Mohamed Abdel-Khaleq wipes the sweat from his face with a paper tissue. It’s 5pm — rush hour — at Gamal Abdel-Nasser metro station off Ramses street in central Cairo. Normally Abdel-Khaleq wouldn’t be here. Until two years ago he would have got off the train at Sadat station, under Tahrir Square, to switch lines and head home to Al-Marg.
Sadat is one of only two metro stations where Cairo’s 3.5 million metro passengers can change lines. The other is Al-Shohada, beneath Ramses Square. But Sadat has been off limits for Abdel-Khaleq, and millions like him, for 21 months. It was closed following a security crackdown on 14 August 2013, when police moved to forcibly disperse two massive sit-ins of Muslim Brotherhood supporters following Mohamed Morsi’s ouster.
The station's closure placed enormous pressure on Al-Shohada which overnight became one of the most congested spots in the capital. Sexual harassment and accidents caused by overcrowding made the station a “nightmarish” experience for 23-year-old Cairo university student Hadeer, who said she barely escaped a shoulder injury when, pressed by the crowds, she was caught in the carriage doors.
That should all change with today's scheduled opening of Sadat. The station comes back into service on the eve of Ramadan, the month of fasting till sunset for Muslims. As this week’s gridlocked pre-Ramadan traffic demonstrated, the month is also a time of panicked last minute shopping and the mass running of errands that many put off during fasting hours in the sweltering city.
Ramadan traffic is a perennial problem, with millions heading home at the same time to break their fast. Each year traffic policemen try valiantly to cope with the onslaught. Since 2013 their task has been made harder, and the problems motorists encounter on the dreaded journey compounded by the security forces’ refusal to re-open Cairo’s busiest metro station.
Announcements that Sadat would reopen were made early this year. When the scheduled date in February passed no explanations were offered as to why the station remained closed. This time round commuters are more confident. Assurances issued on a nearly daily basis by Minister of Transport Hani Dahi, senior security sources quoted anonymously in the press and a photo-op of Dahi and a delegation in Sadat station inspecting a newly installed x-ray machine all pointed to the authorities being serious about the reopening.
Judging by the way the media has trumpeted the news — a week’s worth of front page stories on “preparations” and “readiness” — newspaper readers could be forgiven for thinking this was the most important thing to have happened in Egypt for months.
“It’s a national security issue,” proclaimed TV host Youssef Al-Husseini.
“Someone will ask: How can the country’s national security be associated with a metro station? I will say: Yes sir. It’s about every square metre in this country, and this is a central metro station.”
“God willing Sadat station will reopen indefinitely and God willing, no one will [sabotage] it again. There will be a smart security presence,” he continued. “I don’t think we will see street vendors or [sexual] harassment. There will be surveillance cameras in place capable of monitoring the steps of an ant.”
“Shall we say mabrouk [congratulations], sir?” asked Al-Husseini when Dahi was put on the phone.
“We are opening Sadat station, not conquering Acre,” the minister quipped, a reference to Saladin’s attempts to recapture Acre from the crusaders in the 12th century.
That Sadat was closed on the day security forces dispersed pro-Morsi encampments in Al-Nahda Square and Rabaa Al-Adawiya, leaving hundreds dead, indicates how keen security forces were to prevent Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 2011 popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak, becoming the focus for any new rounds of demonstrations. But the brouhaha surrounding its reopening begged questions on why such an event has been marketed to the public as a significant development in a country already struggling with a host of more pressing domestic challenges.
“The message around the opening is intended to be a reassuring one, that Egypt is now more stable and secure,” says Ahmed Darwish, a former minister of state for administrative development. “It could also be a public relations stunt, providing photo ops for a minister and premier opening a metro station.”
Sadat is important because it’s a transfer station, adds Darwish, and its reopening on the eve of Ramadan “will contribute slightly to improving Ramadan traffic, nothing more.” Presenting it's opening as an achievement he said, "might be a reflection of the fact that there are none."
On Sunday Cairo’s security head inspected the station amid heightened security measures in Tahrir Square. Reporters were not allowed to accompany him. According to sources quoted in the press from the Egyptian Company for Metro Management and Operation (ECMMO) new security devices — 20 surveillance cameras and six metal detectors — have been installed in the station at a cost of LE400,000 (approximately $51,000). It is the same amount that ECMMO’s head Ali Fadali says the company has lost each day the station has been closed.
During the time Sadat has remained closed Egypt’s Rafah border crossing with Gaza — seen by officials as a source of far more serious security threats — was partially opened for three days in May and then again this week, making it more accessible than Sadat.
“The authorities have a complex about Tahrir Square, and the possibility of protests being staged there,” says Ashraf Al-Sherif, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. “There’s no logic to it. Tahrir has ceased to be a meaningful destination for protesters. What resonance it once had for the opposition, it lost a long time ago.”
While protest spots have moved elsewhere in Cairo to Matareya, Helwan and Haram among other districts, he said, the security apparatus still feels the needs to control Tahrir "which explains Sadat's unnecessary closure for almost two years."
Even as he sweats in Gamal Abdel-Nasser metro station, Abdel-Khaleq insists the reopening isn’t news.
“There’s so much exaggeration attached to it,” he says. “Like it’s as important as controlling the crazy price hikes, which it isn’t.”
His wife shoots him a surprised look from behind her niqab.
“Really? We’ll save at least half an hour of extra commuting,” she says.
After a pause her husband concedes the point. “You’re right,” he says. “It is important. But I won’t believe it until I see it.”
A version of this article was published in the 18 June 2015 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly