Living in Fear

Looting during the revolution

“I haven’t gone out in over a year.”

This was one of the statements my friend said to me the other day in talking about the changes in Egypt recently, particularly the lack of safety.

“I used to go out with my sister-in-law.  I would leave the kids at my mother-in-law’s house, and my sister and I would go downtown and walk around, do some shopping, all of this after 11pm.  We would come back around 1 or 2 in the morning.  Now I won’t even walk around Maadi at night, we are in our own house by 11:00.”

So many of my recent conversations with my Egyptian friends have either revolved around, or at the least, mentioned the lack of safety and the growing fear in everyday life.

Prior to the January 25, 2011 Revolution, the lack of crime in this huge city of Cairo was amazing.  I don’t know the statistics, but people didn’t generally worry about purse-snatching, carjackings, kidnappings, robberies or violent crime.  One of the reasons was the iron-fist of the previous regime, complete with a strong secret police system and the extreme power, and sometime corruption, of the regular police.

In truth, people were afraid of the police, and yet the average law-abiding citizen had nothing to worry about.  In this way, their everyday life was safe.  They could leave their cars running while they grabbed something from a kiosk, or send their children down the street for bread.  They could go out late at night, as Egyptians are known for doing in this city that never sleeps, and walk along the Nile River, without a thought for personal safety.  All this has changed for those I’ve talked with.

“Be very careful of anyone you see on motorcycles.  Two guys on a motorcycle stole my friend’s bag from inside her car while she was sitting behind the wheel!  Another friend’s car was stolen right in front of her apartment.”

Another friend of mine cautioned me as she related these stories of people she knew.  Friends from her old neighborhood or colleagues at work, who live in our Maadi neighborhood, let their guard down for a moment, or perhaps, never had their guard “up” quite enough, and lost a bag and a car.

“Keep your eye on your children.  Don’t let them play outside without you.  People are being kidnapped now for ransom.  It is happening to Egyptians, but they may see you and think you have a lot of money.  Hold onto those kids.”

The same friend who hasn’t gone out for a year told me how when she goes out, she no longer carries a purse.  Rather, she will put some money in her pocket, and only enough for what she needs to buy.

I then shared with her how my wallet was stolen just the other day.  We went to the local Coptic Orthodox church for the worship service, and I was across the street at the church’s coffee area.  I had just been sitting with some Egyptian friends and I went to pick up my daughter from her Sunday School class.  I had my bag on my shoulder with Layla in that same arm.

As is common, my bag was too full to zip, since it contained cups for all three girls, plus a water bottle for myself, diapers and wipes, maybe some library books and random other things, and so my wallet was in the bag, laying on top, exposed to the world.  I had to push through people to get to Hannah’s classroom, and then again, push through people to get out the door as her classroom is located in the same place as the cash register and food service counter.

Less crowded than other times, this is church coffee area, with the door to the classroom bottle-necking in the background. Daughter Layla is at the table.

As I was going through the doorway to get to the outside seating area, I felt someone run into me, perhaps a lightening of my bag and I turned to look.  A woman with a child in her arms apologized briefly, and I nodded, understanding how babes in arms often touch people who are close to them, much to a mother’s chagrin.  But something in me made me pause, and after taking a few more steps, I released Hannah’s hand and swung my bag to the front of me so I could check it.

No wallet.

I dug a little deeper to see if it was still in there, but it wasn’t.  I quickly went back to the table I had been at to make sure I hadn’t left it there.  Nope.  I looked around at the tables where people were talking, drinking their coffee, eating their falafel sandwiches.  No one was paying attention to me.  What did that woman look like?  Where did she go?  Could she really have taken my wallet right there, surrounded by church folk, inside the church property?

I cautiously approached a table where I thought she may have gone, but I was trying to figure out how I could ask the people sitting there if they had stolen my wallet?  How do you ask someone if they have seen the wallet that was just in your own bag?  How accusatory is that?  I looked around in vain.

Later, friends informed the staff at the shop who told them this was the third wallet that was stolen in the last month or so. I was kicking myself for putting it right on top with the bag open.  I couldn’t do much about being distracted by my children, one on a hip, the other in hand, but I could have been more careful.  If someone had to unzip my bag to get to my wallet, I probably would have noticed that quicker.  Oh well, add me to the statistics.

My friend, who attends the same church, was sorry to hear the story, and especially that it happened at church.  But she said the priests are often telling people to watch their bags.  Wallets and purses have even been taken from inside the church during mass.  The church is open to all, you can’t implicitly trust all who come in.  I told her that I used to leave my whole bag (minus the money) on a table at the coffee shop to save a spot while I dropped my kids off.  We both agreed that wasn’t a good idea!

“Praise the Lord it was just your stuff, and not your children.  Hold onto them!”  And that is the truth.

Another friend has often told me how scared she is these days, especially as a Christian.  The first time I saw her after the Maspero incident in October, where about 27 Christians died during a peaceful protest, she was visibly nervous.  State TV had turned people against Christians during that night and it left some of the Christians feeling vulnerable.

“I watch the news constantly because I want to know what is going on.  But I am more scared each time I watch it.  I don’t know what is going to happen in Egypt.  But what can I do?  I can’t go anywhere.  I don’t have the means for it.  We can only hope and pray.”

Egyptians are scared, at least the ones I talk to.  Whether they are Christian or Muslim, they have fears now that they didn’t have before.  Some are tired of the protests and just wish things would be stable again, but mostly, they want to be able to live without fear, as they lived before.  They can see the problems with the old regime, and most I’ve talked to are glad that Mubarak is out of power.  However, their personal lives are worse than before because they feel no safety on the streets.

Personally we don’t feel afraid.  We feel our house is secure, and we are careful as we move about, aside from the wallet incident!  We hold onto our kids and take precautions with our money.  We call each other when we are heading home and as a woman, I don’t go out alone in the dark.

I feel for our friends, though, who feel safety has been taken from them.  I don’t know how long it will take before that is restored.  It’s not a quick process, and in the meantime, it makes life uncomfortable.

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