Cairo, Egypt -- Post-revolutionary Egypt is a fascinating place to visit, as I have just done, because there isn't anything "post" about the place at all. Or maybe there is. No, perhaps not. All that is certain is that Cairo, the capital with 18 million inhabitants, is a surreal city of opposites.
For the first time in three decades, the city is liberated from the once ubiquitous portraits of ex-president-for-life Hosni Mubarak, now standing trial for corruption and murder. Instead, red-white-black Egyptian flags adorn everything from billboards advertising luxury goods to t-shirts to water bottles. This is bewitching, however, because Egypt's interim government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, controls the country. Its 19 members -- generals all -- made their vast fortunes during the Mubarak years, which stretches the definitions of "change" and "revolution" to the limit.
Gleaming shopping centers such as City Stars in the hip district of Nasr City, showcase designer fashions and teem with happy shoppers, Islamists prominently among them, their veiled women fondling silk underwear and feeding pizza and Diet Coke to their children. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the army and riot police -- assisted by Islamists -- crush one of the many protests carried out by Egypt's upper middle class revolutionaries; scores are beaten, jailed and tortured -- just like in the bad old days. "The secularists are provoking us," declares one Islamist, intent on stamping out any sign of democracy.
Nevertheless, restaurants are packed with diners feasting on delicacies like marinated sparrows -- eaten bones and all -- or Indian food, washed down with Sakara, a delicious Egyptian beer. As the appetizers are served, we read a tweet that the newly appointed police chief of Alexandria, a coastal city, has been run over and killed, one of the many, little reported vengeance killings taking place as the relatives of those who suffered torture and imprisonment under the old regime silently right old wrongs. "Good!" says my Egyptian business partner. "Serves the corrupt bastard right! Sparrow, anyone?"
Ziad, an old friend, joins us. A gentle father of three, he chats about soccer and the automobile business -- he is a sales manager for Ford Egypt. Then, smiling shyly, Ziad says, "Look at this," as he unbuttons his shirt and pulls out a black 9mm pistol, popping the loaded clip out of the grip. "Just for security," he winks. Ziad knows what he's talking about: at the height of the revolution Mubarak's forces released perhaps 10,000 prison inmates onto the streets to show the havoc that would ensue should Mubarak leave. The ploy did not work but Cairo, once one of the safest metropolises in the world, is experiencing an explosion of murders, rapes and robberies.
After dinner, we strolled in the balmy air through Maadi, a neighborhood of leafy trees and colonial homes where the city's upper middle classes live alongside foreign businesspeople and diplomats. In the distance were yelling and the crack! of rifle fire as we reached my partner's elegant home. Well off but not rich, he is one of the many unsung and hard-working Egyptian businessmen who stayed clear of Mubarak's corruptive slime. My partner's media business has collapsed since the revolution. Once, the Egyptian economy was clipping along at 8% growth a year; now it is forecast to limp at 1% or less. Still, he employees a bawaab and his son -- two men who operate the garage door, etc. -- a cook, a maid, two chauffeurs, a teaboy, and an office staff of five. Incredibly, these are lean times for him.
We share a drink from the vodka and whisky I had bought at the airport under the frowning gazes of bearded Muslim Brothers, members of the best organized political force in Egypt, and who would win about 20% of the vote in an election. Actually, they ignored me because they were being watched by ultra-puritan Salafists, easily identifiable by their bushy, untrimmed beards and clean-shaven upper lips, their veiled wives in tow, followed by their pious daughters whose hair was carefully covered to please daddy but whose curvaceous bodies were wrapped so tightly in traditional garb as to leave nothing to the imagination.
The next morning I was picked up from my nearly empty hotel by my partner's chauffeur-driven, air-conditioned Ford as sleek Jaguars and Mercedes glided past, Egyptian businesspeople, eyes hidden by designer sunglasses, in the backseats, scanning their iPads and BlackBerrys for revolutionary developments. Suddenly, our car screeched to a halt as a wizened old man sitting atop a flatbed wagon pulled by a skinny mule slowly rolled past, one of the millions of Egyptians who still subsist on about two dollars a day. I wondered if he was aware that a revolution has taken place.
Maybe it has. But then again, maybe it hasn't.
O'Brien Browne teaches Middle Eastern history and politics at Schiller International University and intercultural communication at Heidelberg University. He writes extensively on Middle Eastern history and culture.