On the edge of the protest at Maspero there was a man holding court. He was dressed in a plaid shirt and trousers rolled up at the ankle. His shirt was tucked into his underpants. Its grimy elastic was just visible above his trouser waistband. His feet were thrust into fraying flip-flops, his heels had the appearance of rhinoceros skin; thick, dirty, impenetrable.
Poverty has made it impossible to determine his age; he could have been a defeated 45 year-old or a very youthful septuagenarian. He was a good speaker, passionate and engaging, occasionally producing bits of paper worn out from being folded and unfolded to drive home a point.
He is a panel beater, earns LE 40 a day, has children, and lives in a tent city with roughly 1,300 others in Medinat El-Salam, on the outskirts of Cairo. The families were made homeless in January after landlords raised the rent.
They say either that they have been promised housing and none has been delivered, or that the committee assessing their housing claims is corrupt and gives flats to those who can afford a bribe. One man alleged that flats had been given to policemen.
Makeshift shelters of plastic and blankets had been erected underneath the Maspiro tower. Women and children sought shelter from the sun inside them. I spoke to a young man, Sameh, broad-shouldered, strong. His pregnant wife had lived with him briefly in the tent city until she miscarried, he says because he could not afford the LE 150 needed to treat her. She is now living with her father after becoming pregnant again. Sameh says that he offered to divorce her, rather than put her through what he is going through. He says that she took him in her arms and cried.
Another man showed me his wage slip. He gets LE 601.50 monthly to support his children and pay for his Hepatitis C treatment.
They say that they have been fobbed off with promises from the Cairo governor and prime minister for five months and had come to Maspero (and blocked off the road) so that “their voices are heard”. They had the usual conflicted relationship with the media; aware that they needed coverage, suspicious of how they would be presented. Almost everyone I spoke to expressed resentment at their having been portrayed as “thugs” by the media.
The protest felt unorganised, desperate. There were very few placards, no chanting. In fact there was a sense that these people have been thrust together by circumstance but feel no sense of belonging or loyalty towards the other – they are, after all, competing over a scarce resource.
A blue and white open-fronted tent was erected by Maspiro in a gated off parking area. Four men sat at a desk inside it as pop music blared out of the loud speakers next to it. An irate police general made them turn it down, and religious songs were put on instead. Protestors were told that they would be admitted in groups of ten to talk to the men, who would take their details and assess their housing claim.
Protestors themselves formed a cordon containing the crowd, assisted half-heartedly by the police, but were gradually pushed further and further back. The protestors became more and more irritable, and matters soon deteriorated. One women stood on a wall and beat other women on the head with a stick. Elsewhere two women fought, one of them armed with a tree branch. And then a brawl broke out, as two men attempted to strike each other with rocks and a woman went after a man with a glass bottle.
The women were that mixture of tough, suspicious and flirtatious. I noticed that there was none of the usual insistence on lack of body contact between men and women. Nobody had time to think about that I suspect.
A man standing watching the fight said, “these people are uneducated and backwards, they have no political awareness. You can’t expect anything else but this”. Someone else got angry when I tried to film the women fighting. The attitude went from mockery to infantalisation, the stress constantly on an “us” and “them” dichotomy, where us is educated and refined, them, rough and ignorant.
I found the opposite amongst the people I spoke to. There was universal awareness of the corruption of the Mubarak regime. One passerby started a discussion with the protestors, and commented that “Hosny’s days were better”. People objected, and he put forward a nightmare scenario to support his theory that Hosny wasn’t that bad: if we had to choose between Mubarak, Bashar and Gazzafi, who would we choose?
“None of them,” a woman said.
While I was writing down notes in English, a boy asked me why I was writing in English and not Arabic. I told him that I don’t know how to write Arabic properly, to which Sameh responded, “I can’t write English or Arabic, I can just about write my name”.
The point is that Medinat El-Salam’s tent dwellers may be uneducated, and coarse, and swear and fight, but they know that they are being screwed over, and they are quietly taking on a government, alone and with very little public sympathy. There is nothing backwards about that.