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Facing down fear in Cairo

Mariam Lau on repression versus expression in the Egyptian capital

The subway that chugs indefatigably through Cairo now has a women's section. Here the women giggle and sleep, pat children – not just their own – and rip loud jokes; here you see gestures and liveliness that are not to be seen on the street. But at some point, and nobody can say exactly when this was, almost all of them took to wearing veils. The Saudi Arabian dress code is becoming increasingly common: the coal black Niqab, the full-body veil with eye slits and now, gloves as well. In a section with eighty women, maybe four will be unveiled. They seem unimpressed and nobody stares at them, nonetheless the cloaked ones generate a characteristic kind of pressure that the tourist can hardly ignore: there the whores, here the pure ones. We're watching you.

A sour looking woman advises a young girl that a lock of her hair is peeking out at the back of her head. "You used to be able to identify a pilgrim to Mecca by her colourful scarves – red, green, emerald: headstrong," explains Mai Halef, archaeologist and tour guide who has developed quite a hatred for her pious fellow citizens. "They can spend entire days chatting about how many centimetres of hair are allowed be shown and in what form. What will become of us, of Egypt, of Islam... they have nothing to say about that."

When you go through the streets here, you get the impression that this strange form of scholasticism, this fanatic reflection on the veil and how many centimetres of face, and whether the gloves are necessary is nothing more than mass hysteria, a safe way to talk about sex if they can't be having it.

A heavy testosterone cloud hovers over the city, clumps of young men that nobody needs in dusty street cafés. "People are sexually mature at the age of eleven or twelve," explains psychiatrist Ahmad Abdallah,who is the director of the youth clinic as well as the website IslamOnline. "But then it can take fifteen or twenty years before they have official sex because parents won't agree to a marriage until the son has a decent job, ideally as an engineer or a lawyer, and an apartment or at least enough money to feed a family." But there is almost no work to be had. The number of Egyptians increases each year by 1.5 million, the minor education and health reforms that Mubarak's government set in motion are being devoured by this "youth bulge."

Those who want to break the sex prohibition have to do it in a car or simply in the street dust. On some evenings, you can see one Citroen after the next parked on the strip next to the Egyptian museum. Youths who go to American films and wish to melt into the intimacies shown risk being branded as traitors, and so they sneak into hysterical Bollywood soap operas or Egyptian productions with the kohl-eyes and the constant moaning and screaming that is supposed to represent passion.

And what happens on the morning after love on the back seat? Relationships are impossible. Can it end in anything other than mutual contempt? Mai says that she decided to turn off her feelings two years ago. Her mother promised her that when she turns forty, she will move out: not before, that wouldn't be accepted.

IslamOnline has 400,000 hits daily because the website both foments hatred of Israel among religious youth – a favourite outlet for their own fury and helplessness – and, more importantly, talks about marriage, love and sex in a way that is compatible with Islam. "Mission impossible – the stress-free Egyptian marriage" is a very popular column, for example. "The Islamic answer to the urgent situation of youth here," says Abdallah's (veiled) colleague Yosra Mustafa, "is a plea to the parents to have mercy – and not be so materialistic – in their demands of their sons." Women today are often no longer women because they also have to be men, Yosra explains, speaking perfect English and not making the impression that it was cold "materialism" that drove her to seek an education and travel the world. She has seen London and New York, studied in Washington but still prefers to wrap herself in grey. Can there be any explanation for that other than grown adults having major problems with the role of women?

Most people bridge the gap between the dream of Egyptian greatness in the region ("we built da Pyramids!") and the sad reality with an incomprehensible lethargy. Nobody gets excited about the teachers who can't live from their salaries and who make sure not to prepare students adequately for their exams so that they can give extra help classes – of 30 kids (the normal ones have 70).This passivity has a history: All conquerors of Egypt were quickly assimilated, themselves becoming Pharaohs, and because there were so many uninhabited stretches of land to the left and right of the Nile, everyone easily took root – not like Iraq, which suffered one bloody conquest after another. "Here, a king was seen off with a long and celebratory trip down the Nile," says a German diplomat who has worked all over the Middle East. “But in Baghdad he would be dragged off behind a car."

As in many neighbouring countries, Egypt, too, has the choice between an autocracy a la Mubarak - who has ruled for thirty years with a hard hand and a few gentle hints of reform - and Islamization: If there were free elections, it is generally agreed, the Muslim Brotherhood would come away with at least 30-40 percent of the votes. That is why free elections have lost some of their appeal among the Christian minority and many secular liberals. They'd prefer an authentic constitutional state.

But few see a connection between the backwardness of the entire region, as is stated in the UN-Human Development Report, and Islam. "As with Hamas, the question often comes up as to whether the Muslim Brotherhood have themselves to blame for the collapse of their social policy, or whether it actually has much more to do with the 'imperialism' and the repressions of Islam," the diplomat says. In the parliamentary elections last May, where paid thugs and civilian police prevented many from entering those polling stations where it looked as if Islamists might win, you could actually see judges jumping out of the windows with ballot boxes, in order to save the ballot papers.

Lately, the regime has started a practice of intimidation that has local citizens beside themselves with anger: men and women, including those who are veiled, are being sexually abused by the security services on the street. For the Muslim Brotherhood, this kind of abuse is particularly effective, because victims are ashamed to report that a broomstick was rammed into their anus. A female journalist who tried to report about the rigged election for an Islamic paper was raped at the police station house and later thrown naked into the street. People who tried to help were shooed away: "Let her lie there, she's a whore!"

But the regime did not count on the freshly blossoming blogger scene. A few hours after the arrest of the 20-year-old activist Alaa Ahmad Seif, human rights organizations had taken up his cause. "Unlike the Chinese authorities, the system here is not able to control our Internet access,” Seif reports. "That branch is run by technocrats who are all on our side.”

All Cairo is talking politics. From their perches in many of the old Colonial-era villas – which owe their existence to the rudimentary legal system, as does the conservation of the remains of King Tutankhamen – European foundations are organising little alliances, joint projects just under the radar of those democratization slogans that so often are viewed with suspicion here. Thus a few years ago, the Hamburg designer Susanne Kümper began - with the support of a courageous deacon and with sponsoring from the Olsen firm - to teach Egyptian students painting, drawing and ultimately the completion of their own objects and designs.

A free imagination, self-expression and the possibility to earn money with it – that is what a group of 20 young people here has managed to unleash. They are now feverishly working on a fashion collection with Bedoiuns, who apply their colourful embroidery to urban outfits. It looks wonderful, very quirky: red, lilac, emerald on soft black. Kümper wants to present this to the big European fashion houses, and her chances are good. She earns from it, the designers earn, and this is not development aid, though it all started with EU seed money. The German Embassy, which nurses pragmatism like few others in Cairo, supports her where it can. Some of the students presented themselves and their designs in Hamburg. If that is imperialism, the region could use a lot more of it.


The article originally appeared in German in Perlentaucher, on November 14, 2006.

ariam Lau is editor of the Opinion section of Die Welt

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