Atlantic Monthly

Order and Chaos on the Streets of Cairo

Originally appeared in The Atlantic.

CAIRO, Egypt — When I arrived at Cairo’s international airport on Tuesday afternoon, I had to break curfew to get downtown. Curfew was three in the afternoon, which at this time of year is exactly when the afternoon sun starts hitting the dusty buildings at an angle that makes them glow instead merely look grimy.

My driver, who offered me hashish and Doritos (in that order) yelled “foreigner!” at the army’s first checkpoint, and the soldiers let us pass. For the next two minutes, we sped along at an extraordinary pace: No cars were on the road, and if we continued unobstructed it seemed like we might get downtown, and within an easy walk of the protests, in just ten minutes or so–a speed I would have thought impossible in Cairo without chartering a helicopter. Instead, an army checkpoint stopped and redirected us through a labyrinth of backstreets, with each city-block applying a form of impromptu traffic direction that reminded me of Baghdad in 2004. Neighborhood men of all ages had constructed roadblocks, and they interrogated every driver.

The first man I saw carried the type of samurai sword known as a “wakizashi,” and his four friends had long metal bars, like bo staffs, which they banged on the road to make us aware of their presence, in case four men with medieval weaponry were not attention-grabbing enough on their own. They talked to me, asked if I was Egyptian, and let me go without any difficulty at all. This scene repeated itself roughly three dozen more times between Heliopolis and downtown, and the traffic wardens apologized to me nearly every time for the inconvenience. Near Al Azhar University, a man with a huge gleaming meat cleaver–probably recently purchased from the kitchenware section of Khan al Khalili market–smiled and said, “Welcome to Egypt.”

I do not recall ever being so pleased to be surrounded by blade-wielding Arab vigilantes. The smile, I thought, was telling. Many people have told me that they are angry at having to stay up all night with weapons, just to keep basic peace in their neighborhoods after the flight of the police Friday. But the smile of Mr. Cleaver told a different story. He seemed to enjoy being responsible for his area’s safety, and pleased to be allowed to dispense justice there more responsibly than anyone in uniform had for quite some time. He was the place where the buck stopped and, if the buck wasn’t careful, got ruthlessly chopped into many smaller bucks. His might not have been the role he wanted every day, but it evidently pleased him in the moment.

A man with a huge gleaming meat cleaver smiled and said, “Welcome to Egypt.”These encounters happened mostly on Cairo’s backstreets. If Tahrir Square is Cairo’s heart, those backstreets are the capillaries snaking through Heliopolis, Nasr City, Islamic Cairo, and other areas where a huge portion of Cairo’s middle class resides. I bring up Mr. Cleaver now because he could, if the clashes in Tahrir drag on, be decisive. Right now he is in his neighborhood, and the newfound mastery of his (hyperlocal) destiny is strangely refreshing. At some point, though, he and his ilk will start making a decision. Will they choose more order or more chaos? More order means more Mubarak, in a devil’s bargain with the middle class whereby he restores order by arresting the protesters, putting cops back on the street, and, with the collusion of neighborhood vigilantes, turns Egypt into not just a police state but a pariah state as well. More chaos means more demonstrations and a scary, unpredictable future that could make his role as author of his own destiny permanent. Right now I can’t tell whether the Mr. Cleavers of Cairo are rushing to help the pro- or anti-Mubarak side–or are content to sit back and wait.


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