Chaos in Cairo, packing a flak jacket and life without caffeine

The BBC's Middle East editor on his return to Egypt's capital.

More political tremors have brought me to Cairo. I’m glad to be out of London to escape the Olympic hangover. The prospect of whole days without watching the Games – or listening, because BBC Radio 5 Live did a great job, too – was dismal. The trip to Cairo has also freed me from the tyranny of a blocked drain. It is supposed to funnel away the waste water from the washing machine but instead gets jammed up by a whitish gunk that starts out as bubbles of soap, then sets like clay. My fight against it has meant putting my arm deep into the wet intestines of my house and pouring in gallons of caustic soda (though not at the same time). The drain was well purged by the time I left London but I think I’ve won a battle, not the war.

Summer miasma

An Egyptian friend bemoaned the absence of drains in Cairo. They do have some but not nearly as many as the people who live without them would like. The miasma that occasionally rises in Cairo’s summer furnace can make you regret their absence. To make matters worse, the air-conditioning and fans often don’t work because of power cuts and many parts of the city have had days and weeks this summer without running water.

My friend blamed it all on years of misrule since the military seized power in 1952. It provided all of Egypt’s presidents until Mohammed Morsi was elected in June. My friend pointed to a half-cracked manhole cover, which looked as if it had been forged in the English Midlands or south Wales or somewhere in colonial times. “Look, it’s not as if we don’t have drains. They’ve just been abandoned, like everything else.”

There was no danger of falling in. The drain was silted up with sand.

Out with the old

Historically the Egyptian military’s power was hidden well away from the throne in the “deep state”. The generals controlled their budgets and a big slice of the Egyptian economy. No one knows just how much of the economy the armed forces own but the usual estimate is between 25 and 40 per cent. Then the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, known in English by the sinister-sounding acronym Scaf, took over power after Hosni Mubarak was forced out in February last year. Since then, the Scaf has managed to alienate many of the people who cheered the army in Tahrir Square during the revolution.

President Morsi recently took what millions of citizens – Egyptians like the word more and more – hoped would be a decisive step against the political power of the military. He purged the Scaf and retired the old field marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who was Mubarak’s defence minister for 20 years, along with a raft of top generals, replacing them with younger officers. It looked as if the deed was done with the consent of the military.

Tantawi and the outgoing chief of staff, General Sami Anan, have been given an honourable way out, with jobs as presidential advisers and more and better medals than they had before. That they have the president’s protection also gives them, in effect, immunity from prose - cution. The fate of their old boss Mubarak will not have escaped them.

Western diplomats here in Cairo believe that Tantawi and Morsi got on well. Yet the president was under pressure to act and the military recognised that its inept handling of the country since Mubarak left office was damaging. Tantawi apparently told a visiting European foreign minister that if the army stayed permanently in day-to-day politics, the experience would break the army as an institution.

Brothers in arms

It looks as if the deal leaves the military’s power in the deep state untouched. It also concentrates the collective powers of the executive and the legislature (parliament is still dissolved) in the hands of one man: the president. Or, perhaps, two men. Many Egyptians believe that the president’s strings are being pulled by Khairat al-Shater, the man the Muslim Brotherhood had wanted as its presidential candidate until he was disqualified on the grounds that he had been in prison (on trumped-up charges during the Mubarak era). Some secular liberals fear the prospect of an alliance between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Anyone for tea?

I’m in Cairo on my first reporting job for the BBC since I came back from writing a book called The Arab Uprisings (to be published on 25 October). It meant packing a bag hurriedly on a Sunday night, because President Morsi’s move against the Scaf was unexpected.

It is going to be a short trip but I am not travelling light. More than 25 years as a foreign correspondent has taught me a few uncom - fortable lessons about not having the right clothes or gear. In Cairo in August, you need a lot of shirts. This is not a flak-jacket trip, thankfully. It is sitting in my garage in its flight case, along with assorted maps, a sleeping bag and first-aid kits.

I used to travel with a coffee maker, thanks to a caffeine addiction so strong that the day would be ruined if I did not get up half an hour early to brew and drink a bucketful of thick Italian espresso. Every time the dental hygienist polished my teeth, she would complain about them turning black. So I gave up caffeine and now I carry herbal tea bags. You just can’t get rooibos in some of the places I visit.

All change

Coming back here to Cairo is yet another reminder that the Middle East is going through a time of profound historical change, which will continue for a generation at least.

Events are moving at different speeds in different countries. Egypt is getting to know democracy. In Syria, President Assad is fighting to stay in power and the country is slipping deeper into civil war. There are serious rumblings along the Shia-Sunni fault line that runs through the region. In Israel, they’re still talking about attackingIran. We were lucky to have the Olympics to distract us for a few weeks. Real life is starting again.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. His book “The Arab Uprisings” will published this autumn by Simon & Schuster (£20)


This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality