What do you do when political upheaval erupts? How do you cope with life under curfew? And how can you answer the question that we are often asked, “and what does the Embassy say about that?” Our colleagues Janina Markewitsch and Ramesh de Silva, responsible for press and culture respectively at the Embassy in Cairo, report on their “daily life” – the circumstances of which change nearly every day.
The schools had already shut, the Cairenes had gone to the coast and the city was gearing up for the heat of summer and Ramadan. The Embassy’s plans for the rest of the year had been finalised, the funding had been secured – back to school on 1 September and back to work for all German institutions in the country after the summer break, Day of German Unity on 3 October to be ushered in by “Cairo Berlin Week”. By the end of June, all kinds of events were already lined up for autumn.
Yet not everything went to plan – as has often been the case in Egypt ever since early 2011. Following massive protests President Morsi was ousted on 3 July. The weeks of Ramadan, usually a period of contemplation, became a time marred by protests, clashes and violence. Every day the situation escalated, there were many deaths, injuries and an atmosphere of highly charged debate reigned. Since the worst confrontations mid August, a night time curfew has been imposed, the new Government has declared a state of emergency in the cities.
When you live here it does not take long for you to learn to recognise and avoid hordes of people, to work with an ear cocked to the radio or an eye on the Internet in order to leave the office early if need be, or to equip your apartment for any eventuality by stocking up on enough food and drinking water.
Night time – a city transformed
The curfew transforms Cairo. Places where crowds of people would otherwise throng late into the night are now eerily empty. Parties wind down in the early evening and events are cancelled or postponed. In the evenings internet connections are overload, DVD collections and cookbooks become highly prized goods amongst the expat community.
Then the next morning you can read the papers and find out where clashes flared up and where people once again had to die. Conflicting death tolls abound, muddled conspiracy theories do the rounds and the country remains deeply divided between supporters of the interim Government and the followers of the ex President Morsi.
Work is different too
The upheaval has also resulted in many changes for us here at the Embassy. Contacts in the ministries are replaced, the start of the school year and many experts’ return to the country are postponed. In view of this, plans are adapted to the circumstances – the events of “Cairo Berlin Week” will mostly take place at a later date, project trips have been postponed until next year and at the reception on the Day of German Unity the guests had to go home earlier than usual, due to the curfew.
We are keenly following the new interim Government’s road map. Will there soon be a new constitution, parliamentary elections and a newly elected president? Will humans rights violations be punished, reconciliation initiatives be launched or will the polarisation only persist? Will the press once again take to criticising the Government, as it was in the habit of doing during Morsi’s time in office, or will everyone rally around the new leadership and Defence Minister al Sisi.
The unforeseen and daily life
Every day brings with it a new surprise. It is not only the security situation that must be re evaluated on a daily basis. On the Fridays when the followers of the ousted President continue to demonstrate, the situation is particularly difficult to predict from week to week.
Yet life goes on. People take the metro to work, shop at markets or meet friends and family at a corner shisha bar. Our daily life also carries on. We do not have any less work as a result of the events. Some projects are interrupted, yet some long awaited authorisations arrive all at once. We send daily updates on the latest developments to the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin and reassure friends and family in Germany that, despite the impression one could sometimes get from watching German television, we are not living in a city in the midst of a civil war.
The hope prevails that the situation in Cairo will stabilise again and that there will be a fresh start for democracy. That the economy will get back into gear and there will be more social justice. That is ultimately why people took to the streets in January 2011. Above all, we hope that people will come together to start to breach the gulf between the estranged camps in the country. We will continue to closely follow events in the upcoming months and with exchanges, projects and events we hope be able to make some small contribution.