Mokhtar Awad is an independent researcher on Middle Eastern politics.
Whenever I fell ill as a child, my mother would say, “Go to Rabaa!” By the time I was a teenager, I knew by heart the side streets that led from my house to the Rabaa hospital, less than a mile away. Even though there was a government-run hospital just down the street, my neighbors, even the wealthy ones, preferred the facilities run by an Islamic charity at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. It was a different Egypt then. Now the mosque is in ashes, and the hospital is drenched in the smell of death.
There is nothing special about Nasr City, the eastern Cairo neighborhood where Rabaa stands. It has no culture and little history save for the spot where President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, yards from where supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi recently held their sit-in. Sadat’s killing was part of an attempted Islamist insurgency that only strengthened the hand of his successor, Hosni Mubarak, and his security services. Now many fear that a cycle of violence that has killed thousands will give way to yet more violence and more authoritarianism to “protect” the people.
My unremarkable neighborhood has long been ground zero for the battle between Islamists and the Egyptian state. President Gamal Abdel Nasser planned Nasr City in the early 1960s in hopes of creating the first major urban development project in the desert — away from the unmanageable troubles of old Cairo. As with much else in Egypt then and now, it did not go as planned.
Housing was first provided for army officers to settle with their families, but the area remained largely unpopulated until the 1980s. Back then, Egyptians from all walks of life were returning flush with cash from jobs in the gulf and started buying and building in Nasr City. The once-planned districts turned into a hodgepodge of apartments surrounded by military facilities, as contractors raced to erect buildings before anyone could look into how they were acquiring the land. The main benefactor of this construction rush was the military, which owned nearly half the land and was selling what was meant to be a public resource for profit.
Nasr City turned into a relatively high-end area mostly for upper-middle-class Egyptians who were able to afford it only after emigrating and making money abroad. Among them were members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist sympathizers who had returned with convictions as well as cash. After briefly resembling something that people like my parents hoped might be the Egyptian dream — which they, like many others, eventually realized could be found only outside Egypt — by the late 1990s Nasr City became a carbon copy of the unmanageable problems Nasser hoped to avoid, with just a facade of modernity.
Both sides hoped that the revolution of January 2011 would be a vehicle for progress, but instead it exacerbated Egypt’s chronic problems. Some of the same Nasr City residents who had given up on the corrupt state their fathers left them — by turning to the private sector, emigrating or pushing their sons to do the same — cheered on that very state this summer as it spilled Egyptian blood on the streets. They sought solace in a fascist national mythology that seems to only distract from the incompetence and corruption of the government and its security apparatus. Their neighbors who supported the Rabaa sit-in came from similar roots but believed a different myth: that the Islamic state would be the cure for their country. Instead, a bankrupt group of charlatans and delusional leaders ultimately led many of its innocent followers to their demise at Rabaa.