23 August 2013

Egypt: In the Heat of the Night - Living Under Cairo's Curfew

At 7pm, Cairo is officially under curfew. But that doesn't necessarily mean activity on the streets of the capital stops.

The crowded Egyptian capital is mostly deserted between the hours of 7pm and 6am when the curfew, set in place by the interior ministry as a measure against the country's recent violence, comes into effect.

At 6:50pm on Cairo's main highway, the average speed is around 120 km/hr, but some are going significantly faster, weaving their way through traffic, to rush home. Elsewhere, normally overloaded streets deal with an even higher volume of cars. Many streets are closed.

By 7:30pm, most are indoors. But there are those who remain on the streets.

Cairo by night

During the curfew, the heart of downtown Cairo is heavily guarded by military tanks and soldiers. Drivers yell at each other to warn of upcoming checkpoints and roads blocks. And cars can often be seen racing in the wrong direction down one-way streets to avoid detection.

Mahmmoud Faramaoy and Hassan Ali Hamra sit in the dark near Talaat Harb square. They are guarding a building with a clothing shop at its base. "During curfew I see the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] doing bad things to the country", says Faramaoy. "The Ikhwan have big guns and are killing people. They have shot at the buildings." He says that he feels safer with the military and police taking care of the situation.

Egypt's political landscape has been particularly polarised since 3 July, when former president Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the military in the wake of mass protests against his rule. Pro-Morsi supporters retaliated with demonstrations and set up protest camps, calling for his reinstatement.

On 14 August, security forces cleared the camps using bulldozers, snipers and helicopters, and hundreds of demonstrators were killed.

More protests and deadly clashes between pro-Morsi supporters and security forces followed in the wake of this bloodshed, with the official death toll over the few days believed to be around 1,000.

Checkpoint committees

Many have criticised the military for disproportionate use of force and violent tactics, but Faramaoy and Hamra are fervent pro-military supporters.

When asked about the hundreds who were killed under the orders of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during the clearing of the pro-Morsi sit-ins last week, Hamra says, "Sisi is ok, he is a good man and I love him. Egypt is damaged, it is all is damaged. I ask God to help him."

Faramaoy interrupts. "He wants the country to be well and without any more damage", he says. "The street is empty, as you can see.

The Ikhwan don't want Egypt, they want their president [Morsi]. You can't say Ikhwan anymore; you have to say 'the enemy'. They were always the enemy. But the Egyptian men will handle it", he says, referring to the military, "no-one can beat them."

Armed civilian checkpoints appear throughout the city at night. They often start as groups of varying size, gather whatever wood, plastic or metal pieces they can find to block the road.

They can be seen carrying sticks and guns; these popular committees, acting with the tacit consent of the security forces, take it upon themselves to search cars and ask for people's IDs whenever and however they see fit. These checkpoints dissolve and re-emerge, moving from street to street as the night wears on.

Two tanks and over a dozen army and police officers mark the military checkpoint at the bridge to one of the city's more upscale neighbourhoods of Zamalek. Anyone found moving after curfew is subjected to interrogation in the road under threat of arrest. They are asked for ID and will most likely be searched.

A few restaurants and cafes remain open throughout the night in Zamalek. Some say the police don't care. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, the manager of a café explained, "Restaurants and pharmacies can stay open. Cafés have to close by 9pm, but I have about ten police that always come here, so it's okay. It's like anything: you find the key, you can open the door."

He also mentions that he has a shotgun just upstairs, where he lives, which he says he keeps for protection. "Nowadays in the country you have to have something", he says, "but I will give my shotgun back to the government once the country finds balance again."

Elisa Iannacone is a cinematographer, filmmaker and journalist, based in Cairo, Egypt. She was Chief Editor/Writer for the Toronto newspaper Express Yourself, has published photojournalistic work in the BBC and CBC online, and has worked as Production Coordinator, Cinematographer & Journalist at CineFocus Canada and on the GreenHeroes Campaign.

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