There is a hush over everyone here, a cloak hanging over our heads. A thousand things unsaid yet, as eyes alight upon one another, those glances say more than I can understand.
They bounce off the dirty yellow, mirrored walls of El Horreya: one of the many cafés tucked into Zamalek’s web of backstreets. One of the many cafés that once held fiery political discussions during the revolutions that have marked the past four years of Egyptian history. In theory I am in exactly the same place; it is somewhat surreal to be here after watching it unfold from the distance of my London home, as I attempted to grasp an understanding of the elation and turmoil sweeping through Cairo’s streets at that time. But in so many ways, it is not the same place. People are still drinking, still talking and smoking, but there is an almost tangible sentiment of cautiousness, a suspicion that hangs in the air along with the smoke slowly twirling up from the discarded cigarette butts, eddying against all the silenced thoughts. The brick walls lining the streets here are still covered in graffiti. But it has faded, and the swirls of Arabic and the emotive imagery of haunting eyes and fist-raised people have not been re-coloured.
It is mid-October and I am told that people simply want peace now. And I believe it. But I further believe that they also want justice. A justice that has not been delivered as of yet.
Over a month later Hosni Mubarak, ousted from presidency in 2011, is acquitted: a man who was on trial for the responsibility of taking nearly 900 lives in the January 2011 uprising. Lives just asking for their freedom.
And I watch as the dust is kicked up again. An explosion of rage that had never burnt out but instead seethed under the surface, biding its time and hiding in unspeaking glances; it catches a hold of the city once again. Tahrir Square is whispered from one ear to the next, a place that is far more than the city centre. The fragile screens that suggested everything was improving are being torn down before my eyes, and I feel both frightened and thrilled for the people of Cairo. How many lives will it cost this time? Is it worth it?
“You around on 25 January? There’s a plan.”
“Yeah a plan. To get rid of him. To free ourselves. It’s a Facebook event, I’ll invite you. If you want?”
Just like that. A few days into 2015, I find myself in the middle of one of the conversations that I spent my final year of university discussing, researching and writing about. Sat in one of the many cafés hidden from street view that could be someone’s front room, I have been drawn into the political musings of the young Egyptian men around me. As many chairs that will fit have been crammed into the space, tables are strewn with empty beer bottles and full ashtrays, hushed murmurings fill the room and rise to the high domed ceiling above us. I am the only female in sight and it’s inviting suspicious glances our way, but Seif is either oblivious or does not care as he leans towards me. He whispers excitedly about this plan and I find myself being swept up in the anticipation of it.
“And you think it will succeed?”
There is a pause and he looks at me hard. A look that is equally pessimistic and hopeful; cynical and naïve; full of a wild anger driving his cause and yet touched with a fear too, only tiny droplets of it but they send ripples spanning over the pools of rage. It’s a look that fills me more than all the words read during my studies. Fills me with the need to somehow give him hope, as well as the knowledge that I cannot.
“I don’t know. No-one knows. It is very hard to predict anything at the moment. And last time… you know what happened last time?” I nod.
I want to illustrate the extent to which this tragedy was covered in European news; I want to say that Sisi will not get away with acting in the same way as Mubarak if he wishes to maintain Egypt’s recently built relations with the international community. But I don’t know if I’m really trying to convince Seif, or myself. I want to explain that people care; that people are rooting for justice within Egypt, the Middle East, across the world. I want him to know.
However, alongside this desire to explain, I am struck by the reality that whilst I was sat in the library reading articles on Egypt’s development, Seif was doing it. He was protesting, graffitiing the street walls, etching his plea for freedom into his city, and being imprisoned for it. My reassurances seem feeble in the face of this actuality. He was living it. And now, via a Facebook invite, he is welcoming me to live it too.
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