An Egyptian man walks between lines of bodies wrapped in shrouds at a makeshift morgue in Cairo. Photo: Getty
The morning after Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt in February 2011, millions of people in this fractious, overheated, argumentative nation were seized by a rare sense of unity. Everything was going to change for the better. To be alive in that dawn was blissful.
In Tahrir Square, some of the tens of thousands who had occupied it for 18 days set to with brushes and buckets to clean it up. A shingle beach of rocks and broken paving slabs that had been hurled at the police and at supporters of Mubarak was shovelled up and carted away. Big granite cobblestones were salvaged and returned to their original positions near the Egyptian Museum. Middleaged, middle-class men who looked as if they had never touched a brush in their lives puffed and panted importantly as they filled dustbin bags. Some western liberals fooled themselves that Egypt might transform itself into an oriental version of a European democracy. Egyptians were caught up in the euphoria, too. It was a time of schemes and dreams.
A shoddy business, death
As I stood this month in the courtyard of Cairo’s central mortuary, that Arab springtime seemed very distant. So many people have been killed here in the past weeks and so many bodies have not yet been claimed or identified that the mortuary is overflowing.
Four refrigerated lorries have been parked outside the morgue for the bodies that cannot be accommodated inside. The corpses are crammed into the back of the trucks. Thick clouds of flies buzz around them. Clumps of incense sticks, disinfectant and some Febrezelike sprays fight a losing battle against the stench of rotting bodies.
The trucks do not stay very cold, because men are constantly climbing in and out of them, gagging on the smell, unwrapping shrouds and shining torches on to the remains of the faces to try to find missing friends and relatives. Some families sit exhausted around the empty coffins they have brought, wondering if they will ever be able to find and bury their dead. The courtyard is squalid, covered in litter and reeking of death and desperation.
When they find the body, the nightmare does not end. Egyptian law demands that a death certificate be issued before a funeral can take place. I have heard complaints that families are being told they can get a death certificate only if they accept the cause of death mandated by the official behind the wire-mesh window at the morgue, even if it is not correct.
Many think there is a conspiracy to disguise the way that demonstrators have died. One man at the mortuary waved a certificate, a flimsy piece of paper torn out of a book of preprinted forms, a receipt for a life, and yelled that the cause of death was asphyxia, even though the body was burned. He claimed they were told to take what they were given or the corpse would be dumped in the desert.
Just like old times
Many Egyptians feel that the governing style of the dictator is coming back. It feels like that for a reporter on the streets. The official media are full of incitement against what they claim are the biased international media, blaming us for Egypt’s problems. It’s like old times.
The Cairo mortuary stands opposite the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital, a place set up in the 1930s by an English lady who was horrified to see cavalry horses being used and abused as beasts of burden. Just beyond this small memory of a very different Cairo, a group of local men was loitering, looking for suspicious visitors, especially foreigners with cameras. They had chased away some of my BBC colleagues a few days earlier. We had to film covertly, with a small camera that looked like a mobile phone. It is open season on the messenger here right now.
Cheers for leaders
Quite a lot of Egyptians are happy that the firmness of the Mubarak days seems to be coming back. They are fed up with the collapse of law and order that followed the 2011 revolution, chaotic streets and a collapsing economy. They hated having the Muslim Brotherhood telling them what to do while the country went, in their view, from bad to worse. I have lost count of the times I’ve been told it was better under Mubarak.
Since the armed forces overthrew President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July, the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square have been quiet. They no longer appear to be an important factor. Before the end of 2011, it was clear that their energy was not being channelled into the kind of political organisation that was their only chance of rivalling the two existing power centres in Egypt – the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some liberals have turned into cheerleaders for the military, their attachment to Egypt’s democratic experiment overwhelmed by their relief that the Brotherhood, which they could not beat at the polls, is under attack.
It is clear that the military wants to decapitate the Muslim Brotherhood, to remove it as a political force from Egypt. The Brotherhood is being driven on by shock and rage that the power it worked towards since its foundation in 1928 has been taken away after only a year. It was disastrously incompetent at government but it is skilled and experienced at operating as a banned organisation. Its enemies celebrate a premature victory at their peril.
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. An updated paperback edition of his book “The Arab Uprisings” is newly published by Simon & Schuster (£8.99)