Personally speaking the worst thing to have happened to me since January 2011 was the curfew. I lost my laptop in one demonstration and I was beaten up in another—I wasn’t injured, nor was I imprisoned, and I certainly didn’t die—but of all these things the one that depressed me most of all was the curfew. The sight of men and women running like chickens to get home before seven in the evening was loathsome, and the melancholia extended into the evening.
Personally speaking the worst thing to have happened to me since January 2011 was the curfew. I lost my laptop in one demonstration and I was beaten up in another—I wasn’t injured, nor was I imprisoned, and I certainly didn’t die—but of all these things the one that depressed me most of all was the curfew. The sight of men and women running like chickens to get home before seven in the evening was loathsome, and the melancholia extended into the evening. I’d go out and walk around “bustling” downtown and there’d be no one there, just small groups here and there whispering in case they were spotted. It was terrifying.
The curfew was imposed after the bloody dispersal of the Rabia sit-in, and was a powerful hint to the effect that all noise, all speech, all messing about was now over: a steel gauntlet thudding down. Sisi’s name dinned through the country like a drum, his supporters in a state of advanced animation, craving silence, calm, stability, death, curfew—all the watchwords of their lexicon. Myself, I was used to Cairo and I loved it: a noisy, random, chaotic city. I couldn’t bear this transformation into a city of ghosts.
Sisi wasn’t a fellow who spoke much, and quite right too, because when he did he came across as an idiot. He and his supporters preferred to portray him as enigmatic: all-knowing and saying nothing. A much better look for him, to be honest.
On the other hand, the revolution—or at least the revolution that had taken shape over the last three and a half years—had been a battle over speech. The importance of speech found in expression in a number of slogans: Widen the public sphere, Freedom of expression, The freedom to demonstrate, We’re the voice that comes when you want none. The authorities reject speech because—so runs their justification—it has nothing to give; but that’s not true, because the authorities themselves have nothing to give either—and that is the real reason for their fear of speech. If the device for curing Hepatitis C and Aids had been around in the eighties, for instance, years before the Internet, would anyone have noticed? The authorities long for a golden age like the eighties in which all their decrees get rubber-stamped without anyone paying attention. But that won’t fly any more. The Internet, a fertile and unrestrained source of noise issuing from every direction, is the authorities’ nightmare.
This is why Hamdein Sabahi’s appearance on the scene was so critically important, for the both the authorities and the opposition. On the one hand it provides cover to the regime, which wants to preserve the appearance of democracy, and on the other it serves the opposition by increasing the quantity of speech generated out on the “political street”. And the existence of a candidate—albeit a weak one—to take on Sisi raises question marks about Sisi himself. A door opens for the Devil who slips in and sets the divine image wobbling on its pedestal. The god’s followers rush to defend him against the fiendish intruder, not seeing that at the heart of their defense lies an admission that their god is not universally adored, that the pure white robe is faintly spotted, is white no more. This is not a happy end-point, particularly after the final death of true participatory public politics on June 30 and the curfew that followed. And in exchange for this the authorities get their “appearance of democracy”. You want a democratic appearance? Here’s your democratic appearance…
Recently the political scene in Egypt was confined to two principle forces: the Statists and the Islamists. Now, as I understand it, the battle is once again between Left and Right—more or less: precise terms aren’t important. This is why, for instance, you find Egypt’s Christian community split in two between those supporting Sabahi and another, larger group supporting Sisi. Sabahi’s emergence has shaken this traditionally conservative and silent community and furnished it with more reasons and opportunities for speech and self-expression. These muffled voices would never have been heard under the old duality, and for sure they never will be should Sisi take sole control. Since the Devil appeared the world has reclaimed its authentic diversity, is once more a free and bumptious place, like Cairo before the curfew.