Officials have called the protesters seeking President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation many things: thugs, foreigners, paid troublemakers. But what made Rehab Salah curious were reports on state television that the demonstrators were sitting in Tahrir Square eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.
On Sunday, the bank employee made a 45-minute trek on the city’s metro to see for herself. She saw old women and young boys on the square selling cheese and date pastries, men gathered around a blanket sharing pita bread and older men sipping hot tea.
But no “Kentucky meals,” as they’re widely known in Egypt.
To understand how KFC got mixed up in the tumultuous events playing out in Cairo requires an understanding of what could be called foreign fast-food psychology. KFC restaurants can be found all over Egypt, and their menu is more familiar than the burgers at McDonald’s or Hardee’s.
Egyptians know chicken, even if it comes in a bucket.
But a meal at KFC can cost what locals make in an entire day or even a week, making it inaccessible to many Egyptians. And KFC became a proxy for anger about perceived Western interference.
It’s not the first time KFC has been in that position: In 2006, rioters in Pakistan burned down a KFC in the wake of the controversy over a Danish cartoonist’s depiction of the prophet Muhammad.
On Monday, Salah returned to the square with several bags of baked goods for the protesters — pita for those with simple tastes, croissants for those who prefer something fancier. On the metro a woman repeated the rumor that the protesters had been well-paid and given a KFC meal.
“I swear, people, I went and I saw and I didn’t see any Kentucky,” Salah told the woman and those around her.
Tahrir Square does have a KFC restaurant, but it has been closed since the protests began Jan. 25. Its glass doors are locked and graffiti has been spray-painted along the front: “No Mubarak.”
A temporary clinic has been erected in front of the restaurant, and the sick and injured lay on blankets underneath the KFC sign.
“They are claiming that foreign agendas support this movement, but this is a people’s movement,” said Ahmed Elhamalawy, one of the doctors at the clinic. “They are trying to play on the emotions of the Egyptian people, showing that Hosni Mubarak is patriotic and we are being controlled by America and Israel.”
Elhamalawy alleged that the pro-Mubarak supporters were the ones who were being paid.
The people in the square are being fed by fellow protesters or by those who have taken it upon themselves to bring in food, said Mohamad Atya Hammad, owner of a computer accessories shop, who was sporting several bandages and a sling.
Throughout the square, sellers have set up makeshift concession stands hawking items such as tea, tissues and roasted yams.
On Monday, Khalid Rashwan was selling small containers of macaroni from a box atop his rusty red bike. He said he had heard the allegation about KFC but didn’t believe it.
Along a nearby fence, a man had laid out bags of chips on a blanket, but promised something better.
“Koshari is still coming! Koshari is still coming!” he yelled, referring to what is considered Egypt’s national dish, a mixture of rice, lentils, macaroni and fried onions. “Koshari at 2:30!”