Letter from Cairo.



MY FRIEND KHALED KASSAB WRITES two popular newspaper columns about Egyptian society: 'Sunstruck' and 'Pollen of Wisdom'. Both are often framed as allegory, a form much appreciated in Egypt. This is partly owing to discretion, since political and religious hypocrisy has long been a favourite, often dangerous topic best approached indirectly. As the Arab proverb puts it: it is good to know the truth but it is better to speak of palm trees.

I told Khaled I had been to the cancer treatment hospital that morning with a sick friend. We had to hopscotch through a sprawling pile of bloody gauze, spent syringes and plasma sacs to reach the door. The basement floor, a labyrinth of ill-lit corridors, was packed with the sick and bewildered; whether alone or accompanied by their families they outnumbered the available nurses 50-to-1. There was no one to tell them where to go or what to do or what might happen next. They received only one, familiar instruction: to wait.

This waiting in uncertainty is a fairly common human state but Khaled understood my story as a metaphor for Egypt at the moment, some 20 months after the uprising that unseated President Hosni Mubarak. Khaled was in Liberation Square for those 18 days alongside Egyptians of all ages and backgrounds.

He saw this moment of unity as a confirmation of how he'd always felt about the world, i.e. that we are the agents not just of our own but one another's happiness and/or misery.

Things have since gone downhill. Egypt is more divided than ever, not just between the rich and poor, but along sectarian lines and over differences regarding nationalism, identity, or more specifically, wways of life. Egypt was never a rich country, but it always seemed there was enough to go around. Now people are obliged to fight for necessities; a subsidised loaf of bread, a tank of petrol, a cooking gas canister, all in short supply. To...

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