Last evening in Fustat

An Egyptian soldier guards Egypt's Stock Exchange Market, which has been closed for over a month, ahead of the scheduled opening for March 1, in Cairo on Monday. (Nasser Nasser / AP Photo)

I spent my last evening in Cairo at a café in Fustat, one of the oldest districts of Cairo, where working and middle class Cairenes all know each other, and live in slightly crumbling three and four story apartment buildings that lean toward each other over narrow streets.

I drank tea and talked with a group of locals about the political developments of the past weeks, and what they expect in the future. Among them were a carpenter, a government employee in the Antiquities Ministry, two cabbies, a tourist guide, an accountant, the owner of a small cloth store, and a local man who was returning home after spending 16 years in the United States.

All of them intended to vote next time, which they’d never done before because they thought (rightly) that the voting was rigged. Of the group of ten, only two said they were inclined to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood – although they said they would judge the individual character of a candidate and if a Brother had a good reputation they might consider him.

When I asked if they thought the next government should break the peace treaty with Israel, they all burst forth with “la, la, la”  (la means ‘no’ in Arabic.)”  Only one said “yes”.  They all stressed that they didn’t want war with Israel, although they were bitterly critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and of the recent U.S. veto of a UN Security Council resolution opposing Israeli settlements on the West Bank.  

However, several insisted that some parts of the Egypt-Israel treaty should be changed, especially the provision that doesn’t let Egypt keep troops in the Sinai peninsula.  This seemed to be a point of pride, piqued recently when Egypt had to ask Israeli permission to send troops to quell unrest in the Sinai.

The conversation was extraordinary on two counts: such an open political discussion with a foreigner would never have happened three months ago, from fear that it would be reported to the secret police. Second, the extent of their political knowledge surprised me. As one of them put it: “A lot of people weren’t educated before about politics, but after the revolution (meaning the last month’s events that led to Hosni Mubarak’s s fall), everyone knows all kinds of details, even about articles in the constitution.”

All of them recognized that political and economic reforms could not be implemented overnight, and might move ahead slowly. But when I asked whether they thought things could slide backwards again in Egypt, one said: “It can’t go back because we know what to do now if it does.”