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[Letter from Cairo]

Return of the Strongman

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When I arrived in Cairo in the fall of last year, my thoughts kept turning to the bloody events of the summer that had just passed. By then, most of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood — the eighty-six-year-old Islamist organization long persecuted by successive Egyptian regimes — were either in jail or in hiding. Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood-backed president dramatically ousted after only a year in office, was in detention, facing sundry charges ranging from espionage to incitement to murder to misappropriation of state funds ($460,000 allegedly spent on “ducks, chicken, and grilled meat”). At the airport, a long-faced taxi driver offered me a limp thumbs-up when I inquired about the state of things. “Very good,” he said in a monotone. “Very calm.” And yet this calm struck me as an eerie one. Boxy military tanks and trucks were everywhere, poised as sentinels at major intersections, at the mouth of every bridge, and along the manicured road to and from the airport. The generals in charge had declared a countrywide state of emergency and imposed a nightly curfew — a hallucinatory measure for Egyptians, who are night owls. There were terrible stories about what happened to people who stayed out too late, like that of an unlucky Frenchman arrested and beaten to death in his jail cell.

During those strange, abbreviated days, the margins and marginalia of the local papers revealed a great deal about the state of the national psyche. There were, for example, an unusual number of ads for online courses in anger management. Notices for jobs in prosperous Gulf cities like Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi. On the website of Al-Ahram, Egypt’s state-run newspaper, a message would pop up: “Learn the four signs of heart attack.” In October, an article in the same paper announced that a huge shipment of counterfeit Xanax had been successfully intercepted. There were runs on Xanax throughout the country. Antidepressants and painkillers also.

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is a senior editor of Bidoun.

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