The story of Egypt over the last five years seems to have been a game of snakes and ladders.
The Egyptians threw the dice first, however, the end was unfortunate. They continued to hit on the snakes, sliding backwards, returning to the start. From Revolution to Restoration. Yet a snake god was once a protector of the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians have gone back to the start. The Revolution lead right to the Restoration. Revolt, repression and a lot of blood to return to the authoritarianism of Mubarak. After five years, the picture of Egypt is not so very different from that of the 23 January 2011, when in Tahrir Square young Egyptians had asked for more freedom, more jobs and more democracy. The theater of two coups in three years, Cairo today is an inferno.
TUK TUK is a cutout of this situation, a feature film (the first) of Romany Saad, presented at the Cairo International Film Festival. Masterfully filmed, with an excellent musical accompaniment, TUK TUK is an intriguing, but disturbing glimpse into the streets of Cairo through the eyes of three young boys, Bika, Abdullah and Sharon.
Child drivers, between 8 and 9 years old. Driving their tuk tuks, motorized rickshaws, all day, like busy ants through the streets of the city. They earn on an average 20 pounds a day. A chicken costs 35 pounds in post-revolutionary Cairo. 20 million inhabitants. A never-ending, sprawling city. A megalopolis invaded by tuk tuks (illegal in most districts), often driven by very young boys without a license, just like Bika, Abdullah and Sharon. Child drivers harassed by belligerent taxi drivers, private car owners and corrupt policemen (many, very many). Coming across them is the worst thing that can happen to these child workers.
“If we give them 50 pounds they turn a blind eye. It’s better to pay, if we don’t, we don’t eat.” (Bika)
The families of Bika, Abdullah and Sharon and of the many other boys of Cairo cannot afford to send their children to school. Many are put out onto the streets, to survive as best they can.
“Without this work, without the tuk tuks, our boys would be selling drugs on the streets,” says Bika’s mother, showing both her pride and shame at the same time. For the poor families, a boy who works can make the difference between starving and survival. More than a quarter of the 90 million Egyptians live below the poverty line. Three out of five children suffer from malnutrition.
“It’s because of the revolution”, many say, the old and the new poor. “Revolution? It’s not a revolution. If it were the revolution you are speaking about, I would not be the only one to pay the price.”
This is the revolution’s legacy, of the sequel of events that have occurred in Egypt since 2011 – Mubarak, after 30 years of unopposed power, toppled by the young people in Tahrir Square, the unstoppable wave of protests, soon to become the symbol of the hopes of young Arabs, the place where they decided the future of democracy in the Arab world.
In the summer of 2012, the Egyptians went to the polls and chose the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamic democracy with its message of being free from oppressive power and of the fight against the socio-economic frustrations of millions of Egyptians won them over. Even for those who had never been Islamic. The West, first hesitated, then, reluctantly, accepted the will of the people. The Brotherhood tried to provide a content for political Islam, but failed. Islam was not the solution. Millions of young people took action to express their opposition to Morsi and his attempt to Islamize Egyptian society.
The beginning of Tamarrod. It means revolution in Arabic. In a very short time, the movement collected 22 million signatures to dismiss Morsi. The Islamic establishment, but also the opposition, was taken by surprise. Morsi was removed from office during the night by the head of the Egyptian armed forces, General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi. It had actually been Morsi who had appointed him to the position. They all ended up in prison – Morsi, the heads of the Brotherhood and thousands of sympathizers. The parabola of political Islamism occurred in little more than a year at the cost of more than 600 deaths. On 14 August 2013, Rabaa Mosque Square. The “black night” of Egypt.
In a state of near civil war and imminent bankruptcy, the Egyptians once again turned to the “man in uniform”.
“Long live our hero, he has arrived.”
It is not a surprise. From the times of Gamal Nasser, the military have not only been the guardians of the nation, but also the owners of its economy. They control everything, from staple goods to the infrastructures, from transport to the tourist industry. Even the Egyptian Spring was the military’s. The military had pulled the strings right from the beginning. They had cleverly exploited Tahrir Square to get rid of Mubarak, who had become quite untrustworthy with his “unhealthy” idea to place his son, Gamal, on the throne. A civilian overly linked to the financial and business spheres in open competition with the military. They thought to “command without governing”, even with the Brotherhood, but it had not worked. They, the Brotherhood, wanted to really govern. They made a mistake, legitimizing (you could say) another coup d’état by military means.
Tahrir Square was a defeat. The military used it to overthrow Mubarak, then they used the Brotherhood to suppress Tahrir Square, and then Tamarrod to get rid of the Brotherhood. But was there a revolution in Egypt? Or was it a restoration without a revolution? “Revolution? We became the poor bastards. Without any benefits. The police extort more than before”, curses an old man in the film. Poor Egypt, the revolution, either real or alleged, has not made it better, the restoration (and this is certain) has made it worse.
Today’s Egypt is not that of Hosni Mubarak. According to reliable data, the so-called restoration has cost the country 15,000 people ending up in prison and 1,400 lives. The Muslim Brotherhood has returned to being a “terrorist organization”, as in Nasser’s time. However, those who have paid the highest price, besides the Brotherhood and its sympathizers, are the journalists, intellectuals, activists and bloggers. Reduced to silence by the military courts and arbitrary imprisonment. When it goes well for them.
In al-Sisi’s Egypt, the privileges of the police and the military have been strengthened, the state of emergency introduced by Mubarak extended, the political violence of the baltagiya, (Mubarak’s thugs called on to do the dirty work) intensified. The repression of any dissent is much tougher as the regime has many more flaws compared to the past. It is more afraid. Externally, of Jihadist terrorism, internally, by Islamic movements (the Brotherhood and the Salafi of al-Nour). However, the real thorn in al-Sisi’s side is the unionists, able to mobilize the country, bring it back into the streets and the squares, once again.
“They are afraid of us” says one of the TUK TUK boys, participating with his 3-wheeled vehicle in a protest demonstration presumably organized by the unions. Yes, the regime is afraid of them and, consequently, clamping down on the NGOs and the youth organizations (the 6 April Group, the founders of Tahrir Square, were banned together with the Brotherhood).
The destabilization of Egypt runs very deep. Cairo embodies it all, a swarming and infernal city, invaded by tuk tuks, by many Bikas, Abdullahs and Sharons. Abdullah’s father has gone into debt up to his neck to buy the rickshaw for his two sons, to get them off the streets, away from crime and drugs. Poor man, he doesn’t understand that his boys are a part of the life on the streets. TUK TUK ends with the three boys smoking hashish under the Imbaba Bridge and dreaming out loud of their lives as adults, way beyond the windscreen of their little motorized rickshaws. Their life as children has been lost. In the traffic of Cairo. The never-ending city.