Cairo, Egypt - In a cafe along the Nile, a young couple lingered over cups of tea, the only customers in a venue that could seat hundreds. Bored vendors in a tourist market lamented the lack of business. The kitchen staff from an upscale sushi restaurant sat outside smoking cigarettes, gesturing at the empty tables: There’s nobody to cook for.
Cairo emerged this weekend from a nighttime curfew imposed three months ago, after security forces brutally cleared two protest camps filled with supporters of President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by the army in July. More than 1,000 people were killed in the clearing and the days of bloody street violence that followed.
There are tanks a few streets over. How is this normal?
The curfew has been eased several times since then, but it continued to take effect at 7pm on Fridays in an effort to prevent protests after communal prayers.
Many people had expected this Friday would be a return to Cairo’s usual late-night rhythms. And yet in many areas it wasn’t: Restaurants were half-empty; shopkeepers sat alone in their brightly-lit stores. Modest crowds trickled into cafes downtown, or at the Khan el-Khalili market, which was a popular tourist attraction before the tourism industry crashed. But the atmosphere was subdued.
"They come and they walk around and they look, but they don’t buy anything," said Mustafa Farrag, a vendor hawking luggage on the market’s main street. "Nobody has any money."
Even Cairo’s gruelling traffic was unexpectedly light. Before the crisis, Arab League Street - the main road through the middle-class Mohandiseen district - was often an impassable parking lot on weekend nights. But the handful of cars driving through on this Friday zipped along at near-highway speeds.
Everyone had their own explanation for the mood. Some joked that Egyptians had simply forgotten how to stay up late. One man quipped that everyone was waiting for a personal appeal from General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the widely popular defence minister who led Morsi’s ouster.
But in interviews in a half-dozen Cairo neighbourhoods on Friday night, many people simply said there was nothing to celebrate, not with the country sharply divided and in the grips of a grinding economic crisis.
"There are tanks a few streets over," said Bassem Abdel Ghani, eating dinner inside his small kiosk on a dark street in the working-class Agouza neighbourhood. "How is this normal?"
Indeed, the return to "normal" is largely a technicality: The state of emergency ended automatically, because the constitutional declaration issued after Morsi’s removal limited it to three months unless an extension was approved by public referendum.
"The idea that we should celebrate when curfew ends is absurd. There’s no achievement in that," said Khalid Abdulla, an Egyptian activist and actor. "You celebrate when you’ve wrested your freedoms out of someone else’s hands, not when, after three months, their hands are forced by a constitutional declaration that they’ve written."
Restrictive new laws
The interim government, fearful of renewed protests, is moving to curtail personal freedoms.
Security forces on Friday closed Raba’a al-Adawiya and Nahda squares, the sites of this summer’s pro-Morsi sit-ins, as well as Tahrir Square. The interior ministry announced that it would deploy additional police, and random checkpoints stopped traffic in several locations. Soldiers and armoured personnel carriers could still be seen on the streets in several locations.
|Governors can create "protest-free zones" [Gregg Carlstrom/Al Jazeera]
But Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood is in disarray, with most of the group’s leaders in jail or in hiding, and the day passed quietly: A few thousand of his supporters marched peacefully to the Ittihadiya presidential palace in the afternoon, but ended their rally well before sunset. One person, a 16-year-old boy, was killed during clashes in the northern city of Alexandria.
Still, with the curfew and state of emergency over, the cabinet is working on a set of restrictive new laws that have been widely panned by human rights groups.
The most-discussed piece of legislation is a "protest law", which was sent to interim president Adly Mansour earlier this week for review. Initial drafts of the law required Egyptians to seek approval from police one week before holding protests, though that period was shortened in some subsequent versions.
The law also allows police officials to cancel or postpone protests. Governors, meanwhile, can create "protest-free zones" around state institutions, which could even put parts of Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square off-limits .
"The law looks at protests as a crime that's in the making, not a healthy democratic right," said Karim Medhat Ennarah, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "As much as possible, the government wants to control them."
Egypt’s entire political spectrum, from liberals to Salafis, have criticised the law. Even Tamarod, the staunchly pro-army movement which organised the massive protests that preceded Morsi’s ouster, denounced it. Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, one of the group’s founders, said it would be "unjust" to limit the right to peaceful protest.
‘In good faith’
If the law is approved in the next few days, an early test could come on Tuesday, the two-year anniversary of the deadly anti-military rule clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in downtown Cairo. Several groups have called for rallies to remember the 47 people killed and thousands injured during the four-day battle.
Beyond protests, the interim government is also looking to criminalise "abusive graffiti", through a proposed new law that would impose four-year jail terms and hefty fines. A separate, broadly-written "terrorism law" under discussion could criminalise actions which "damage… the national economy", paving the way for prosecutions of peaceful protesters.
A fourth measure being considered would grant senior officials immunity from criminal prosecution if their actions were taken "in good faith".
Amidst all of this, workers started to build an official monument in Tahrir Square to honor those killed during the revolution. Activists dismissed the monument as an insult, of course, because most of the dead were killed by a government for which there has been almost no accountability.
It was, in a sense, a fitting coda for the weekend, another attempt to simply turn the page on the tumult of the past few years.
"If you were to look at this from afar, it would not look anything like normality," Abdulla said. "And that's what particularly hurts. This is nothing like normal, and we're being asked to pretend that it is."