As the general lay on my bed with a gun resting on his chest, holding court in my bedroom, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. After a week in Cairo, and after seeing endless apartments, my roommates and I were about to sign our first lease on an apartment.
Moktar, my landlord, is quite the character. He seems part movie star and part crazy, but a genuinely nice guy when not pointing a gun at you. A former general in the Egyptian Intelligence Service, my landlord has spent the last 12 years running several silver shops his family owns, and hiding from his wife. “My wife … she drive me crazy, sometimes I want kill her,” he tells me. Not an uncommon thing for any man to say, yet somehow I wonder if he isn’t joking. He being a former intelligence general, I consider if he has made people disappear before. Just in case, I’ll be extra sure to pay my rent on time and not break any dishes … besides that glass I already broke.
One of the first things you notice about Cairo when you arrive is all the men in white uniforms. Egypt isn’t in theory just a police state; it is a police state. And in my case – thanks to my landlord, the general – it’s something that has a presence even inside my apartment. On every corner of every street, in front of every nominally important or strategic building, stands a few guys with AK-47s looking bored out of their minds. There are also the plain-clothed secret police that you can identify by the guns tucked into their pants. These guys are no joke; it’s not uncommon every once in a while to chances upon a few of them throwing an Egyptian or two up against a wall, searching him and holding him – in a five-star Egyptian jail – for as long as they want (they also give the best directions when you’re lost). But as a Westerner, you learn quickly that there are two sets of rules in Egypt: One’s for you – the dollar bill – and another’s for the common Egyptian.
One thing Western tourists can get away with: walking loud and drunk down the street. It merits only a few smiles by the guards, yet I doubt they would react as kindly to an Egyptian in the same state, simply because most Egyptians don’t drink alcohol (per Islamic custom). Even with the historic, first-ever multi-candidate presidential election just two days away at the time of my writing, they also don’t talk about whom they are going to vote for. The few Egyptians I’ve queried about the topic have given me small insight into their opinions. Hesham, my 21-year-old Egyptian semsar (real estate agent) dressed to impress like those gearing up for their first day interning on the Hill, told me he wasn’t going to vote. He, like most Egyptians it seems, believes that this “multi-candidate election” has been decided before taking place.
The general on the other hand supports the current president, Hosni Mubarak, as “the only qualified candidate,” in his words. Some things aren’t so different here. It seems that few people here think voting in this election will bring about a different and better Egypt. My two friends didn’t even mention other candidates besides Mubarak. As Moktar said to me, “Here in Egypt and the Middle East, leader change when they die or shot, this is our way.” I left it at that, being too afraid to ask how often or how he changes his tenants.
While the general lay on my bed-the semsar on his right, and his wife, his son, my roommates and I on his left – his wife began saying something in Arabic. It was about the money, and she obviously wasn’t happy. The semsar looked like he was ready to curl into the fetal position. My roommates and I just wanted to know what was going on. But, as the general turned and ever so casually winked and cocked his gun, his “deal” would be the one that stuck.
The gun wasn’t loaded of course, and he was only having a bit of fun with my roommates and me, but the incident is Cairo in a nutshell. A city with two faces brought together by a little wink and charm. This is going to be an interesting six months.
-Geoff Bendeck is a junior majoring in international affairs.