Egypt’s left has seen better days

Times Staff Writer

It’s hot like it is in the day, but it’s night at a cafe where cats wriggle underfoot and young men huddle over laptops while intellectuals snap open newspapers and a man named Taher, bald and mysteriously not sweating, riffles through a wad of bills, checks the tables and announces:

“The seasoned leftists have not yet arrived.”

Leftists prefer the late hours. So you wait, order a tea, grab a seat at the Borse Cafe, a bohemian haunt of peeling orange paint simmering beneath bowed balconies just off Talaat Harb Square. Girls in yellow and peach head scarves play whisper, whisper, glowing in cellphone light, and waiters, quick and chattering, brush spilled sugar from silver trays, and someone turns up a radio that hits like a jab in the dark until it’s shushed.

Kids race through the alley breeze. All of the city is out, strolling, eating, playing backgammon, stealing kisses beneath broken street lights, the ones the British empire left, but that’s another dusty era, one best left to the past. Then he comes, the first of the old leftists. His mustache is darker than his bristly white hair; his linen shirt is the color of a storm cloud. The soliloquy confirms it.


“The government is squeezing us. I don’t have time to read or think. It’s a catastrophe. It’s torture, really. I feel schizophrenic without books and thoughts. But we’re kept too busy just surviving. We don’t have time to think.”

Ibrahim Hamouda was a leftist long before his first shave. That means this: He believed in the great socialist, pan-Arab dream of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the army officer who in the 1950s won independence for Egypt and became its president.

Nasser’s vision failed, and then came the assassination of President Anwar Sadat over his peace treaty with Israel, and then the police state of current President Hosni Mubarak, who has chased leftists, Islamists, liberals, nationalists and other political opponents into jail cells or obscurity.

“Nasser let us believe that we could push Israel into the sea. He made us believe that we were a great nation,” Hamouda says.

“But it all turned out to be a big lie.”

Leftists have exacting memories. Hamouda grew up in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Sayyeda Zeinab, where as a boy and young man he collected garbage, taught literacy classes, attended a university, read Karl Marx and marched in anti-government rallies, helping leftist leaders escape through the crowds as police closed in. Hamouda was arrested four times, the first on the eve of bread riots in 1977.

“I used to go into hiding a lot,” he says. “You know, it wasn’t the information age back then. You had to read a lot of books just to get a tiny bit of detail.”


It seems romantic now; streets gauzed in tear gas, the clang of the prison bars, but the belief that change, no matter how fiercely opposed by the military men who became politicians, was possible.

He doesn’t feel that way these days. And it’s not just from being older. While he speaks, one of Cairo’s main independent newspapers is going to press with a story that Mubarak’s National Democratic Party is considering a new media law that would clamp down on free expression on the Internet, TV, fliers, radio, Facebook, and even anti-government messages sent via cellphone.

“Mubarak has crushed political activity,” says Hamouda, who owns an electrical company with eight employees. “He has divided society between rich and poor. This is the worst era of all. It won’t get any worse. Mubarak has kept us so distracted by trying to earn a living that we have time or energy for nothing else. We’ve lost a younger generation of leftists.”

What to do? Stew in the humid night, laugh, remember the days as a young man when the world seemed more malleable. His hands move slowly, as if pulling words closer to him and then releasing them into the smoke of his shisha pipe. It’s not yet midnight, the moon is half full, but bright. The cafe is busy, shoeshine boys swarm, a baby wails.

“When I used to run from the police, I’d take my books with me,” he says. “If I didn’t, the police would come into my flat and confiscate them.”

Hamouda doesn’t run anymore. He is easily found, around this time, at a table, waiting for friends, old comrades, and the breezes that blow up from the Nile.



Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.