CAIRO – “You think these people go to the protest? Look at them, they all just
drink lattes and sit around.”
“Omar,” a 26-year-old from a neighborhood
near Cairo’s international airport, was sitting at the Pottery Cafe in the
city’s posh Zamalek district on Thursday, drinking coffee and lazily watching
the world go by. The cafe is only about 3 kilometers northwest of Tahrir Square
and the running clashes between opposition demonstrators and Mubarak supporters,
but feels worlds apart from the chaos.
Reporter's Notebook: Coffee and politics in
Mad Max, the Cairo version
At each table, fashionably dressed
well-to-do Egyptians wearing designer shades chatted and smoked nargilas, eating
paninis and Mexican food. The entire scene, including the prices on the menu,
was reminiscent of any cafe in central Tel Aviv, and gave no indication that
just minutes away a peaceful revolution was being crushed by government
supporters running wild in the streets.
Walking down the leafy, tranquil
streets of Zamalek on Thursday, you could be forgiven for feeling like you were
in an Egypt’s Ramat Aviv and that the January 25th revolution never happened, or
that if it had, it was never violently put down, but just faded off into the
night, the sing-song chanting in the square merely a fevered dream long
Omar laughed off any suggestions that the clashes would reach over
the river into Zamalek, saying “The violence won’t spread here, Zamalek people
live in a bubble, an island both figuratively and literally.
that, but many of the people in Zamalek sympathize with Mubarak’s economic and
social policies, which have helped make some of them rich.”
phone was stolen as he stood on a bridge near Tahrir Square on Thursday morning,
and moments later he saw a man get shot in the leg but didn’t see where the
bullet came from.
“I went this morning just to see for myself what’s
going on. It was so peaceful in Tahrir on Tuesday night I wanted to see what
happened and who these people are, if they’re hired thugs or not,” he
Omar spoke about Cairo and Egypt with a mix of fondness and
malaise, saying “Egypt is beautiful, a really nice place to hang out, just the
only people who get to enjoy it are the rich or foreigners.”
rest of those at the cafe who spoke to The Jerusalem Post, Omar had perfect
English, the product of a private school education.
Zamalek lies on the
Gezira Island in the Nile river and is connected to the rest of the city through
three bridges each on the east and west sides of the island, including the Qasr
al-Nil Bridge and 6th of October Bridge. It is one of Cairo’s wealthiest
districts, along with Maadi, Heliopolis and Garden City.
A few tables
away from Omar sat “Mansur,” a 27- year-old Cairene who wouldn’t turn heads in
Mansur was also not a resident of Zamalek but has been
coming there to hang out in the mornings over the past week “to chill out, feel
like I’m still human.”
Mansur’s real estate business has been shut down
for over a week due to the turmoil, and he’s stayed up all night each night
since, manning a vigilante checkpoint in his neighborhood with a small caliber
rifle. At first the roadblock duty was frightening, he said, but now its become
so routine that it’s only boring, cold and exhausting.
He also related
how during the first nights they would go house to house searching for looters
squatting in the abandoned villas, and kicking them out of the area.
Omar, Mansur said all of his family and friends are safe, but are dealing with
extreme stress, aggravated by the loss of sleep and an absolute uncertainty
about what may happen at any moment.
“Nothing is normal at night now, not
even Zamalek. But in the morning, people come here to remember how their lives
were before this. That’s what I come for, to sit, drink coffee and get a glimpse
of what my life was like,” he said.
“After the sequence of events
yesterday, we can’t analyze anything, all of our expectations have been dashed.
Every time we get a glimpse of hope it has been dashed. It just doesn’t make
sense that Egyptians would do this to each other.”
Andreas Haugland, a
24- year-old Norwegian enrolled in Arabic studies at the American University of
Cairo, came to the city on January 15, a week before his studies were to begin,
only to see the semester put on hold, leaving him and his three fellow students
at the table in limbo.
Since then, they’ve spent their days hanging out
at Tahrir Square and lounging around the Pottery.
“It was all very nice
in Tahrir until yesterday, very kumbaya, almost like New Year’s Eve,” Haugland
said, though he did describe getting tear-gased by police during the beginning
of the protest.
“I feel very safe here, I felt safe downtown, too, until
yesterday. We were coming back from Tahrir and we narrowly escaped a beating.
This has been my first unpleasant experience since being here.”
he enjoys Zamalek, but that “out here you really see the inequalities of
Haugland and his friends plan on leaving town for a
while, maybe taking a vacation in “more peaceful” cities like Beirut, Damascus
or Jerusalem, until things quiet down.
At the same time, he said he had
no regrets about coming to Cairo for his studies.
“I’m a Middle East
History major, so this is like field studies for me.”