At 10:30, Saturday morning, my market street had barely woken up, with more than half the stores still shuttered. The construction crews were awake, though and behind my building motorized cranes growled like lawnmowers, hauling material up the sides of building projects that have sprouted like weeds in the past year. And when Judge Ahmed Refaat sentenced former President Hosni Mubarak and former Minister of Interior Habib Al-Adly to life in prison, nothing happened — no shouts, no horns, no applause, nothing.
I wasn’t surprised. On February 11, 2011, news of Mubarak’s ouster generated no immediate response from my neighborhood. I only found out because one of my writers called me seconds after the announcement. When I went down to the market street shortly after, TVs were on in the cafes and people told me that Mubarak stepped down, almost nonchalantly as they continued shopping and selling.
It’s not that my neighbors don’t notice or that they don’t care, it is just that them caring, supporting or rejecting the verdict doesn’t necessarily mean they are enraged and heading off to Tahrir in protest. Some people are just weary of all the protests, sit-ins and million man marches that they are just ready to move on and get it over with.
On Saturday, I headed for the street while the scuffles were still going on the courtroom. With her TV blaring post-verdict punditry, the elderly hairdresser around the corner called me over to say hello. It was good that Mubarak and Al-Adly were going to prison, she told me, but bad that the others would go free. “God sees what they did,” she added.
Just down the street, a man was sweeping the steps of his laundry. “Mish helwa (not good),” he said of the verdict. The baker also said the verdict wasn’t just. The produce seller was unhappy because Mubarak and Adly only got 25 years, the effective length of the life sentence; he didn’t seem impressed when I pointed out that 25 years is life to a man over 80 years old.
My grocer didn’t have his TV on and rang up my purchase without a word. His brother hadn’t come to work yet, so he was trying to run the cash register and the dairy counter at the same time.
My landlady, a matriarch known simply as Al-Hagga, was satisfied with Mubarak’s sentence, but only as long as he went to prison. Her 25-year-old daughter clapped when the TV reported the former president was going straight to Tora. Al-Hagga was not bothered about the younger Mubaraks being acquitted, because there was a new court case against them.
Meanwhile, at the JW Marriott, just a few kilometers from the Police Academy where the verdict was announced, Mobinil was hosting its first golf tournament for its business clients. “We’re on a different planet,” admitted Marian Makary, from the Mobinil communications team, when I asked her Saturday afternoon how the verdict had been received. The staff may have had their opinions, but it was business, or in this case, pleasure as usual.
Business as usual as an enraged Tahrir fills up
Indeed, my taxi ride through the suburb of Maadi to the JW Marriott and back showed a city carrying on with their lives. Traffic was backed up on the heavily commercial Nasser Street, not because of protests but because of long lines at the gas station. If there had been protesters by the Ring Road entrances of the Police Academy, they were long gone by 4pm, no doubt headed to Tahrir.
Later that night, while the Twitterverse talked of public outrage and marches Downtown, my friend and I watched footage of a rapidly filling Tahrir Square on a TV in a Maadi restaurant that was already full.
Over the years, I’ve crossed paths with many different expatriate communities, from study abroad students, university professors, TEFL teachers, embassy staff, corporate expats and journalists to just plain aficionados of Egypt. Each community has its own bubble and in it are certain classes or types of Egyptians in well-defined roles. Some of the newly arrived foreigners, especially if their bubble encompasses an elite segment of society, make the mistake of thinking they must go in search of the ‘real Egypt’ — as if The American University in Cairo or Starbucks are portals to a different planet.
Wanting to leave the bubble is a good thing. The mistake is thinking that your bubble isn’t part of the ‘real Egypt’ — it is one facet, perhaps a very small one, but part of Egypt nonetheless.
As I watched the mainstream and social media zoom in on protesters and Tahrir Square Saturday night, I saw the opposite problem at work, thinking that this — and only this — bubble is the ‘real Egypt.’ It is part of Egypt, absolutely, but only one facet.
Saturday’s walkabout through my neighborhood bubble told me a lot of people believe justice was not served in the Mubarak trial. But that doesn’t mean they agree on how to fix it. Immediate fall of the current government? Elections as scheduled, trusting the new president to take care of it? Let the appeals process run its course?
More importantly, what does this mean for the revolutionaries? As the elections draw near, can they convince everyone outside their bubble — many of whom dearly want stability and are ready for the country to move on — not to succumb to protest fatigue?
The jury is still out.