Egypt: Impatient in Imbaba

Two years after the uprising that felled Mubarak, Egyptians in one Cairo neighbourhood are tired of waiting for change.


Cairo, Egypt - In Cairo's Imbaba neighborhood, the days of being patient and waiting for change to happen are over. Mahmoud is a college student, born and raised in the largely working-class northern Cairo neighbourhood.

"Morsi's regime would send messages to Egyptians such as: 'You were patient for 30 years under [former President Hosni] Mubarak, so be patient for one or two more.' But why should we? Those days are over," he said.

Imbaba is one of Cairo's classic sha'bi, or popular, areas. Its uniquely decorated yellow and black three-wheeled tuk-tuks scurry up and down the streets looking for short-distance fares while blasting sha'bi music out of a metre-wide loudspeaker squeezed into the vehicle's trunk. The main roads are lined with shops selling everything from juice to fabrics to live poultry. Imbaba is Cairene in every way, although somewhat off the beaten path for tourists.

At a cafe just off the main Sudan Street, Mahmoud, a law student, and a group of his peers, said they had all voted for the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi in the 2012 presidential elections, the first free elections in Egypt's history.

Mohamed, another student, said Egypt had "already tried" Morsi's contender, Mubarak-era official Ahmad Shafiq, so the choice was easy: "We voted for Morsi."

But soon into his term, frustration grew with Morsi over his perceived nepotism and failure to win over opposition groups with his Nahda ("renaissance") project, which sought to make sweeping democratic reforms after three decades of Mubarak's autocratic rule.

"The Nahda project is propaganda and fantasy," Mahmoud said. "When they [the Brotherhood] ruled, nothing happened. [The Nahda project] doesn't exist."

So, they all signed the Tamarod ("rebellion") group's petition calling for Morsi to step down and to hold early elections. The call led to the massive protests on June 30, marking one year since Morsi's inauguration, and were followed by a military coup that ousted the president.

Full circle

On January 28, 2011 - the first day of nationwide protests against Mubarak's rule - Imbaba witnessed a march consisting of no more than two dozen people, many of them children, shortly after Friday prayers ended. Their revolutionary chants had yet to come into being, and they mostly chanted "inzel" ["come down"], shouting to onlookers in the windows and balconies above them.

Their call was heeded and slowly the march grew to 50, and then 200 people. Less than thirty minutes after it began, the stream of people stretched as far as the eye could see. The march wasn't being led, and with communications down, there was no way for people to know what was happening in other parts of the capital. But a revolution doesn't need a TV or radio, or even social media. It needs anger, and Imbaba has no shortage of that.

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Protesters in the march fought for more than five hours against police tear gas, rubber bullets and clubs. For many, it was a lesson in trial and error as their revolutionary instincts kicked in. They attempted - and often failed - to make petrol bombs to push police lines back. In the end, their determination overcame Mubarak's notorious police state. The masses moved on to Tahrir Square, where they spent the next 15 days demonstrating - until three decades of dictatorship were brought to an end.

The two years since, under military rule and Morsi's presidency, have been marred by instability. Egypt has also been gripped by fuel and electricity crises in recent months, which for many was the last straw. "If Egypt is a pipe, then it was a leaky pipe during the reign of Hosni Mubarak," said Mohamed Saad, a labourer in Imbaba. "But since Morsi came to power that pipe completely burst." 

Shopkeepers in Imbaba said business was down between a third and 50 percent, on average. While sitting next to his corner shop after finishing the day's slaughter, butcher Thabet Abdul Aziz said the frequent electricity cuts were a headache for his business. He has had to order less meat, and thus sell less meat, lest it spoil in his refrigerators.  

Egypt has had some difficult years in the past, he said, "but the years under Mohamed Morsi were the worst".

Abdul Hamid Abdul Rahman, the manager of a shop selling bicycles and other children's toys, said that business had declined over the past couple of years. "It's unclear what's going to happen; every day the country is changing. No-one can predict the future, so we take it one day at a time," he said.

Family divisions

There is a palpable dislike of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood among many people in Imbaba. But while many criticised Morsi, residents said the Brotherhood claimed they still have a sizeable following in the area. With many Brotherhood supporters lying low for fear of arrest or violence, or taking part in an ongoing sit-in in Nasr City, few people on the street were willing to express favourable opinions of the group.

Mohamed, one of the students, said the group's office hadn't been attacked in Imbaba as it had in other areas, because they had such a sizable presence and no-one wanted to fight. He said two of his uncles were Morsi supporters and that the former president's ousting was threatening his family unity.

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"We need a national project that the people agree about. It should be a renaissance," Mohamed said, pausing to add that he had reservations about using that word because of Morsi's project of the same name. "We need a renaissance of the Egyptian people," he continued.

But while most would agree that Egypt needs new leadership to improve living conditions in places such as Imbaba, others just want stability.

Hamada, a 29-year-old call centre employee of a North American travel website, said Imbaba was a great place to live because of its diversity. "Rich, poor, educated, Salafis, Christians, Brotherhood, liberals - you can find them all in Imbaba," he said.

However, the area has changed in recent years. He pointed to the refuse on the street and said that guns, some available for less than $100, were much more popular. "It wasn't like that before," he said.

He said most of his friends were either unemployed or underemployed: some engineers he knew were working in coffee shops. Because Hamada and others no longer feel secure in Imbaba, a lot of people want to leave to find work in the Gulf countries or northern Europe, he said.

"Maybe we're going to get our freedom, but most want to just start a life," he told Al Jazeera.

"And here it's not stable anymore." 

Follow Matthew Cassel on Twitter: @justimage