today is no change, the men agree. They were the “right hands” and deputies of the old ministers, the facts on the ground will not change, and the demonstrations must continue.

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Failure now would mean people staying home to protect their houses rather than meeting in the streets to call for change, one man says.

Suddenly, there’s a commotion. Five men armed with large metal poles have a man by the collar of his jacket, and march him proudly into the alleyway.

'The armed men are local vigilantes'

The armed men are local vigilantes, and they claim their prisoner is a thief. They are on the way to turn him over to the nearest military checkpoint, they say. A fight breaks out when customers hear that the vigilantes didn’t see the accused man steal anything, but that he was in a suspicious place and had no ID on him, leading the vigilantes to believe that he was an escaped prisoner.

Every community has organized its own vigilante gangs, which check all vehicles and people entering their neighborhood.

During the day, they mostly wave cars through, but after dark many men are armed with large knives and machetes, any heavy metal object they could find, even a few dilapidated rifles. Everyone is checked, including ambulances with sirens blaring. There is much fear of burglary due to reports of escaped prisoners, who people believe were let out by the government in order to sow terror among the populace.

The customers at the coffee shop don’t buy the vigilantes’ story, that just because a man looks suspicious he should be turned over to the army.

'Suspect visibly terrified'

The suspect is visibly terrified and can barely speak. Customers lunge at the group, trying to make them let go of the accused man. The vigilantes wrestle him away and exit the alley. One man shakes his head as he returns to his seat. “We cannot hit each other, that is exactly what Mubarak wants,” he sighs.

From here, you can’t hear the demonstrators, though many of the customers have rolled-up posters at their feet. Two men in their 60s enter the lane waving small Egyptian flags and chanting, “We will not bow down! We will not bow down!” Everyone in the alley, who just a moment before had been arguing with each other, joins in.

Half an hour later a young man enters and hands out photocopied sheets. It’s not a political manifesto, but a poem he has written, titled “The Revolution.”

“The Revolution is not a logo,” begins the poem, written in the Arabic slang that is unique to the streets of Egypt. “Be brave / Don’t fight your brothers,” says the poem, loosely translated. “Be positive / People are the hope / I hope we don’t go back to where we came from.”

On a normal night, coffee shops like these stay open until 4 a.m., full of people arguing and talking and laughing. Tonight, their still arguing and talking and laughing, but with an added urgency and importance, with the taste of revolution mixed with the hookah smoke hanging in the air.

Tonight, the coffee shop will close early for curfew so the owner can return to his home. But not just yet.


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