Have things really changed in Egypt after the Arab Spring? Is life appreciably different from when Mubarak was still in power? As I write, the media are reporting more unrest and demonstrations in Cairo, specifically in Tahrir Square and downtown, as the people flex their political muscles, showing their deeply-felt dissatisfaction with continued military rule. My daughter lives and works in Cairo, and I asked her how life around her in the city has changed. Following are her observations from the “street level”:
For the most part, things seem to be the same, but there is an intangible undercurrent of electricity in Cairo that is hard to define. The recent explosion of protestors is a good example. It’s like people know that they have power now. Every time I turn around, there seems to be a new group striking: the staff at the JW Marriott (one of the nicest hotels in Egypt) for better pay, the mid-level police officers for better pay and working conditions (this created some havoc in the city because there was a clear lack of police on the streets and at intersections to direct traffic), the lawyers syndicate protesting against reforms the judges are trying to enact (such as judgeships being passed from father to son and the ability of judges to have prosecutors arrested if they basically “get out of line,” although obviously that’s extremely subjective). These strikes and protests COULD NEVER have happened before – people were too afraid of losing their jobs, or that the police would be brought in, or even if they actually had a right to define their working conditions and what their labor is worth, and the right to ensure their own legal protection at work.
Another thing I have found very interesting is the explosion of symbols of wealth. In certain wealthy areas, like Zamalek, everyone is wearing Burberry and carrying Chanel bags. There were always some people at American University of Cairo who had these things, but the number of people wearing them now is very interesting. Also, specifically in Zamalek, there are suddenly lots of new expensive cafes and high end boutiques (not name brand, but Egyptian-owned with imported artsy-type goods) and cupcake shops – and they’re all packed. Places where I used to go that would be a quarter full on average, now have no seats, and people are literally standing around in groups hanging out. I’m not sure where all this money is coming from.
The other main change is that traffic has become unbearable. Apparently in the past few years, banks loosened credit requirements, and there has been an influx of cheap, mostly Chinese made cars; so now great numbers of the population who couldn’t have dreamed of affording a car, suddenly have access. Cars used to be paid for in full in cash. Now with financing, it seems everyone has a car. Drives that used to take 40 minutes now take one and a half hours. In addition, during the revolution, as the police began to get called to other parts of the city, there was no longer anyone monitoring speed on the highways. Since the revolution, the police have not returned to monitor traffic, so there are lots of cars going very fast. Traffic accidents and road safety are more of a problem than ever.
So, have things changed? Yes, on some deep level. However, with this week’s violence in Tahrir Square, it is apparent that change is also coming at a high price, and real democracy is not yet alive and well.