Chokolani Street is a hazy, noisy lower middle class district in Shubra, packed with pious Muslims and secularists who live, work, play and pray cheek by jowl with each other – in other words a microcosm of Cairo, which is a city in crisis.
As everywhere in Cairo today, there is a cacophony of wildly divergent opinions on Chokolani Street about the monumental struggle that is taking place between a puritanical elected Islamist government and a profoundly uneasy secular opposition over what kind of country Egypt should be after 50 years of often brutal military rule.
It matters how the debate is finally resolved because Egypt’s decision will have a major influence on the shape of the Middle East for generations to come, with untold but undoubtedly significant consequences for the region and the world. But if it ends, it will also have an immediate positive effect on Egypt’s struggling economy.
With Egyptian society deeply divided between those who favour a theocracy, a small number of centrists who desire a more moderate Islamist government that takes into account all points of view and others who fear the Islamists and want a somewhat freewheeling secular regime, perhaps the only thing that most Cairenes agree on today is that the daily upheavals that have come with months of bitter demonstrations and counter-demonstrations have exhausted the city and have had dire consequences for a feeble financial system incapable of absorbing many more shocks.
Mohammed Shabasi measures the dire economic costs of Egypt’s incomplete Arab Spring in the number of women who no longer visit his modest salon.
“There is so much danger out there now that many women are scared to leave their homes to get their hair done,” the 66 year hairdresser said as he puffed on a cigarette outside the empty shop where he has been a fixture for 40 years. “Business is not working. Life gets more expensive. We really thought that things would get more stable after we elected a president, but the situation is actually getting worse. I cannot tell you exactly how much this has cost me. I can tell you that if it lasts much longer I will close my business.”
Two stores away, fishmonger, Abdel Messih Mekhail, whose hand bears a tattoo of the Coptic Christian cross, had a similar tale of woe.
“I had 15 workers. I’ve laid 8 of them off. I could no longer pay them because luxury hotels that are some of my biggest customers have no guests,” he said as he proudly displayed fresh fish, squid, shrimp, eels and crabs that had been caught in the Nile, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. “Only half the police have returned to work since the revolution. We hear about lots of crime in the neighbourhood. We have an economy that does not function. Since we got democracy everyone in this country thinks their opinion matters the most and that they should lead.”
Reda Attiya, who sells trays of unleavened bread in a back alley, shouted “have I raised children to go to demonstrations and get killed or to do something good with their lives?
“We need to work more. We need to plant more. The solution is for people to take care of their own lives and not tell others how to live their lives. We have to live together in peace.”
Tourism is arguably Cairo’s most important source of employment and revenue. Yet despite the glory of the pyramids, the majesty of the Nile and tombs that have mummies and gems and other wonders, there are few good reasons for any foreigners except journalists to want to visit Cairo today?
A journey that normally takes no more than an hour on the city’s notoriously jammed streets took nearly three hours this weekend because most of the principal travel routes loop around garbage-strewn Tahrir Square, which has been besieged by angry demonstrators as it was during the heady days before Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power.
Perhaps drawing inspiration from secularists who are protesting what they regard as President Mohammed Morsi’s autocratic rule by pitching tens in Tahrir Square, a small number of Islamists set up a small village of competing tents Sunday on the lawn outside the Supreme Constitutional Court to “monitor” the behaviour of the judges.
Egypt’s agony will not end any time soon. Cairenes are bracing for further disruptions and possible violence leading up to and probably after a snap vote on the proposed constitution which has been called for December 15.
The first of the next wave of protests comes on Tuesday when there is to be a huge march by secular opponents of the proposed constitution to give voice to their opinion that it is an intolerant Islamist-dominated document designed to promote Sharia law and curtail personal and religious freedoms.
The gloom that is gripping Egypt was summed up by an executive for a luxury hotel overlooking the Nile where the occupancy rate has plunged from 80 per cent to 30 per cent over the past two years.
Speaking for Cairenes of every political stripe, she said: “It has grown dark and there is no light at the of the tunnel.”