A Connecticut Yankee in Cairo – or, My Late Night Chat with Intelligence

Cairo, Egypt. A quiet day in downtown Cairo; a few people out on the streets on the nearby shopping spot along Talaat Haarb, many shops are closed. Cairo is a city of 7.7 million people, the kids are off of school for winter break and yet there is almost no one visiting the Cairo version of Times Square. That would be Tahrir Square and today is the anniversary of the January 25th Revolution.

Millions_of_protestors_in_Tahrir_SquareOver two millions protesting in Tahrir Square in Cairo after Hosni Mubarak’s
speech chanting that they would go to his palace to force him to resign.
Mubarak resigned the day after and the Military took control, Feb. 11, 
Photo: Jonathan Rashad/Wikipedia.

It is a city waiting for the other shoe to drop but everyone knows these days it is better to walk barefoot.

There was some government concern that a revival might be attempted but the people who came out in 2011 say there is no point, 774 people killed, over 1,000 injured and for what? Mubarak to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to military chief Sisi, all in five years. It is hard to imagine, for many Americans, a place where there is such high risk and so little hope.

In the two weeks leading up to the anniversary police presence has been increasingly obvious both in Cairo and in tourist areas. The homes of about 5,000 Cairenes were raided to check for propaganda or simply as a reminder.   Some people have been preemptively arrested but the number is unclear.

I had reason to be concerned when I heard a knock on my door at 1:30 AM January 11. Three men asked for my passport and politely suggested we sit down together, I did not feel that declining was an option. Our chat lasted less than half an hour:

What was I doing in Egypt? Why am I alone? Where will I be on what days? Who do I know?

The answers were easy, truthful and vague. Work, meeting partners, I don’t know where I will be when and do not know the names of everyone I will be visiting.

I asked pointedly several times if the problem were my American passport – each time it made them more nervous, almost obsequious. By the end they were apologizing profusely and wishing me good luck.

Americans may not have gotten very far in their demonstrations of Occupy Wall Street in September and October 2011 because we allowed it to fizzle to nothing. In the Egyptian version it drowned in blood.  Imagine if 774 of Wall Street occupiers were shot? Imagine if, in my interview, I was not American? If I did not have the protection of that blue passport, if vague answers were not sufficient?

It was easy to be caught up in the drama of what might have happened today; unless you are here and sense the fatigue and lack of hope among reformers who see no reason to put themselves in the line of fire if it did not work last time. For those who are committed to change in Egypt they are learning patience after learning abject fear. Others are instead leaving, in droves, to places where protesters are allowed to go back home at the end of the day.

Susan De Rafelo
Susie De Rafelo is a humanitarian worker who divides her time between the US and overseas. She is the founder of S3 Works sustainability consulting and Hands In fair trade marketplace. Upon joining the non-profit world she earned a B.A. In development and an M.A. Humanitarian Services and has worked with groups in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

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