Day 37: Concluding Thoughts (Pt. 2): Egypt Is Coptastic (And I Don’t Mean The Jesus-Lovers…)

Ah, the police. I know it’s juvenile, but I can’t leave without a short gripe about these guys. “Emergency rule” being what it is, these cops, like the cats, are absolutely everywhere.

This is a bit of a touchy subject – they’re not crazy about having their pictures taken, that’s for sure. I snapped as many of them as I could back in the Good Old Days when I still had a semi-functioning camera, but I was ordered to delete most of my better shots (consisting of sleeping cops, a cop wandering away from a convenience store with an unpaid-for “Bebsi,” cops picking their noses and scratching their junk, cops ogling some woman in the street just trying to get through her day, cops hurling pebbles at a cat dumb enough to eye their shwarma, cops watching idly as two Egyptian men scuffled in a street fight – you know, cops generally keeping us all safe and secure).

Actually, no, wait, I did get to keep one Sleeping Cop (trust me, they’re everywhere) – he’s serving and protecting in his sweet dreams, I’m sure:

Oh! And here’s one getting some free nuts one night on the Corniche el-Nil – he just reached down and took a handful and kept walking! He totally deserves them though, just imagine what catastrophes would befall Mr. Nut-Vendor-Man were this scowling flic not there to watch over him?

They come in many forms, and I’ve yet to discern exactly what their various uniforms and badges and sashes mean – city police? Presidential guards? Tourist police? Traffic police? The overwhelming majority of them are clad in white (and, all bitching aside, I never cease to be impressed by how crisp and clean they all keep these white uniforms, given the sweat and dust and mire and filth that floats so heavily through Cairo’s atmosphere), though the ones with the grimmest expressions, biggest guns and most intimidating-looking lock-up trucks appear in either navy blue or black:

Actually, the traffic cops are hilarious… with about four stop lights in the whole city, no “road rules” to speak of and everyone with functioning peripheral vision racing around in a car or taxi, Cairene traffic is no joke. As a pedestrian, with neither lights nor crosswalks at your disposal, your only recourse is simply to watch closely, plan your attack, run wildly into the street while literally dodging the cars whipping around you and try to make it to the other side intact. Every now and then, though, a member of the “traffic police” will be stationed in the middle of an intersection, gun on his hip and whistle in his mouth, watching it all go down. That’s it really, just watching. Occasionally, I have seen these cops blow their whistles, at which point the cars do actually stop. But of course this doesn’t seem to happen with any sort of logical regularity – it’s not as if a pack of schoolchildren or an old man shows up on the curb and brrrrrrrrroooooot goes the whistle in automatic response –  no no no no no. Rather, it seems to only happen when the traffic cop in question gets bored, or when there is a pretty lady to impress, or simply when he needs a distraction from watching the big yellow sun make its way across the sky.

Basically, like cops almost everywhere with very little violent crime, they all seem to do the same lot of nothing, and are equipped with a healthy artillery of guns and walkie-talkies to do it.

Aside from making me delete my precious pictures (ah, the humanity!) and giving nothing in return for the cigarette-bribes I’ve witnessed, I haven’t seen them do anything awful –al hamdulillah – no beatings, no rapes, nothing like that. Of course, I haven’t seen them do anything particularly useful, either.

And there are so very many of them – leaning against every street corner, strolling every sidewalk, lounging outside every cafe and hanging on every fence like so many truant teenagers. Now, the fact is that I feel safe walking pretty much anywhere in Cairo, even alone and in the middle of the night. But I don’t think that’s because the cops are so brave and hard-working – rather, I’m pretty sure it’s because Egyptians are so overwhelmingly polite and gentle (though I do appreciate the argument to be made for Egyptians’ docility being due to the heavy police presence). Either way, I can no more imagine getting my person or purse grabbed on the streets here than I can picture all of Midan Tahrir breaking out in the Dreidel Song.

In fact, if anything does make me nervous on the streets, it’s these police. Not because I’m doing anything that should attract their censure, but because – again, not unlike cops in other parts of the world (New Jersey cops spring immediately to mind) – they behave so much worse than the average man on the street. Far more often than other men here – who of course aren’t empowered by firearms and the backing of an autocratic regime – the cops will be the ones to hiss lasciviously, make lewd kissy-noises or utter something throaty in Arabic that I’m glad I can’t understand as I make my way to the metro station. If I’m lost and stop to ask directions, I’ve learned that the police are the last people I want to approach for help. Not only do they rarely seem to know, but before they tell me as such (or, better yet, give me flat-out wrong directions), they’ll really take their time about it (wasting mine) – they’ll look me up and down, lick their lips, scratch at their chins and generally make the whole encounter thoroughly disgusting. This rarely, if ever, happens with Cairo’s civilian men – at least not nearly so blatantly.

I can’t say I understand why Mubarak’s regime feels the need to maintain its stranglehold on Egyptian society – from what I’ve seen, the people here are kind, honest, devout and much quicker to help their fellow man than to harm him. His stated rationale for prolonging the emergency rule is that it’s needed to keep a lid on terrorism in the country. Well. I’m sure there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than I’m aware of, but the idea that these good-for-nothing delinquents parading around the streets, behaving like spoiled bullies with the biggest sticks in the playground, are actually keeping their eyes peeled for suspicious plots is so laughable that it’s almost painful.

If there “must” be uniformed gun-wielders punctuating every street in the country, they could at least behave with some dignity, if not humanity.

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3 Responses to “Day 37: Concluding Thoughts (Pt. 2): Egypt Is Coptastic (And I Don’t Mean The Jesus-Lovers…)”

  1. lulu Says:

    Well, damn, if THIS don’t get you into trouble, dunno what will. Quite a rant and I’m sure all totally true and unbiased reporting, heh…however, if you need a reason to leave a city you appear to have embraced so thoroughly, let it be the local constabulary. xox

  2. El Matamoros Says:

    Actually, the notion that uniformed cops are any sort of deterrent or defense against Islamist terrorism is more than a little laughable. (Infiltration is the only way, and it’s hard to see how anyone’s gonna infiltrate anything in a crisp white uniform. Or a sinister black one, come to that…)

    I say be grateful that so many of them are sleeping — that’s always a good sign.

    Meanwhile, this observation from Edward Abbey, that proto-hippie writer, seems apposite to your general Egyptian experience — “No tyranny is so irksome as petty tyranny: the officious demands of policemen, government clerks, and electromechanical gadgets.”

  3. jfjasia2008 Says:

    excellent quote, dad! and annie – great post, so so true. when i was there i experienced much the same thing. i shoulda told you that – do not EVER ask cops for directions. ugh. disgustos. they are by far and away the worst part of egypatian/cairene society, at least what i got to see of it.

    i will also point out however that i once years ago asked a cop in nyc’s times bloody sq for directions (i think i was still in college and still antwerpian) and instead of answering my questions he asked me for my number. awesome.

    cops rule!! xx

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