In Cairo, a curfew is never a total standstill

Dina Ezzat, Monday 19 Aug 2013

Neighborhood tensions around curfew begin to ease three days after it is imposed. Questions linger over how long state of emergency will remain in effect

Ramses during curfew after tear-gassing
Photo: Reuters

Ramy drove his 4X4 decorated with bridal flowers in circle after circle, in the common Egyptian style of celebrating the newly wedded. Ramy’s brother, Maher, and his fiancée Hanan had just tied the knot on Friday afternoon.

It is the third day that Cairo, along with 12 other governorates among Egypt’s 28 governorates have been under a dusk-to-dawn curfew after the bloody dispersal of two Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in the capital and adjacent Giza.

Stopping briefly to buy an extra paper tissue pack at a kiosk that was about to close at 6:30pm, for an emotional bride who knew that her marriage was the beginning of a life away from Egypt, Ramy said that he planned to extend the celebration for his brother and new sister in law before taking them to the airport, off to their destination in North America.

“I will drive them around Heliopolis for a bit and then take them to the airport for their flight. They are leaving us. We have the tickets to prove we are going to the airport. I am sure the police won’t be unkind to us; they were just married, after all,” Ramy said briefly.

Ramy’s was not the only car on the streets after the clock announced the beginning of the 7pm curfew. Several cars were still driving by and a few people were still finding their ways to supermarkets and bakeries that turned down their lights but did not completely close.

“We will spend the night at the bakery, so if someone who lives by decides they want to have some bread for dinner and they drop by we won’t turn them down. If the police let them walk by, then it should be fine,” said Hassan, at a local bakery at Heliopolis.

On Sunday, as fears of a renewed wave of violence or marches by the Muslim Brotherhood were subsiding, a bit of ease seems to be finding its way into the curfew. Drinking small cups of mint tea or large glasses of cold mango juice and lemonade, a few clients of Cafino, a café in Heliopolis, were watching a replay of a statement that Minster of Defence Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi had given earlier in the day.

“Those are just a few regular clients who live in the same apartment building [where the café operates] and nearby buildings. They come and have a drink and watch TV a little because they are a group of men and it’s better if they meet outside the house. We don’t stay up very late; by 10pm they will go and we will close our doors,” said Ali, a waiter at the café. His clients were sharing, in a relatively low voice, remarks of admiration for El-Sisi’s statement, vowing firmness against any acts of rioting by the supporters of ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.

Similar ‘limited’ post-curfew cafe operating hours are spotted around the capital – in downtown and Zamalek, some clients still smoke shisha and discuss politics until 10 or 11 pm. “You know these are the times where people like to meet at cafes and discuss politics, but of course we still observe the curfew – somehow” Ali argued.

“Observing the curfew – somehow” is perhaps the most accurate description of the situation. In its recent history, Cairo experienced a major curfew during the 2011 demonstrations that started on 25 January and ended on 11 February when Hosni Mubarak stepped down. At the time, the curfew was much more loosely observed and never stopped the demonstrators from staying in Tahrir Square, the heart of their revolution, or from going and coming to the square. The cafes and small groceries were operating and taxis could still take passengers around town.

“This time it is different because we are afraid; we have seen clashes on the street between the Muslim Brotherhood and police where live ammunition was used at random. No one wants to get a bullet in his head while driving on the road. Better safe than sorry, and it is only a short while. God willing, things should get back to normal,” said Hussein, a taxi driver, as he started his trip from downtown to Mohandiseen on Sunday afternoon.

The violence involved in the political developments in Egypt is unprecedented. It has left what most independent sources say are around 1500 dead and 5000 wounded in a series of acts that started with the dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins.

“We thought we would have a curfew but we were not sure. We had hoped that wisdom would prevail and that the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood would ask their followers to peacefully leave the sit-ins. Unfortunately things took a very negative turn,” said a security official. He added that it is not clear when the curfew “would be shortened from, say, midnight to dawn.” “I think it is too early to speak of removing the curfew altogether. We need to be sure that citizens are safe and I think citizens are well aware that the curfew is designed to protect them and this is precisely why it has been largely observed,” he added.

Last winter, citizens of three governorates in Egypt around the Suez Canal, decided to completely shrug off a curfew. Ousted President Mohamed Morsi ordered the curfew in the wake of wide spread rioting and anti-Morsi demonstrations that came with a court ruling failing to indict the accused in the killing of over 70 football fans during riots after a soccer game at the Port Said stadium a year earlier. The riots took a bloody turn, with people dying during clashes and during the burial of those who died in them.

At the time, Morsi announced a 9pm to 7am curfew in the Canal governorates but the masses mocked the president and took to the streets in what they called the “curfew parade.” Inevitably, the supposedly month-long curfew was considered a joke, as residents started a free football tournament whose games started at exactly 9pm. Army officers and soldiers on duty in the Canal governorates joined the “curfew tournament.”

“But now they are not [flouting the curfew]. Now they are being strict because the order came from the army. This goes to show that the army and the rest of the state institutions never really bowed to the authority of the elected president,” said Hamza, a literature student who supports Morsi “from outside the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Adel, a police lieutenant who was carefully asking people to start observing the curfew on Thursday in Nasr City, near the now-dispersed sit-in, said, “this time things are different because this is a war on terrorists.” “We are facing terrorism and people could get really hurt if caught in the clashes; we are wearing bullet proof vests and we know what to do to avoid getting hurt but this is not the case with the citizens.”

“War on terror” is the official line adopted to justify operations to disperse the sit-ins and to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood marches, where some have been carrying arms, allegedly to defend themselves if attacked – according to one Muslim Brotherhood source. State-run and private media have for the most part accommodated, and at times expanded, this justification, thus prompting people to observe the curfew.

“The [authorities] asked us to help draw people’s attention to the need to be careful and to do it indirectly, and we have been doing so,” said Amira, an editor at one of the private satellite channels.

“We gather in our living room to watch the clashes and the curfew – and yes the debate over the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Amal while doing some quick shopping for a gathering they were preparing for friends living in the same apartment building in Heliopolis. Collecting cans of soft drinks, chocolate and candy bars and boxes of nuts and fruits, Amal said jokingly, “If this curfew lasts for two weeks we will all have to move to a larger clothing size.”

The curfew could indeed last for two weeks if tensions remain high, according to government officials.

The curfew was announced along with a set of other extraordinary measures including reduced working hours for all government and public services, companies and banks. The most alarming measure was the announcement of the state of emergency for a month. This awoke the fears of activists that the old security state of the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak is being re-introduced – something that was denied by El-Sisi in his Sunday statement, where he asserted that there is no going back on the march towards democracy.

Mubarak ruled from October 1981 to February 2011. During these three decades, Mubarak never lifted the state of emergency that was introduced after the killing of his predecessor Anwar Sadat at the hands of militant Islamists, despite repeated promises to do so.

Prime Minister Hazem El-Bebblawi said that the state of emergency would not last for long, but never said whether the month-long state of emergency was renewable or not.

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