A Farewell to Cairo

Leaving Egypt forever makes Ben Wedemen reflective

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Last June I left Egypt after eight years as CNN’s Cairobureau chief and correspondent. I wrote this back then, butnever finished it as I was buried under an avalanche ofpacking cases. But now I’m back in Cairo, if only for a fewdays, I’ve decided I really have to get this out.

Covering Egypt was the experience of a lifetime. I’ll admit:a lot of that time was spent on the road, in Iraq,Israel/Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East, inAfrica, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But myhome was Egypt.

And over the eight years, I saw dramatic changes here. Thefirst few years were relatively quiet, but things reallystarted to take off in early 2005 when agitation forpolitical reform in Egypt took off. The people of Egypt hadrediscovered their ability to raise their voice, and, Isuspect, they won’t be going silent any time soon.

Raucous street protesters demanding the resignation oflong-serving president Hosni Mubarak became routine. Theprotesters passionately denounced the entire Mubarak family,the pervasive intelligence services, the police, and theruling, sclerotic, National Democratic Party.

The regime has never been able to come up with a convincingor effective response to the barrage of criticism, andinstead has chosen force and intimidation to silence itscritics. At almost every opposition protest, demonstratorsare massively outnumbered by riot police, cops and plainclothed agents, commonly described in Egyptian Arabic asbaltagiya—thugs—often armed with nasty looking short blackrubber truncheons. As a result, protests often turnedviolent.

For me, covering Cairo street politics became a contactsport. You are shoved around, you shove back. To meekly obeybarked orders from the authorities is a sign of weakness.You bark back and, if you can, you throw your weight around.

I’ll miss the street fighting and the street smarts that setthe people of Egypt apart. Over millennia, Egyptians havedeveloped a wicked, subversive sense of humour that hones inon the powerful, pompous and pretentious, reducing them tomere mortals.

I’ll miss that wit, the jokes, and I’ll also miss thecourage of those in Egypt who speak with razor-like acuteness that cuts through the often-clumsy governmentpropaganda and group-think a succession ofmilitary-dominated regimes fostered over the last halfcentury.

I already miss Tahsin Bashir, a retired Egyptian diplomatwho passed away a few years ago. Tahsin, a small man with ahigh voice and keen, insightful mind, liked to quip thatthere were more mummies in Mubarak’s cabinet (at thetime—the current group of ministers is relatively young)than in the Egyptian museum.

I’ll miss the likes of part-time novelist (and full-time dentist) Alaa al Aswani, whose best-selling book, “TheYaqoubian Building,” lifted the heavy lid of silence offsensitive aspects of Egyptian life—political corruption,fanaticism, terrorism, sexual exploitation and harassment,homosexuality, just to name a few. Through his eloquent,vivid, poignant prose, Aswani conveys the full weight ofdecades of disappointment and dashed dreams—but with anaffection and love for Egypt that is infectious. (His novelhas been made into a movie by the same name. See it.)

And I’ll miss George Ishaq, the feisty coordinator of theunruly Kifaya (Enough!) Movement. Kifaya’s noisy streetprotests resound with a delicious lack of respect forauthority. George, a retired teacher with a shock of whitehair and an impish grin, delighted in dishing out analysesof the country’s dire political and economic straits so wellspiced with humour, irony and indignation that sometimes Ididn’t know whether to laugh or cry for Egypt.

And then there are others for whom politics is a pointlesssandstorm. Like Zahi Hawas, director of the Egyptian SupremeCouncil of Antiquities. The tireless Zahi is fanaticallydevoted to Egypt’s ancient heritage. Zahi is the onlyofficial in Egypt who always said yes to whatever I askedfor. Once, at 6:30 a.m. on a weekend, I called him at hometo get permission to climb the Pyramid of Khufu to shoot astory. “Of course,” was his immediate reply.

And then there are the ordinary Egyptians who never made itinto any of my reports, like Ismail the munadi. A munadi isone of those quintessentially Egyptian professions withoutwhich Cairo would surely collapse into utter, irrevocabledisorder. A munadi is the workingman’s valet parking. Ismailwould take my car keys—and car—and let me go about mybusiness. Hours later, even at 3 AM, I would come back tofind Is mail, who would quickly locate keys and car, andwith a broad smile, takes my five Egyptian pounds, showersme with thanks and wishes for a happy day, night or rest ofyour life.

This reflexive charm and courtesy act as a balm that getsyou through what can be the most trying of days. Egyptiansconsider scowling, grumpiness, and short, curt answers to bebad manners. I couldn’t agree more.

In a country where poverty is pervasive, where the vastmajority barely scrapes by, it always amazed me that so fewpeople were bitter or resentful of those more fortunate.

My hair is a lot greyer than it was when I first came herenine years ago, but my sense of humour is, if anything, inbetter shape than it’s ever been. And for that I have thepeople of Egypt to thank.

Ben Wedeman was CNN’s Cairo bureau chief from 1998 to2006