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Denizens of Cairo’s graveyard slums ‘in no mood for revolution’

“I revolted against Mubarak because people told us he was corrupt. …” said Fatma Ahmed. “But Mubarak was mercy.”

CAIRO, Egypt—Fatma Ahmed has had enough of revolution.

Three years ago, as Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power, she believed.

She sat in this Cairo graveyard that she still calls home—in this cold concrete tomb where she raised 11 children—and thought perhaps the chants from Tahrir Square of “bread, freedom and social justice” really could bring something better. Running water, perhaps. Maybe even a home she wouldn’t have to share with the dead.

But the only thing the 2011 uprising has delivered, as far as Ahmed is concerned, is chaos and violence. If she could go back, she says, she would never support the tech-savvy youth who ignited an uprising that toppled a regime and captured the world’s attention.

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“It was better before the revolution,” the 60-year-old says, sitting in the one-room tomb she shares with her husband and five of their unmarried children. “Even in the graveyard, we had hope and electricity. I revolted against Mubarak because people told us he was corrupt. … But Mubarak was mercy.”

Ahmed’s husband, Amin, sits on their bed in the corner trying to be diplomatic with a foreign visitor. “I was born here; life here is good,” he offers amicably, a bare light bulb and a bag of bread dangling from the ceiling above him.

Ahmed’s eyes flash. “Do you really think anyone would be happy living in a graveyard?” she demands, in no mood to go along with her husband’s platitudes.

He sighs. “I’m scared of terrorism,” he admits. There are near-daily attacks on police across the country these days, and bombings recently have even reached Cairo—a sign that jihadist militants may prove tougher to defeat than the “Facebook revolutionaries” the regime has swatted aside.

“But Sisi is good,” Amin adds, referring to military chief and presumed presidential candidate Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, revered here for ousting Egypt’s first democratically elected president after mass protest. “He is protecting the country.”

The Ahmeds’ journey from revolution optimists to fervent supporters of yet another military-backed autocrat mirrors what many in the sprawling slums of this Egyptian capital have gone through in the wake of the 2011 uprisings. It also speaks to the incredible difficulty of turning revolutionary ideals like dignity and justice into reality in a country where much of the impoverished population is struggling just to exist.

The uprising that pushed then-President Mubarak from power after three decades was a brief moment of euphoria that made people like the Ahmeds believe that something better was possible—that perhaps Egypt did not have to be a place where the poor are left to survive in cemeteries.

But better never came.

By the time the military finally held elections a year and a half later, the opposition had splintered and the final choice of presidential candidates was something less than revolutionary —the Muslim Brotherhood, a decades-old group that believes religion should form the basis of government, or remnants of the Mubarak regime.

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The Ahmeds remained hopeful. The couple and their adult children all voted for Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, believing in the group’s mantra of Islam as the solution.

“I wanted Islamic law,” explains Reda, a son with slicked-back curly hair, as he slouches in the doorway of the tomb.

“He doesn’t like it when women walk around wearing tight stuff,” his older sister, Safiya, chimes in with a teasing smile.

Reda, who used to make a living selling copper plates to the tourists who no longer come, doesn’t laugh. “We gave him legitimacy by voting for him, and he ruined everything,” he laments. “He killed tourism and brought terrorism to the country.”

Since ousting Morsi in a coup that was not only supported but demanded by millions here, the military has declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and blamed it for escalating violence across the country. It matters little that militants from the Sinai Peninsula have taken credit for much of the violence—including the recent bombing of a police headquarters in Cairo and the felling of a military helicopter with a surface-to-air missile in the Sinai—or that the Brotherhood swore off violence decades ago and has condemned the attacks.

In the “kill or be killed” atmosphere that is Cairo these days, many feel like the Ahmed family—fearful of the uncertainty and chaos, desperate for a strong leader who can guide the country back to a time when there were more tourists and there was less teargas in the streets.

So the Ahmeds, like many in this cemetery slum and elsewhere, are putting their faith in the military man who has ousted the first president for whom they voted, overseen the killing of hundreds of his supporters and jailed critics of any stripe—liberal and Islamist alike. They hope that Sisi will become president and believe anyone against that these days must be a terrorist or foreign-paid spy. “If someone is protecting you, don’t you stand by them?” Fatma asks, her tone turning the question into more of a defiant statement.

A few streets away, Mona Serugi, a 27-year-old wearing makeup and a colorful headscarf, agrees. “The only ones protesting the military now are April 6, who are spies,” she says, referring to the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the main groups behind the 2011 uprising. Two of the movement’s leaders now sit in jail on charges that include protesting without permission.

Three years ago, Serugi was in Tahrir Square protesting alongside the activists she now believes to be spies.

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A jobless university graduate who grew up in the tomb she sits in front of on this trash-strewn cemetery street, Serugi said she wanted to speak out against inequality and injustice. “We live here because of poverty,” she says. “We don’t even have water. We wanted our rights.”

But Serugi grew disillusioned when it became clear that the Brotherhood—whom she says she never trusted—was the only group organized and popular enough to take Mubarak’s place.

“I didn’t even vote because I knew they were coming,” she says. “Since the time of their founder they have been liars, buying votes with oil and sugar yet never fulfilling promises.”

Serugi is relieved to see the military back in charge, the only entity she really trusts to stabilize the country.

“It was very hard to get rid of the Brotherhood so God must be on our side,” she says, dust swirling through the air as young children play nearby. “I love Sisi. He is like the new Gamal Nasser.”

Not all Egyptians are as thrilled that three years after ousting one military-backed autocrat, the country seems poised to replace him with another.

On this year’s anniversary of the Jan. 25 uprising, teargas burned the air as anti-military protesters faced off with armored vehicles in downtown Cairo. Just blocks away, Tahrir Square—where some of the protesters had once camped until a regime fell—belonged to middle-aged men and families with children who came to show their support for the military.

A sea of Egyptian flags and banners calling for Sisi to run for president flooded the square, which was heavily guarded with barbed wire and military vehicles. As vendors hawked tea, face paints and balloons, crowds broke out in spontaneous chants of “the people demand the execution of the Brotherhood.”

At least 49 were killed in clashes nationwide that day, according to the Ministry of Health. Wiki Thawra, an independent group tracking post-revolution killings and arrests, puts the death toll at 103, with most of the deaths in pro-Brotherhood neighborhoods of Cairo.

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But many of the youth who powered the stalled revolution—and now often oppose both the military and the Brotherhood—simply stayed inside that day. On social media, some even criticized those who took to the streets, arguing they were only risking their lives while further alienating a public in no mood for revolution.

The disillusionment of the youth with what many call the “counterrevolution” is also evident in the apparently low turnout for the recent vote on a military-backed constitution. The military did not tolerate any campaigning against the document and saturated Cairo with billboards demanding a “yes” vote. There were essentially two choices—vote yes, widely seen as a show of support for Sisi as a presidential candidate, or stay home.

While there are no official statistics on the youth vote, government officials have acknowledged the low turnout, in some cases attributing it to scheduling conflicts with university exams.

So, in a way, Hassan Farag, 52, is right as he sits in this cemetery slum and declares: “The youth of Jan. 25 are not here anymore. They did their job, and they disappeared.”

“Anyone who is anti-military now is Brotherhood,” he insists.

Pressed about what he would say to non-Brotherhood youth critical of the military, assuming they do exist, Farag shifts his gaze from the nearby mosque under construction. “I would tell them to come back to their people and not listen to those who want to turn Egypt into a bloodbath.”

In this highly polarized environment, many agree those are the two options—a military president strong enough to crush the other side or blood flowing through the streets.

“A civilian president failed the country. We need a military president to protect Egypt,” says Sanaa Ahmed, a young woman in a gauzy pink headscarf who sits nursing her baby outside her family’s tomb. “I feel safe here in the graveyard, but I don’t feel free to go out and do everything I used to do. I’m scared because of the constant violence.”

Ahmed’s mom, Qareema Mohamed, sits nearby with two grandchildren, using bread to scoop up eggs and white cheese. Roosters wander beneath the plastic table, pecking at the dirt for crumbs. “As long as the army is here, everything will be OK,” Mohamed says.

Both mother and daughter say they were happy to see Mubarak go, but are now weary of the street crime and economic instability that followed. They hope a military president like Sisi can piece things back together—”make Egypt beautiful again,” as Mohamed puts it.

And what will be the difference between the man they ousted three years ago and the one they’re supporting now?

Ahmed pauses for a moment. “Well, both are military men, but Mubarak—we didn’t choose him.”