The freedom café


With an attentive eye, one can perceive several bullet holes dating from the clashes in January 2011 cracking the giant windows of Café el-Horreya. Located in the modest Bab al-Louq square, just steps away from Tahrir Square, this establishment embodies the rebellious spirit of the capital. A key barometre of the moral revolution, el-Horreya faithfully conveys the atmosphere of Cairo’s streets.

One of the walls bears evidence of the past year: a stencil of Sad Panda, a street artist emblematic of the Egyptian youth which rose up against the Mubarak regime. With its quaint charm, its high ceilings and its old advertisements painted entirely by hand, el-Horreya — “freedom” in Arabic — is aptly named: it is one of the last Cairo pubs which flourished in the 1930s. In a society where a café is the place of discussion par excellence, it is a popular place that always welcomes a colourful clientèle. For decades, poets, lawyers, artists, and workers have found themselves here to have a drink, side by side with several informed tourists and Western residents of Cairo.

In this place without doors in the heart of Wust el-Balad, people come and go and tongues start to come loose. Discussions centered around politics become even easier while tables are littered little by little with bottles of Stella, the local beer that Milad, the waiter, serves you automatically, almost brusquely, as soon as you arrive.

Without being a place of activism in itself — no political meetings are held here — it brings together a vibrant community with a strong collective spirit. In mid-November 2011, while a new cycle of violence was breaking out on the eve of legislative elections between poorly-equipped revolutionaries and soldiers dressed as Robocops, el-Horreya only closed for a few days.

Upon its reopening, Islam — a poet and musician in his 30s who went missing for several days during the events of Mohamed Mahmoud — was arrested near the now famous street where walls are covered with martyr posters and revolutionary slogans. Islam is among the lucky ones who were quickly released. Others are still rotting in jail. According to estimates, more than 12,000 people have been in detention since January, waiting for their military trial. Islam is secretive; he refuses to go into detail about the harsh treatment he received during those few days in the shadows. And yet, he is there with a smile on his lips, determined to support a movement that nothing seems to be able to stop with his mere presence.

Of the same generation as Islam, Mido is another frequent guest at the café. A connoisseur of Egyptian culture, this literature buff, open to the world, is a tormented soul with a heightened sensitivity. His feelings fluctuate depending on the popular support the revolutionaries receive, in an Egypt torn between the desire to find stability and the desire to enter into a new era, freed of the powerful thugs of the deposed government.

But propaganda functions at full speed ahead, despite the limited attempt at opening the national media, which are heavily critiqued for their false and misleading coverage of the events in January. The army still holds all the reins in the country, and continues to appoint the editors-in-chief of the newspapers and state TV channels, which constitute practically all of the media landscape. A violent wind of misinformation continues to swell over Egypt; this misinformation makes reading and analysing events particularly difficult. The military junta seeks to tarnish the image of the revolutionaries by any necessary means and continues to drain their moral through media campaigns which present them as thugs, arrests and sexual abuse.

At el-Horreya, different opinions are shared, but everyone agrees that recent elections were not democratic. However, people are more concerned with the daily abuses committed by the army than by the electoral landslide. With the typical humour that sets Egyptians apart, Milad, who runs around endlessly serving his patrons, launches into a joke the day after the announcement of the first election results. He whispers to a young woman who complains that the beer is too warm: “Wait until the Salafis are in power, then you can complain!”

Translated from French by Adam Dexter.

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