Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Dateline Cairo 2013 - Layla's personal verbal snapshot - Politics, economy, security, women,Tahrir Square and political satire!

From time to time I  share on my blog  an e-mail with a boots on the ground snapshot of life in a hot-news country.  Here Libyan UK based lawyer Layla El Wafi gives her personal impressions of  life in  Cairo - politics, people, the economy, women, political satire, security and (of course!) Tahrir Square…
Layla just returned to UK from a 10 day visit to Egypt for a family wedding. She divided her time between downtown Cairo (Zamalek and  a suburb of Cairo (Helwan).

 ‘London is cold, wet and grey so I'm grateful for my recent
ten day visit to Cairo where there was no shortage of sun -  nor
complaints about the new government/Muslim Brotherhood for that
matter! I was touched by a range of conversations, sights and sounds
and felt compelled to share especially as many of you welcomed my
email last month sharing my experience visiting Tripoli, Libya.

It had been exactly one year since my last visit to Cairo and I
noticed that traffic, street sanitation, inflation and security were
still apparent issues and on people's list of concerns.  I heard mixed
views from business and legal contacts - some indicating foreign
investments and transactions were picking up and others concerned
about the lack of liquidity, drop in tourism (a major economic driver)
and retreat of Western companies/banks being replaced by
investors/banks from the Gulf and notably Qatar.

The Constitutional Referendum
I was there when the constitutional referendum result was announced
('yes' for those who missed it) and although everyone I asked and
unofficially surveyed (except one) voted 'NO' there was a majority
'Yes' vote reported (see photo encouraging 'yes' vote to promote
stability). Although people I asked (taxi driver, Christian hair
dresser, older relatives, younger cousins, religious, secular) said
they were not surprised and anticipated a 'Yes' result because this is
what 'they' (i.e. Muslim Brotherhood government) wanted. Although some
spoke of voting irregularities (i.e. people's names being listed as
already having voted when they in fact had not) a reliable lawyer
contact said he observed no irregularities at his polling station in
Cairo and although the result from that district was a 'no' there were
no attempts to alter the outcome.

The Economy
An Egyptian business man I spoke to on the plane said he had visited Cairo 6 times in 2012 and wasconcerned with the economic impact of the lack of political certainty. And even a less than ideal constitution was needed to get Egypt back
on track and improve the standard of living.  He and another person
commented that there was a lot of mis-information and scaremongering
directed towards the Muslim Brotherhood and stigmatizing of their
supporters by those with various interests and 'agendas' who do not
wish to see the MB succeed.
But I was struck with how many people complained about the MB and Salafists and expressed a concern about mixing religion and politics, lack of balance of power (i.e. weakjudiciary) and what they felt was President Morsi's lack of experienceand leadership and undue influence by religious figures in the MB movement.

Nevertheless people are going about daily life - off to work,
attending university, pursuing own business initiatives and shopping!

A few female relatives commented about the pressures to wear the hijab
or head scarf and feeling uncomfortable if they did not.   I am not
overly concerned about this because  Egyptian women are many things
but no push-overs! I saw many mixed groups of youth socializing in
public spaces and people just getting on with life on public transport
and driving cars.  Incidentally I didn't experience any harassment by
men (i.e. the cat calls and comments Egyptian men are infamous for)  -
which made for a more pleasant experience walking along the streets
and riding the Metro. Graffiti near Tahrir with caption
'its not just all for men'  caught my attention.

Tahrir Square
I managed to pass by Tahrir Square a couple of times - not to make any
particular statement but simply to use the local Metro stop or visit a
government office (yes the famous Mogamaa). The area surrounding is
barricaded and many riot police stand by in readiness (see photo).
Although the square itself is fairly quiet as most protesters seem to
have gone away during this time (no doubt to come back soon as the 2
year anniversary approaches). I did snap a photo of a sign that said
"down with the rule of the Guide' - a spiritual advisor in the MB

Political Satire
One of my favorite memories was sitting with my relatives (young and
old, religious and non conservative) late Friday night watching
political commentators offer critical analysis of public affairs and
especially popular political satire show hosted by Bassem Yousef. I
grew up in the USA watching shows like Saturday Night Live, David
Letterman, Leno and more recently Daily Show with John Stewart which
even through the difficult years of Bush Junior offered comedic relief
from political propaganda and nonsense. I took this freedom of
expression and type of entertainment for granted. But it struck me how
this is a completely new experience for Egyptians who up until two
years ago had to rubber stamp and approve Mubarak and his regime -
although there were some outlets - it was not as open, free and as
critical (or funny!) as it is now. And for those of you who know
Egyptians you know they have 'light blood' as the Arabic saying goes
and an awesome sense of humor!

Security situation
 My least favorite experience was witnessing a late night fight on the
streets of Helwan between two gangs of young men who were violently
hitting each other.  As we watched from the balcony 5 flights up we
could not make out who/what or why. It didn't last long but no police
came to break up or investigate. I recalled the comment that my worn
down policeman cousin said to me: there are just not enough
police/security to go around and they are - in any event - personas
non grata.

The future?
As Egypt approaches the two year mark since the revolution it is
apparent that there is so much more work and change ahead. But I was
struck with the resolve and honesty of those I spoke to to not give up
or put up. As the popular expression goes 'the revolution

In 2012 I visited Tunisia, Egypt,Libya, UAE, Qatar and Bahrain.
Although brief and limited visits,  in
each place I was struck by the visible and audible signs of change and
challenge....  new media, civil society (especially youth and women
activism) and a resolve to demand more - better - change - progress -
democracy! While  I also saw and heard about matters which saddened,
scared and discouraged me, and I know that there are many challenges
lie ahead in 2013 (and beyond) I was  touched by people's resolve and
confidence that the best is yet to come and sacrifices to date will
not be in vain. Many people are mindful and concerned about neighbors
in countries like as Syria, Yemen, Palestine and Jordan. And countries
like Qatar are powering ahead investing heavily in people and
infrastructure preparing for the World Cup and other milestones to
achieve their 2020 vision.

Layla is organizing a free event on 1 February  in London
about the situation in Egypt .


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