I worked the night before Obama came and while being driven home I noticed more the absense of the usual hundreds of parked cars than I did the unusual cleanliness of the streets. What I did not know then was that Obama’s route through the city took him directly past my workplace and mile by mile along the route I take home every worknight. Cairo, and Heliopolis by extension, did not appear much more different until the next morning when we drove back into Heliopolis on business. Driving down the Salah Salem highway I could not help but stare and giggle at the unending line of police, sodiers, and “secret” servicemen that stretched out as far as my eye could see.
They lined both sides of the road and the divider up the middle: black-suited soldiers stood exactly ten feet apart in their ‘at attention’ postures with their hands clasped behind their backs and around every third soldier stood at least one “secret” servicemen, who despite their attempts at looking non-chalant stood out in their dapper business suits, and one to two white-suited policemen. At every corner stood no less than three policemen, two soldiers, and an indeterminate number of “secret” servicemen and behind them, further down the street, were more policemen manning the road blocks that would keep people from entering the road once it was officially closed off for Obama.
It was this staggering amount of manpower that made me stare but what made me giggle was that every single black-clothed soldier stood with his back to the road, at some places they quite literally stood with their faces to brick walls like unruly school children being punished. The fact that the street and adjoining buildings were scrubbed to a sparkle, that Egypt had this many people laying around that she could use them in such an onstentatious manner, and that they were forced to stand with their asses to the street just compounded to make it one of the most absurd things I’ve ever seen. I supposed that even if it weren’t just for show it would make more sense for them to be facing out from the road guarding it but the whole thing just seemed so surreal to me.
This stretched on for miles, starting from in front of the Mohamed Ali Mosque, past Al-Azhar Park, and on into Heliopolis- presumably all the way to Hosni’s house where Obama took his breakfast. In one half-mile stretch there were probably 100-120 men just standing there. And really, lets talk about the “secret” servicemen. I get the suits, I really do, but the thing is that it makes more sense to have plain-clothes police in places where there are actually civilans however here the only civilians that anyone could see were those who were furtively making their way along the road in cars as quickly as possible like Mr. MM and I. The normal Cairenes were so terrorized by the idea of what the police would do to them simply for being on the streets at the wrong time that they holed up in their houses all day. Mr. MM said his friends who lived along the route didn’t even touch the curtains on their windows out of fear for their lives. So here were a number of men in suits standing around with the purpose of blending in and being “secret” however all they did is look like doofs standing in the shadows and smoking cigarettes. It was even worse when we got into the botanical sections of Heliopolis and they were hiding out in the leafy gardens in the middle of the road where only beggars and lounging street-cleaners usually hang out.
It was obvious when we were no longer on the Obama route not only because there were no more soldiers mooning us but because one could see again the obsequious piles of garbage, litter, and dirt that cover the streets of Cairo. The streets were still empty of people but at least it looked more like home. Gatherings were called off due not just to fear but to the idea that traffic, which is never fun in Cairo, would be so much worse today because of everything but in reality it was the complete opposite. Offices closed for the day, the Ministry of Education postponed all exams that were scheduled for that morning and afternoon, and many who did not have official breaks just did not go to work. So while there definitely were road closings while Obama was on the move, traffic in Cairo was actually fabulous in every other part, so much so that Mr. MM proposed that we drive somewhere just for the sake of being able to get there quickly.
Of all that things that he did here I wish that Obama had gone off the path and seen what Cairo really is because everything on the route he took was washed and fixed and freshly painted; Cairo University itself was entirely repaved. I wish that he had seen the degradation, the crumbling buildings, the piles of garbage, the hopelessness of the people; I wish that he had seen that the soldiers that lined his route stood as an allegory to how things always are here in Cairo: ass backwards.
His visit did what it was meant to though; forget the cynical pundits and journalists, the pessimistic bloggers and vloggers. General consensus among the Egyptian masses of everymen and everywomen is that Obama is someone who cares about the Muslim and Arab people and I can tell you that were Obama to run for President of Egypt tomorrow he would win hands down. But his speech really reiterated for me what I’ve been saying all along to people here: Islam and Muslims play a bigger part in America then anyone could imagine.
Now all I can hope for is that Obama stands up to Israel and Israel takes his words to heart.