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Egypt from the eyes of a Kenyan visitor

Saturday February 5 2011

Egyptian anti-government protesters calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak block an Egyptian army armoured personnel carrier (APC) at Tahrir Square in Cairo on February 5, 2011.

Egyptian anti-government protesters calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak block an Egyptian army armoured personnel carrier (APC) at Tahrir Square in Cairo on February 5, 2011. Protesters sat on the ground around some of the tanks to prevent the troops pulling out and leaving the square vulnerable to the feared interior ministry riot police or militants loyal to Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party. Photo | AFP 

By MURITHI MUTIGA [email protected]

One of the things that puzzled us as a travelling group of Kenyan journalists in Cairo in 2006 was the fact that the stadiums were full during every single match.

Even when the contestants were countries with small parties of travelling fans like the encounter between DR Congo and Togo, the venue was packed with tens of thousands of Egyptians following the football.

Curiously enough, the fans were dressed in identical clothes, with one stand being filled with people in blue and another by supporters clad in yellow.

“How does this happen?” we asked the taxi driver. “Oh, those are off duty policemen,” he said.

The episode summed up the contradictions of Egypt, the Middle Eastern giant that has grabbed world attention following the epic demands in the past week for the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt is a police state. There seemed to be policemen in every street corner in most parts of Cairo.


Outside the hotel where we were staying, three policemen stood staring into the distance, utterly expressionless, throughout the day.

Not all the policemen were in uniform. On one occasion, a car pulled up and out jumped several men in leather jackets who dramatically hauled away a number of people that had been gathered in the street chatting.

The arresting party, we were to learn later, were members of the Mukhabarat, the secret police who were the enforcers of the governing National Democratic Party.

But not everything was gloomy about the country. For someone from Kenya, the government there seemed to have a considerably more pro-people approach to economic management than you would see in most sub-Saharan African countries.

Food is very cheap. For the amount that one would spend in a Nairobi eatery, you could comfortably feed a family of five in a Cairo restaurant.

Fuel and electricity are also heavily subsidised. The Mubarak administration’s approach to managing the country seemed simple:
We will spend millions of Egyptian pounds to make life bearable for you and in return you shall not meddle in politics.

Yet there were many similarities with Kenya, shared characteristics that make both countries vulnerable to popular anti-establishment uprisings.

There are stark income inequalities. The wealthy neighbourhoods such as Damalek and Garden City are truly spectacular with manicured lawns and grandiose buildings.

The better parts of the city are home to hotels built hundreds of years ago in spectacular architectural styles, one of which, the manager was happy to point out, was once home to the Italian military adventurer, Napoleon Bonaparte.

But as in Nairobi, the poorer areas are also pictures in misery with sprawling low-cost houses and poor drainage.

The poor are to be found in their numbers in Ataba market — their version of Gikomba — a sprawling mass of humanity where entrepreneurs, customers and pickpockets mix noisily.

But it is a more significant similarity with Kenya that arguably brought on the revolution unfolding in that country.

Kenya and Egypt produce more law graduates per year than any other country in Africa. The two countries have a significant and growing middle class that is well exposed and ambitious.

It was this slice of the population in Egypt which rejected the ancient compact where the state acted as a paternalistic provider while denying the people their rights.

This is the group that went to Facebook, mobilised in large numbers and surprised the Egyptian government and Western intelligence agencies with the intensity of their demands for the end of the Mubarak regime.

Five years ago, it seemed that revolution was more likely to happen in Kenya than Egypt.

The Egyptian government worries constantly about inflation and social welfare and when there was a bread shortage in 2008, they brought out the Army to bake for the masses.

The Egyptian government, like the Kenyatta and Moi regimes, was among the biggest recipients of American aid in Africa between 1962 and 1988 during the cold war.

Egypt has excellent roads and elevated superhighways while the Kenyan aid money — one billion dollars between independence and the early 1990s — appears to have disappeared down a black hole.

One thing the Egyptian regime did worse than its Kenyan counterparts, though, was to persist with a terribly repressive approach to policing complete with jails where thousands of youth disappeared for months on end, undergoing torture for crimes of conscience.

In the African Cup of Nations final between Egypt and Ivory Coast, we witnessed the Mubarak regime in its most powerful guise.

This time, the fans were genuine football supporters. But we all took our seats in the stadium between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., several hours before the match was due to start at 7 p.m.

Apparently, the police needed time to close the highway on both sides to make sure there was no threat to the life of Mr Mubarak.

This month, the nation’s restless youth finally ran out of patience and pulled off an unlikely coup.

The president, who only a few years ago told Parliament he will be in power for as long as he breathes, faces an abrupt and inglorious exit from the presidential palace.