The metro rattled along and I readied myself for what lay ahead: The chaos of disembarking at the Al Shohadah (The Martyrs) metro station during the height of Cairo rush hour. Here there’s no waiting for people to get off before others board. Instead, at the previous stop, a well-rehearsed dance occurs as people push and pull the bodies around them to strategically maneuver toward the exit. Then, as the aging doors creak open, a mass of people pours out while another mass pushes in. “Ya gamaa, khosho, khosho!”—“Everyone, go, go!” voices bellow. It’s body-on-body, and it makes me momentarily grateful for the metro’s two women-only cars.
But on this particular Friday afternoon in April as we approached the station a panicked murmur swept through the crowd. People on the platform were running. When the doors opened, shouts rang out, “Kunbulla, kunbulla!” Bomb. Bomb! I hurried out. There seemed to be some smoke ahead, but no other signs of anything serious. A moment later the crowd running away started to head back in the other direction. A new shout rang: “Dukhan, dukhan”—it was just smoke, no great cause for concern. Now there was a renewed frenzy to board again: The bedlam had left some rare open seats.
Cairo’s metro rightfully has a reputation as a crowded and chaotic place. In a worrying sign, this week a car crashed, injuring the driver. But it’s also a reliable lifeline for millions of Cairo’s marginalized poor, the metro’s main riders. Since the start of the 2011 Egyptian uprising, this everyday space has also found itself in the middle of political debate. And now, under strongman President Abdel Fatah El Sisi, it has become part of his effort to control the crowd and impose an image of order and progress in a city with a rhythm of its own.
View from the City of the Dead, Cairo. Photo: Charlie Philips
By the next stop the bomb-that-wasn’t seemed largely forgotten and it was business as usual on the metro. A woman in a full-body black abaya boarded with a toddler in tow selling tissues for charity. A slim guy in jeans and a t-shirt with English words that didn’t make sense together pushed through hawking scented soaps. The women passed the time on their phones, making small talk, or staring at each other. And me.
As my spot approached I worked my way towards the door. “Nazla?” a woman behind me asked. “Are you one getting off?” The noun to describe getting off, nazla (nazla for a female), is perhaps the most important word to know for managing Cairo’s public transit. It’s also the same word used to convey that you are going down, like down to protest. But that’s not happening these days in Cairo.
Small bombs are a new phenomenon in the Cairo metro
The small bombs, and the panic around them, are a new phenomenon in the Cairo metro. They began after the Sisi-led military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 and initiated a wide wave of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood and opposition voices. It’s a deep step back from the hope after the 2011 Arab Spring revolution toppling longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak that a new kind of political order would fill the void of decades of autocratic rule. Sisi’s heavy-handed crackdown, which included a return to the pre-revolution Brotherhood ban, has left more than 30,000 Egyptians in jail, human rights groups estimate. Popular protests, legion in the months after the revolution, have been all but eliminated by a new law that requires a government permit for any public gathering of more than 10 people.
Still, Sisi maintains a mass, cult-like support, riding the claim that he did what he did to save Egypt. The situation has sparked violent reprisals on a scale not seen in years in Egypt, including an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. In Cairo, the attacks most often target police and state institutions, which official reports and local media attribute to vaguely defined “terrorists.” Some attacks have been significant: In January 2014 a bomb at the Interior Ministry killed six and wounded dozens more. In the metro, the exact causes of the bomb remain unclear. But it has become part of this contested space.
In response, the Ministry of Interior closed the Sadat metro stop that leads into Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2013, cutting off a major access point. Security men dressed in white sometimes search commuter’s bags when they enter a station. Last December, two Egyptian-Brits riders were detained on suspicion of plotting attacks against the metro system after they were caught in the act of… speaking English.