Part 4: A walk through Cairo’s revolutionary streets

Khan el Khalili

Zurich social worker Hamed Selim has been in Switzerland more than 20 years. He is a Swiss-Egyptian, but says he still feels more Egyptian than Swiss, despite having a Swiss wife and children who have grown up here. WRS’s Tony Ganzer returned to Cairo with Selim, who takes us on a tour of his hometown as he surveys for himself how the revolution has changed it:

The senses can easily be overloaded in Cairo’s Islamic quarter, and the bazaars of Khan El Khalili. Shopkeepers eagerly bark for customers for bright and colorful tapestries, fragrant spices and incense.

Before the revolution Hamed Selim says there were always illegal activities in parts of the market extending seemingly for miles.  But now things have changed.

HAMED SELIM: “Yeah okay, I didn’t see electro-shock before, you know, in the street.”

TONY GANZER: “Stun guns and things like that?”

SELIM: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I didn’t see this, or these knives. Farther, before the revolution, if you walk with a knife in your pocket, and a police officer stop you, you are in a big problem until jail, you know? But now you see, they sell everything.  You couldn’t see it before.”

GANZER: “Do you think that’s good? Was that what the revolution was for?”

SELIM: “No, not at all.  The revolution is not for such things.  You know like, they would like to have, you know like, students should have a decent job.  Or to see that we have hospitals, or we have good schools, or such things.”

The many parts of Cairo were Selim’s playground and education.  He’s proudly from downtown, but could find value in many of the city’s corners. Even at the Swiss embassy, long before he thought of becoming Swiss.

SELIM: “The embassy: it’s just side to side to my school, you know.  And every day you pass by, you know, since I am 6 years old. You know like, ‘Hi,’ and try to play with the dog.  And you try to steal the Birnen?”

GANZER: “Pears?”

SELIM: “Yeah, yeah from the trees in the garden from the other side, you know.  It’s really nice.  I’d never think that I could go to Switz…it didn’t come. It didn’t come in my head.”

Selim met his wife while she was on vacation in Cairo, which turned into his moving to Switzerland, working for a time for Caritas, for politicians.  But these Egyptian streets remain a place of comfort.

SELIM: “It’s called the old Islamic part, you know.  Here you find a lot of mosques from the Mamaluk time, you know.  And, yeah, they restored the whole area, it’s really nice. Here you see behind you, these people who, yeah, make these souvenirs. It’s really nice, you know. It’s really peaceful, yes.”

GANZER: “How do you think things have changed for this part of Cairo since the revolution?”

SELIM: “I think the people here [are] suffering, because people say because of revolution we don’t have lots of tourists now.  Yeah, they would like to have always this easy-coming money, you know.  And I think the revolution did lots of things good, even for them. Because I expect it will be always [better], not as bad as in Mubarak time.”

The area around Cairo makes up a mega-city, with a population of about 20 million people.  40 percent of those people live at or below the international poverty line.

Still, politics dominate conversations here in cafes, and in just about every taxi.

SELIM: “A lot of opinion floating around?  No, only two. ‘Revolution good’ or ‘bad,” and we speak about both. Who says revolution is bad saying ‘look around you, there is no police here, and there is this and that.’ The people saying the revolution is good, you know like, they say, ‘OK, we are patient. We are optimists.’”

Far from the markets, and far from inner-city politics, Hamed Selim still finds quiet at the feet of the pyramids.  He lives not far from the Alps in Switzerland, but comes here for peace.

SELIM: “As I was a student, and as I was young, I came here around four times a week riding horses, sleeping here, eating in the desert making a grill, such things. That’s a part of my life I really do love, you know.  Lots of memories, you know.  Wake up the stable guys at 5 o’clock in the morning and tell them, you know, like, ‘Hey, I would like to have a horse now.’ You know, and just riding, riding horses you know. Feeling, being free in the desert and the pyramids.”

It is but a slight respite from the many unknowns in a still evolving revolutionary Cairo.

This story was part of a 2013 Edward Murrow award winning entry

Part 2: Back home again in revolutionary Cairo

Imagine you’ve been living in Switzerland for more than 20 years, when news breaks that a revolution is underway in your home country—and only steps away from where your family is still living. That’s what happened to Zurich social worker Hamed Selim. A little over a year later, WRS’s Tony Ganzer returns with him to Cairo, to Tahrir Square, the heart of the revolution, and discovers that the people have taken the square back for themselves:

January 2011 brought conflicted emotions for Hamed Selim, a Zurich social worker in Switzerland more than 20 years. Egypt’s revolution had landed in front of his childhood home.

SELIM: “It started. I live downtown, you know, just a couple minutes from Tahrir Platz [Square].  I really, really was worried. Second thing was happy.  But my family there, and really a little bit afraid.  All of these things, you know, and always thinking what can I do to be a part of it.  As an Egyptian, yeah.”

Selim took leave from work immediately, to take to the streets where he still feels at home, wanting to show how serious he felt the revolution is, despite some protestors seeing only a chance to perform.

SELIM: “The 28th of January I saw it on TV.  And it was like, for me, like, from TV, it’s a joke.  You are going with camels and horses, you know, like is it a joke? Or what’s happening now?  I didn’t see it as dangerous, but I wasn’t also there between them.”

Tahrir was filled at that time with millions of Egyptians, urging change and reform in what they saw as an oppressive system under Hosni Mubarak.  Despite mostly peaceful protest clashes erupted, notably and recently on Mohamed Mahmoud Street just off Tahrir. Tear gas thick as fog filled the area, while protesters threw rocks.  Activist footage documented security forces using buckshot and pellets to disperse the crowds.

Even now there are sporadic protests, but those remain mostly peaceful.

SELIM: “They are…against the military regime.  And a couple of women sitting in the car seems like mothers from children who died in the demonstrations, you know, like in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and Tahrir Square. They are not satisfied with what’s happening now.”

KHALED FAHMY:  “I studied the history of that place, of Tahrir itself as a site, because I study urban planning.  Tahrir has been transformed under Mubarak into a very weird place.”

Khaled Fahmy is the chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo.

FAHMY: “They cut off trees that gave shade; they put very slippery marble tiles that made it very difficult to walk in the square on the sidewalk; and then they erected these very, very thick and high fences that prevent people from crossing streets, supposedly for safety, but in fact, and this is in all big squares in Cairo, there was a deliberate attempt, and it doesn’t take a genius to find this out, to prevent people from congregating.”

Tahrir Square looks now more a carnival than hub of revolution.  Large tents and groups of people camp constantly in the square, while traffic pushes and crawls through the round-about, cars moving in every direction.  Souvenir and food vendors now stand where millions protested a year ago.

FAHMY:  “People are now feeling that the country belongs to them, and that’s not to be taken for granted. We did not feel that it’s our country.  For people to turn Tahrir Square into a circus, that is very political. That’s a very interesting transformation of people taking the very core of the city, the very heart of it, and turning it into their space. They do whatever they want to do in it.  The amount of conversations, and deliberations, and very, very serious political debates that took place in Tahrir over the last 13 months now, is something Egypt has not witnessed in 60 years.”

SELIM says:  “They are not satisfied. They are not satisfied.  And they are now walking through to Tahrir Square it’s around 100 meters.”

Small groups voice their disapproval in the streets of Cairo, using their public space as they see fit.  Hamed Selim is entranced by the revolution and what it has done to his country, and he is optimistic.  Just as optimistic as his family is, living 12 to a small home on the rooftops of downtown Cairo just steps from Tahrir.

This story was part of a 2013 Edward Murrow award winning entry