Just before midnight on Tuesday, one week into the demonstrations that have shook Egyptian society to its core, I joined fat Ahmed (known to his friends as “Belo”) and his crew beneath the blackened awning of the Khamarat Street coffeehouse one last time. The coffeehouse was closed and the waiters Ahmed and Abdel-Gowab were gone. But Belo and his friends were operating an informal coffeehouse, with coals for the shisha burning inside a broken cardboard box and tea boiling on a makeshift stove.
They sat puffing on their shisha pipes, with machetes and homemade clubs on their laps. “‘Alayna haayna,” Belo said, “the barrio is on our backs.”
President Hosni Mubarak had just announced that he would stay until September and an argument erupted in front of the coffeehouse. One of the kids from Belo’s crew, Karim, had emerged as the most vocal supporter of the demonstrations in the neighborhood. Mubarak’s announcement incensed Karim. But Belo, and most of the other young men of Khamarat Street, were fed up with the demonstrators. The situation had spiraled out of control.
In recent nights, mobs of men with disparate agendas began roaming the neighborhoods, chanting. Last night, a group calling for “Hizb Allah fee Misr” — “The Party of God in Egypt” — took over the intersection for 10 minutes. An hour later, a band of Mubarak supporters did the same thing. The men of the Khamarat brigade stood to the side, unable and unwilling to forcefully expel the group.
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The next day, Waïl, a cell phone dealer, was visibly exasperated by the situation. Waïl was one of my first friends in the neighborhood; I had gone with him several times to drink beer in the smoke-filled hall of the famed Hurriyya café of Bab al-Luk, a neighborhood just north of Lazoghly. I asked Waïl how he felt, and what he hoped would happen. His answer was simple and definitive: “I want it to be like it was before.”
On Jan. 1, the Egyptian people were recovering from the most violent act of terrorism in more than a decade: the bombing of a Coptic church in the city of Alexandria on New Year’s Eve. The people of Khamarat Street, like many in Cairo, resisted the idea that Egypt was divided along sectarian lines, and the historic demonstrations that began Jan. 25 seemed to confirm this. Free of sectarian ideology, the demonstrations became a popular call against common enemies: joblessness, poverty and corruption. But already by the third day, opinions began to split sharply over whether Mubarak himself was the target of discontent.
By Wednesday, the situation in Cairo had shifted from organized chaos, with bands of men defending their neighborhoods, to a deeply divided society. Some saw Mubarak’s presence as necessary to the security of the nation, others interpreted his “stubbornness” as a sign of indifference to the demands of the protests, and many were simply bewildered. As crowds gathered for the morning newspapers, every conversation seemed to be dominated by one question: should he go or should he stay?
But all uncertainties were crushed by Wednesday evening. The violent clashes between pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak demonstrators in Tahrir square signaled a new stage of the revolution. The counterrevolution — or pro-government movement — was assuming its form, and many of the men of Khamarat Street interpreted this as the final stage of the Revolution. “The demonstrations are over,” said Mohammed, a member of Belo’s crew. “It’s every man for himself now.”
I understood what he meant. Now that so much has been broken, now that no one can trust anyone, and now that the future is open, the only code that remains solid is the code of the neighborhood: “Alayna haayna.”
A new development connected to the counterrevolution was emerging as well. Mohammed had taken on the role of escort for those who wished to walk to another neighborhood after curfew. He was with me as I made my way to the home of a German friend Wednesday night, when he said to me in English, “It’s not safe now for any foreigner in Egypt.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they are looking now for spies everywhere,” he said.
My fiancee, Liz, had been anticipating this, and a few days ago we had my father purchase us two one-way tickets to Morocco. We were to leave on Friday and stay in a hotel near the airport Thursday night. I said my farewells to Belo and his crew, smoked one last bitter cigarette and promised to bring vodka next time (as per their repeated requests).
On Thursday morning around 3:30, our doorbell rang. We stayed frozen in bed. There was a knock on the door. The bell rang again. Ahmed, the son of the former military captain who lived upstairs, called my name.
“Nate, it’s Ahmed. I have to talk to you.”
“Ahmed, what do you want?” I asked him from behind the door.
Another voice replied: “We have to talk to you.”
And another: “It’s about your safety.”
Ahmed’s father and Mohammed, who had warned me on our walk earlier, were there as well. Mohammed, I knew, was very close to Ahmed and his father. The captain had charged Mohammed with acquiring information from the army and police and bringing it back to the neighborhood. This was the top command of Khamarat Street.
“We just need to have your passport information. Something very bad has happened and they will try to stop you from going to the airport.” Their premise seemed vague and false. I was gripped by fear.
“We can do this in the morning,” I said through the door.
“We can’t,” Mohammed said. “Please trust us.”
I waited a minute, put my clothes on and reached for the broken broomstick I’d used to help defend Khamarat Street only a few nights before.
But then I realized I had no choice but to believe them. If I could not trust these men, then there was no one I could trust, and there was no point in trying to protect us behind a slab of wood.
“They’re checking passports of people trying to leave the city,” the captain told me in Arabic.
I opened the door.
“They’ll take your passports and run an investigation,” Mohammed said. “The captain can help you. Please trust us. This is for you and for your wife.”
I gave them a photocopy of my passport and they left.
I called the U.S. Embassy and was told to call back after 8:00 a.m.
Unable to sleep, I turned my computer on. The internet had resumed working earlier that evening. My mind churned. I knew their premise was false. I couldn’t say for sure what they wanted my passport information for, but it was clear that they had lost faith in me — my friends no longer believed I was who I said I was.
I opened the New York Times and read the article “Sudden Split Recasts Foreign Policy.” As I read the first two paragraphs, my heart sunk. The Egyptian government, I am convinced, responded to Obama’s criticism of the counterrevolution and the violence in Tahrir by issuing a warning against foreigners.
I sat waiting for the sun to rise. The neighborhood was vacant after morning prayer. I hoped the men who came to take a copy of my passport at 3:30 a.m. would see my willingness to relinquish my information as a final act of good faith in this community which I had come to love and believe in … And so, as I write my final dispatch from Cairo on this uncertain morning, I can only hope the men of Khamarat Street read these lines someday.
Update: Nathaniel and Liz left Cairo early this morning on a flight to Madrid.