Some things never change. Cairo’s 92 degrees and humid haze struck us like a wall stepping outside the airport. Insistent cabbies with crushed, faded litter beneath their feet lined the curbs of Cairo International’s dusty parking lot. We grabbed a ride to the hostel. The ride revealed two Cairos: the military’s Cairo and the spaces in between.
Cairo is a sprawling city with long, broad avenues connected by warrens of narrow, oddly-angled streets. It’s easy to get lost here. At night during the current state of emergency, the Egyptian army owns the avenues, with checkpoints set on most major roadways and intersections to enforce the 19:00 curfew. Though we raced and detoured fanatically upon leaving the airport, we saw several checkpoints and were inevitably caught in two. 12 soldiers man most checkpoints, wielding AK-47s with folded stocks and typically flanking an apparently U.S.-provided armored personnel carrier. The soldiers who stopped us did not wear riot gear; other soldiers did.
I was struck by how young most of these soldiers were. I am certain that some were teenagers, with their skinny, boyish faces. Of those teenagers, an equal portion stared into our car aggressively, with the authority connoted by holding a gun. The other portion cast furtive glances following their lieutenant’s pointing finger. They too carried weapons, of course. I am not sure which of those young soldiers were more threatening — the ones who might harass or hurt us to prove something, or the ones who might harass or hurt us for nervousness or fear of something.
The Cairo of these military checkpoints is hushed and slow — in other words, not like Cairo at all. Drivers pull to a stop, and line up in a something like files to await inspection. They even put on their hazard lights in a shocking display of pragmatism! (Cairene traffic is infamous for its drivers’ recklessness.) Exchanges between soldiers and drivers were perfunctory; soldiers inquiries were met with respectful, perhaps deferential, responses, and the drivers continued.
The degree of order found at these stops was as coerced as it was remarkable, and reflects the simple fact that the military owns the night in Cairo. That doesn’t mean that they control everything that happens at night; but, it means that the military has the power to do anything it wills after dark. And, if the army’s night presence — both in terms of intimidation and actual inspections — is any indication, I feel comfortable predicting that they own the day, as well.