Apathy, Frustration Simmer in Cairo Slums
Walled off from its well-to-do neighbors in their apartment blocks and leafy streets lies the darkest corner of Cairo’s underside -- a place where daily life is defined by exhaust fumes, street fights, the stench of garbage and the relentless din of the streets.
Here in Boulaq al Dakrour, President Hosni Mubarak’s repeated promises of help for the poor founder on the rocks of corruption, urban decay and stark social and economic imbalances. Here Mubarak is seen as a leader who has pampered the rich and put little into Boulaq, while denying Egyptians a genuine say that might change the country.
“I just cannot tell you how much frustration people are feeling these days,” says Khaled Abdul-Hameed, 40, an assessor for an accounting firm. “But, at this point of time, only Hosni Mubarak can help us. Let us face it, whether we want him or not, he will stay with us.”
Mubarak, Egypt’s authoritarian ruler of 25 years, announced July 28 that he will seek a new, six-year term in a Sept. 7 election that will for the first time be contested. He ordered a constitutional amendment to scrap the “yes” and “no” referendums that had won him four terms since 1981.
But the educated middle class that led the clamor for democracy with a string of unprecedented street protests is unimpressed. It views Mubarak’s concession as cosmetic, believing that his party machine makes the result inevitable.
“I am committed to continuing to build a modern society, a growing economy and free citizens in a democratic nation,” Mubarak said in announcing his candidacy July 28. “Your troubles are my troubles; your concerns are my concerns; your ambitions are my ambitions.”
Two days later, police and government supporters beat dozens of reform activists who gathered at a downtown Cairo square for a peaceful anti-Mubarak protest.
On Aug. 17, as Mubarak kicked off his election campaign at a rally of cheering supporters, he seemed aware of the criticism. “It is easy to discuss problems and to criticize,” he said. “It is difficult to propose policies and programs offering viable solutions, and it is harder yet to find someone willing and able to carry them out.”
Mubarak, 77, is credited with some successes, including rebuilding a rundown infrastructure, introducing economic reform, boosting tourism and taking a role in mediating the Arab-Palestinian conflict and aiding the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
He is the longest-serving leader of Egypt since the 1849 death of the great Mehmet Ali, revered as the founder of modern Egypt. But Mubarak’s legacy is unlikely to be in that league.
World Bank figures show that nearly 20% of Egypt’s estimated 72 million people earn a dollar a day or less. Nearly half the population is illiterate, and unemployment, officially put at 9%, is thought to be twice that. Allegations of corruption in high places are widespread.
In theory, every Egyptian has a shot at college, but jobs for graduates are so few that many end up as construction workers or street vendors.
Mubarak’s triumph over a bloody Islamic insurgency in the 1990s is facing what appears to be the reemergence of violent groups. These are thought to be behind the July 23 bombings that killed at least 64 people in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, and a similar attack on resorts farther north last October.
The apathy that seems to reign over Boulaq, making people like Abdul-Hameed settle for Mubarak rather than deal with an unknown, could easily change. Egyptians periodically erupt in street riots over economic issues, primarily the price of food and fuel.
Boulaq, in the heart of the heavily policed capital of about 18 million people, is a tough neighborhood where street fights are a daily spectacle and boys as young as 12 play cards for money and smoke in scruffy coffee shops.
Garbage collection is erratic, and much of Boulaq remains outside the city’s sewage system. Householders can be seen digging up streets outside their homes to lay their own drainpipes rather than wait for a corrupt bureaucracy to deliver.
Public transport for the neighborhood’s 1 million people consists of unlicensed taxis -- battered minibuses or pickup trucks fitted with wooden benches, some driven by teenage boys.
A mainline train runs nonstop through Boulaq. People here say it used to claim one life a month on average, mostly children, until a pedestrian bridge was built.
Egyptians have figured prominently in Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization and the Sept. 11 attacks, and the Sharm el Sheik bombings have cast a shadow over tourism in the country.
But here the influence of Islamic purists has, if anything, diminished. The spreading consumption of Bango, a strain of cannabis, suggests that the religiously motivated enforcers who once imposed discipline have lost their hold. “There would have been no Bango in Boulaq if they were still around,” said Khaled Suleiman, a Boulaq native and an expert on militant groups.
Some in Boulaq look back with nostalgia to the days when Muslim militants were banning alcohol sales, combating drugs and policing the streets. Many can identify houses where top militants lived or mosques where they prayed.
For about 20 years up to the mid-1990s, Boulaq was a stronghold of the men who plotted President Anwar Sadat’s 1981 assassination and later of those who sought to topple his successor, Mubarak.
Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, hid in Boulaq in the late 1970s to escape surveillance. Abdel-Salam Farag, who wrote a pamphlet that spelled out the ideology of Egypt’s militants, lived in Boulaq before Mubarak’s government executed him in the 1980s. So did Abboud el Zomor, still in prison for his part in Sadat’s assassination.
The long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps the biggest fundamentalist group in Egypt, continues to be active, offering help to the most needy and running “Sunday school"-type classes in some mosques.
But it is not allowed to field a candidate in the election. And Suleiman said the Brotherhood, which renounced violence 30 years ago, lacks the persuasive powers of the militants who previously held sway.
Nursing a glass of sweet black tea at a Boulaq cafe, Abdul-Hameed, the assessor, shows no nostalgia for the militants. He used to make $1,000 a month or more as a souvenir vendor. Then came the 1990s onslaught against tourists, and he was forced to take the assessor job at a fifth of the income.
Still, he looks visibly moved as he remembers friends in Boulaq, some of whom were sentenced to death by Mubarak’s controversial emergency courts. He thinks of Taha Ibrahim, a gentle and caring neighbor who, he says, was picked up the day after his wedding in 1994 on suspicion of belonging to a militant group and held for nearly seven years without charge.
“I don’t even know what he did,” he said.