I was astonished to discover yesterday that Egypt has a Green Party, an oxymoron if ever there was one. Protecting the environment in Egypt is – unsurprisingly - the main thrust of their platform, and in terms of a challenge this must rank alongside the Campaign to Rid the Night of Darkness, or Popular Party for a Ban on Hair Gel in Professional Football.
I don’t mean to deprecate their efforts since their objective of preventing us all from choking to death in Cairo is important, and unless it is realised we won’t be able to continue stepping all over each other and be abused and harassed by the state and its minions etc. In any case when I arrived I spied an artist-type elderly gentleman sporting a beret and a yellow handkerchief in his breast-pocket, which only cemented my commitment to the cause; seeing a spiffily dressed senior citizen who looks like he might break into a Charles Aznavour song at any moment always gives me a warm feeling. I was further impressed by a sign kindly thanking us not to smoke, and even more so by the fact that 30-odd Egyptian males were actually taking heed of this injunction. At the NGO I used to work in we would use the ‘visibility test’ to determine whether the boss had arrived yet or not; if we could see his secretary clearly he still wasn’t there yet. If we could just about make her out through a cloud of smoke he had been in the office for ten minutes. If however we required night vision goggles to assist us as we felt our way to her desk he had been there for some time, and was probably in a meeting.
I had tagged along to this seminar with Sharshar, whose friend was talking in it. The speakers were discussing Cairo’s environmental, urban planning, poverty and overcrowding issues as well as the fact that the city can boast the dubious honour of being the world's most polluted metropolis. They even endeavoured to formulate solutions to these gargantuan problems other than blowing the whole place up and starting over – although numerous audience members did tout the idea of moving Egypt’s capital somewhere else. I was thinking Miami, because it has nice beaches and the military aid won’t have to travel as far. It is incredible that Cairo has sixteen million people squashed into it compared to Alexandria’s four million and Tanta’s one million, but unsurprising all the same given that nobody wants to leave and go live in the new cities given the spectacular lack of infrastructure planning put into them – people have a house, but no school, hospital or supermarket (no orders at 2 a.m.!!). Someone made the incredibly sad remark that Heliopolis - which was the 19th century equivalent of 6th October City - was constructed by the Belgian Baron Empain purely for profit and yet 100 years later remains a paradigm of architectural elegance. He compared it with Medinat Nasr, constructed by the government presumably for the people, and aesthetically speaking the Borat to Baron Empain’s George Clooney; it functions and all, but is ugly, unappealing and crude.
Another speaker posited the idea that people litter the street as a way of expressing discontent with the government. This prompted me to think that mass protest could take the form of people dumping the contents of their waste bins and car ashtrays etc in front of a government minister’s flotilla of cars as it passes – this would at least fill the time as we wait half an hour for them to be on their bloody way. My thoughts were interrupted by a particularly enervated audience member behind me who, being so incensed by corruption, maladministration and crappy streets was speaking with great gusto, and in the process kept knocking me on the head with his prayer beads.
After the usual round of ‘Masr deih balad 3azeema’ platitudes someone pointed out that even in Amreeka Shababeeka corrupt individuals steal from government coffers and in the process rip off the people, but the difference is that at least they do it with a sense of national pride; they stay in the country and perversely the money ends up back in the economy. Compare with the Egyptian situation where thieves with an equivalent sense of commitment don’t exist. A bright spark quipped ‘yes, they’ve all run away to America’ which rounded off an interesting – if long - evening and again confirmed that Egyptian humour seems to get better the harder circumstances get. Should the country actually implode as the Green Party and others seem to be forecasting, my sides will presumably be aching with laughter.