The Mr. Cleavers Of Cairo


by Patrick Appel

Graeme Wood has an excellent new dispatch from Egypt. He contemplates the future role of the citizens patrolling Egypt's streets:

They talked to me, asked if I was Egyptian, and let me go without any difficulty at all. This scene repeated itself roughly three dozen more times between Heliopolis and downtown, and the traffic wardens apologized to me nearly every time for the inconvenience. Near Al Azhar University, a man with a huge gleaming meat cleaver -- probably recently purchased from the kitchenware section of Khan al Khalili market -- smiled and said, "Welcome to Egypt." 

I do not recall ever being so pleased to be surrounded by blade-wielding Arab vigilantes. The smile, I thought, was telling. Many people have told me that they are angry at having to stay up night with weapons, just to keep basic peace in their neighborhoods after the flight of the police Friday. But the smile of Mr. Cleaver told a different story. He seemed to enjoy being responsible for his area's safety, and pleased to be allowed to dispense justice there more responsibly than anyone in uniform had for quite some time. He was the place where the buck stopped and, if the buck wasn't careful, got ruthlessly chopped into many smaller bucks. His might not have been the role he wanted every day, but it evidently pleased him in the moment. 

These encounters happened mostly on Cairo's backstreets. If Tahrir Square is Cairo's heart, those backstreets are the capillaries snaking through Heliopolis, Nasr City, Islamic Cairo, and other areas where a huge portion of Cairo's middle class resides. I bring up Mr. Cleaver now because he could, if the clashes in Tahrir drag on, be decisive. Right now he is in his neighborhood, and the newfound mastery of his (hyperlocal) destiny is strangely refreshing. At some point, though, he and his ilk will start making a decision. Will they choose more order or more chaos? More order means more Mubarak, in a devil's bargain with the middle class whereby he restores order by arresting the protesters, putting cops back on the street, and, with the collusion of neighborhood vigilantes, turns Egypt into not just a police state but a pariah state as well. More chaos means more demonstrations and a scary, unpredictable future that could make his role as author of his own destiny permanent. Right now I can't tell whether the Mr. Cleavers of Cairo are rushing to help the pro- or anti-Mubarak side - or are content to sit back and wait. 

(Photo: Egyptian civilians carrying batons and sticks they stand guard in a Cairo street to protect their properties from looters in Cairo on January 29, 2011. By Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)