I was reminded of the state’s relentless obsession with minutiae today, while attempting to buy some onions.
The local street market was mildly frenzied, as is usual in last two hours before Iftar (Ramadan fast-breaking meal) when tired fasting people make last minute purchases. Whilst in a reverie examining courgettes in a vegetable stall/shop, I suddenly became aware of the frenzy stepping up a gear, and looked up to see the shop’s workers hurriedly snatching up wooden crates of fruits and vegetables displayed on the pavement outside the shop, and depositing them inside. The same thing was happening all along the street, flustered men barking instructions to other men while fearfully looking towards the square where the market begins.
Standing by the scales inside the shop waiting to pay, another woman and I were effectively boxed in by crates hurriedly flung inside.
“What’s happening?” I asked the woman.
“Baladiyya” [a group of municipal representatives] she replied.
Abandoning all hope of purchasing anything I dumped my onions and got out of the shop while I still could, negotiating my way through giant cabbages and crates carried by sweaty, pissed-off men.
Outside, people were standing in small groups looking in the same direction, towards a blue police box (pick-up) slowly making its way down the street. Its pace reminded me of a tank, somehow. Further up, approximately level with the box, uniformed policemen and men in plain-clothing surrounded a boy who looked like he was around 12 years old. Two men marched him towards the box by the scruff of his neck, the boy convulsed with tears.
While this was going on a lorry following the box came to a stop next to a wooden two-wheeled cart laden with vegetables. It was lifted into the back of the lorry by the policemen, who were pelted with onions and peppers falling off the cart. The lorry drove off, while the cart’s owners resignedly picked-up from the ground the few intact vegetables which remained.
A man with a towel tucked into his shirt collar outside a barbers told me that seized property is returned to owners if they pay a fine, and that the size of the fine is according to the property’s “capabilities”.
A young girl in tears sprinted towards a group of middle-aged women and told them, “khadoo Amira” [they took Amira]. A tough-looking woman immediately marched towards the group of policemen. Some time later I saw her marching back, Amira in tow. A bystander told me that this is the first time they have seized a woman.
More of this street furniture was added to the lorry further on, their owners only having had time to salvage their produce before the baladeyya’s arrival. Loaded with carts and tables and even small baskets, it trundled on, plain-clothed men walking alongside it. There were no objections, until the lorry reached a vegetable stall manned by a vocal bearded man and his family.
He attempted to prevent the baladeyya taking his table, while beside him another fruit & veg seller desperately pushed his display inside before triumphantly bringing down his shutter.
Things became heated and, as the lorry began to move away – the table precariously placed on top, held in place by a policeman perched on the side of the lorry – the bearded man attempted to hold on to the side of the lorry. It drove off anyway, at some speed, and the man was forced to release his grip. Standing in the wake of the dust left by the lorry he pointed at bystanders and screamed at no-one in particular, “le kol zalem we ebn zalem nehaya” [every oppressor and son of an oppressor will meet his end].
I couldn’t believe the effort put into clearing metre-squared bits of pavement (and to what end?), the (deliberate?) chaos of it all, the (typically) vicious way in which the state dealt with what it apparently considers people as disposable as the furniture its enforcers dumped in the lorry. It reminded me of a cowboy film, when the town’s inhabitants all scurry into the safety of their houses and lock the door upon the arrival of the shadowy bad guy.
The real joke though of course is that this assault on people’s livelihoods is – ostensibly, at least – carried out in the name of ensuring the free-flow of traffic. It’s a shame the state isn’t quite as zealous about traffic movement at other times, such as when a minor official decides to cross from one side of Cairo to another and Cairo’s 2.5 million other car owners are forced to stew in their vehicles while the flotilla passes.