Life under Curfew in Cairo

The days pass in an excruciating mix of tedium, stress, depression and fear.

The friendly hustle and bustle of Cairo, the hubbub and everyday chaos that redeem Cairo despite the heat, the pollution and the filth, have been replaced with a grim sense of urgency. It's 5:30 pm on a Saturday, and the street below me would normally be filled with families shopping, ambulant vendors, men smoking shisha and drinking juice, and a cacophonous stream of vehicles ranging from donkey carts to semi-trucks. Today, there is just a trickle of  traffic, mostly people on foot looking like they are in a rush to be somewhere else. A few of the neighbors glance from balconies, and the nuns in the Catholic school across the street make occasional, nervous looking appearances.

Curfew starts in an hour and a half, and the local "popular committees" have started assembling makeshift roadblocks. At one corner, local youths have dragged some sort of metal gate into the center of the road, flanked by stacked tires--motorcycles and pedestrians can pass through at will, but as the sun sets, any unfamiliar cars will be stopped.

At the other, the same youths who catcall at me every day have now appointed themselves the guardians of the neighborhoods safety, given themselves the right to decide who passes unmolested and who is turned back (or worse). Hilariously, one of them is armed with a field hockey mallet.

Yesterday, when I went to visit the local vegetable market, I saw an even flimsier blockade--a group of boys, surely no older than 15, had set up a pile of wooden vegetable crates in the middle of the street. They swaggered behind this barricade, showing off improvised weapons made from small knives lashed to electrical wire. I'm not sure which was more horrifying to consider: what would happen if these hormone-addled boys confronted some helpless person they deemed to be suspicious, or what would happen if these naive children were actually confronted with a real threat.

Khaled, who runs our local kiosk, has a machete as long as my arm stashed behind the counter. Himself a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer, he's most concerned with protecting his stock and his place of business. Not that he's completely without defiance; despite the curfew, he's operating his stall 24 hours a day. The bawwab in my building has a gun. (He has also, bless his heart, fiercely denied the presence of foreigners in the building to anyone he deems to be suspicious, including a few friends who have come to visit us.)

On my block, I feel quite safe. We've always consciously tried to cultivate good relations with the doormen, parking attendants and vendors on the block, cooking up extra portions for them when we have dinner parties, even (in the case of my roommate) bringing back souvenirs from vacations. Now, as the government is ratcheting xenophobic tension, we will have to count on their goodwill to protect us if things get ugly.

Apart from occasional trips outside for sustenance or sanity's sake, my roommates and I mostly stay indoors, pinned to twitter and television, consumed with worry (and, at times, I must confess, a touch of envy) for friends who are out in the streets on assignment. Since June 30, we've been playing a game called "gunshots or fireworks?" when we hear explosions outside. In the days of widespread euphoria that followed Morsi's ouster, our default assumption was fireworks, unless we heard the distinct rhythm of automatic fire. Now, we assume gunshots—nobody is celebrating anymore.

Last night, we decided to hold a curfew party—what else does one do when there is no transportation or entertainment after 7pm on a Friday? On the way over, one friend, an Egyptian-American who works for the UN, found himself pinned down under live fire in a gas station in Giza, when he passed too close to a Muslim Brotherhood march that was coming under attack. With bullets still flying, he phoned to ask if the party was still on (it was, and he eventually made it over). Guests from downtown were unable to come, since Metro stations downtown were closed.

Sending people home was another challenge, checking the news to look for a window of opportunity when there wasn't gunfire near the main roads through downtown. Thankfully, the friends who insisted on leaving have all made if safely, facing nothing worse than checkpoints like the ones set up on my street.

On top of this all, we stand by helplessly as the country descends into darkness. Both sides are lying, both manipulating death tolls and sequences and narratives to suit their own ends. (Although, it must be said, the evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the state has used disproportionate force agains largely unarmed demonstrators.) Both are dehumanizing the other, calling them terrorists or un-Islamic or un-Egyptian. Some cheer the murders of protestors in Rabaa and el Nahda, or bay for blood outside Fatah mosque, others call for religious war, incite violence against religious minorities. There are few voices of reason or sanity. It is hard to imagine how these wounds will heal.

I have no answers, no solutions, no glib and cheery note to end on, I'm staring at the screen groping for words. It's 6:10 in Cairo, and darkness is falling again.