A month after Ali the Ahwagy tells me he doesn’t understand politics, he talks at length about the elections, his TV guest gestures framed by a tangled stack of shisha hoses behind his small build. The Muslim Brotherhood is starting to stretch their legs in the newly elected parliament, but mostly everyone is still talking about the big wins by the Salafi parties. Nobody knows what to expect from these new representatives of the rural lower classes, none of whom have held political office before. Several of the parties had grown out of groups that professed violence until the revolution allowed them traditional political channels.
The nervousness of secular, liberal Egyptians manifested in a YouTube video I heard three different men and women in their mid-fifties describe in three conversations in as many days. In the clip, a mid-1950’s President Nasser confidently tells an audience that he had just met with the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood who wanted him to make a law forcing Egyptian women to wear the headscarf. The audience bursts into laughter and someone shouts, “He should wear one!” Nasser recounts telling the leader “Look, your daughter does not even wear it. How am I going to force a million women wear it?”
Those who laugh at the video now do so with irony and unease. In the 1970’s and 80’s, nobody forced women in Egypt to don the hijab. They did it on their own. If anything, Mubarak tried to project a secular image to the world, barring veiled women, even as they made up the vast majority of the population, to be diplomats and official state representatives. Nasser had turned his own secular feminism into state initiative, because Nasser turned most things into state initiatives, and women reacted with piety. Most men started to wear a mark on their foreheads, which comes from rubbing one's forehead into the prayer rug, and which today range from subtle smudges that recall Ash Wednesday to deep, black welts.
The recent rise of the Salafis, however, is something much more, for lack of a more academic word, hardcore. Much of their money for campaigns, once religious and now political, comes from Saudi Arabia, and their frequent comments about banning alcohol, forcing tourists to dress modestly, and covering Ancient statues with large sheets (because they predate Islam and are hence false idols), have brought about frequent comparisons of Egypt’s possible future to one that looks a lot like Saudi Arabia.
“In Saudi Arabia,” Ali says, “they pray because they are afraid of being locked up. Here I pray because I want to. Besides, they oversee the holiest places on earth, but then they just go to other countries to drink and sin. Here we also sin, but at least we are honest.”
“The Muslim Brotherhood is not scary, because once they won the elections they started to separate religion from politics. But if Hazem [a Salafi presidential candidate] comes to power, there will be another revolution, just watch, because you can’t force people to pray.”
Ali tells me about his grandmother, who used to live on the bottom of a six-story apartment building. The other five floors housed Christians. “When I was young, my sister was hit by a motorcycle,” Ali says, “and it was a Christian who took her to the hospital. No problems. No problems. We got along very well with the Christians. They were our friends. If the Salafis have their way, Muslims and Christians will fight each other.”
I remember when, several months ago, I asked a Coptic Christian man if the Salafi electoral wins might make any of the Christians nostalgic for Mubarak. He nodded and said, “You know, I woke up thinking that today!” I ask Ali the same question. “You know, in some ways Mubarak was not so bad. I mean, there was a lot of corruption, of course, but look at the new Metro line! Also, he built all those big bridges.”
He continues pondering the nostalgia. “Nasser got us into wars,” he says, “but Sadat brought us peace, and Mubarak, I think, completed that peace.”
“And the military council,” he jumps to Mubarak’s successors, “never killed Egyptians before Mubarak fell. It was only after they saw what was happening in Libya, Syria, and Yemen that they started think it was okay to do that. Mubarak did not kill Egyptians.” This was, of course, not strictly true, but I had not known that someone like Ali would hold this impression.
But the Salafi society is a far bleaker option, he tells me. “The Christians and Muslims got along just fine under Mubarak, like my grandmother and her neighbors. If the Salafis are in charge, there will definitely be a civil war between the religions.”
“...or maybe another revolution.”
“...or maybe we’ll just vote for someone else the next time.”
“If they take power fully,” he predicts, “there will be no cigarettes [he motions to his cigarette], no hashish [he motions outwards to the street] and [pause…] no Maurice!” He whaps me on the shoulder and laughs and clicks his tongs for placing coals in the repetitive, aggressive fashion anyone who does one task over and over for years inevitably winds up with.
We speak again several days later. He has no interest in politics this time. I ask him to explain how they make the shisha so good at Bustan. He says its all about the cloth you use to wrap the connection between the base and the top.
“All the pipes you buy at Khan al-Khalili [the tourist market] are cheap and there is space between the base and the top. You have to wrap the cloth very tightly around it. This took me about two weeks to learn how to do. But really, it's easy.” He clanks the tongs loudly together, whaps me on the shoulder again, and runs off.