Two years ago dozens of people from Nazlet El-Semman seeking to end the popular uprising that eventually ousted former president Hosni Mubarak took to Tahrir Square on horse and camel.
Armed with sticks, whips, swords and guns, these men desperately fought against an ever-growing crowd of Egyptians looking for change after decades of iron-fist leadership that left many Egyptians poor, illiterate, and hungry.
What followed is known as the Battle of the Camel, and is considered a failed attempt by pro-Mubarak supporters to keep the embattled president in power. To those who called for Mubarak’s ousting these camel warriors are thugs paid by an unknown third party, presumably remnants of the former regime or those loyal to it.
The truth, however, is far more complicated: those who sided with the government did so for reasons beyond mere loyalty to the regime.
During the first week of the uprising, Egypt witnessed a mass exodus of tourists and the instability caused the investment atmosphere to cool significantly. The camel warriors hail from the neighbourhoods worst affected by the instability—those relying on tourism. These areas, such as the neighbourhoods surrounding the Pyramids of Giza, are mostly impoverished, their citizens largely illiterate or lacking basic education, and their livelihoods depending on a steady influx of tourists and subsidised bread and fuel.
As such every family relying heavily on tourism—either directly in the case of stable owners, or indirectly in the case of as store-owners catering largely to the local populace—felt the chaos accompanying the revolution. Overnight the busloads of tourists vanished almost entirely and bread and fuel were no longer guaranteed.
Such is the image painted by virtually every inhabitant of Nazlet El-Semman, the camel warriors’ neighbourhood. The revolution had immediate and serious effects on their livelihoods, and also threatened the subsidies needed most by the poor.
Tracking down the camel warriors is difficult, as the community is protective of their own. Ismaeen “El-Moqatel” (“the fighter” in Arabic), is one of those who took to Tahrir Square atop a camel to disperse protesters. Ismaeen agreed to tell his story to The Daily News Egypt but shortly after agreeing to do so was intimidated into silence.
“You have to understand that he is scared of what will happen to him if he does an interview,” ‘Hassan’, a friend of Ismaeen, explained. “There are many people, big families, who do not want him to speak about this, and he is afraid of being arrested by the police.” Hassan explained the decision to go to Tahrir was made by large families in Nazlet El-Semman who, seeing their livelihoods threatened by the mass demonstrations, wanted to restore the status quo.
“Ismaeen has three children, a wife and family,” Hassan explained. “He is a good man who was worried about taking care of his family.” Hassan said he felt Ismaeen and others like him need to speak to the Egyptian and the foreign media to reveal their struggles to Egyptians and to stress to foreigners that tourism is still safe in these areas. “We would never make trouble for the tourists here, never.”
Speaking anonymously, Hassan described the mood of Nazlet El-Semman residents during the revolution. The residents feared the effects of a prolonged crisis on their livelihood: were they to wait a year before things began to return to normal? Two years? Five?
“We are in the same situation we were in two years ago,” Hassan explained. “Tourists love Cairo but I know they are afraid to come back because of what is happening in small parts of the country. They don’t like what they see on the news and go somewhere else; they think how can they take their families to such a place when there is so much trouble? How can you feel safe when your hotel is attacked and there is no security to defend you?”
Then there are the Sheikhs, who tell their followers to take to the streets after prayers. These people, Hassan said, have a narrow view of justice and do not look at the country as a whole and how their actions affect the lives of Egyptians such as himself.
“Before the revolution, Christians and Muslims did everything together,” Hassan said. “We would go to the same schools, break our fasts together, and ride the same bus. When Christians were killed Muslims would stand in solidarity and vice-versa. You can see now how such things are changing; people are becoming more desperate and are only looking after themselves.”
Hassan fears first and foremost for his horses, a view widely shared among the locals, who are forced to watch their biggest assets starve as tourism fails to recover. “I want to feed them well, but even the smallest amounts of food are expensive,” Hassan said. “Our horses are starving, they look horrible and many died during the revolution, how could we just sit by and let this happen?”
Shaking his head, Hassan points an accusing finger and blames the media for inflaming the situation and scaring away tourists, as well as revolutionaries for creating the instability.
“These people in Tahrir, they talk about revolution, protest all the time and smoke their sheesha,” Hassan said. “Their minds are not as open as they think. Two years later and what do you see? Little boys in Tahrir having fun as if they were in an action movie, with their black masks throwing stones. We understand business and we did not like the change because our lives revolve around the stability needed for tourism. Those in Tahrir never understood how much our lives have been affected by their actions.”
“We loved Mubarak because things were safe and stable,” Hassan continued. “Crime was very low because the people feared the state. Do you see this?” he asked, brandishing a whip. “This is Egypt. Before, the state was feared and there was hardly any violent crime, but now that there is no security it is the people who have control of the whip; these people are not afraid anymore.”
In several neighbourhoods of Nazlet El-Semman, the views are the same: Hosni Mubarak meant stability and security, but the revolution left the country’s future uncertain. Hassan denied that residents in the area were feloul, or “remnants” of the former regime: “These people need to understand we are not feloul.
The feloul have a lot of money and are outside the country. We don’t care who is in power as long as our lives are secure. These people in Tahrir thought if you change Mubarak the people would change but this is not the case, corruption is still in the heart of so many people here.”
Locals are as critical of the current president as they are of the protesters. Many see Mohamed Morsy’s overseas focus as an irresponsible priority.
The prevailing view is that Morsy should have focused on the domestic issues first, stabilising each governorate before looking overseas for investments and aid. “If we are put to work and the governorates stabilise,” one resident said, “tourists and investors will come back naturally. If Egypt is to wake up from this nightmare, the government needs to be fixed and tourism needs to recover.”
Just as millions gathered around the country two years ago to fight against a dictatorial regime for the basic rights so long denied
them, so too did people push back against the changes. A complete picture of the state of Egypt and its inhabitants cannot be created unless those who fought to defend their own existence and protect the status quo also have a voice.
Understanding their fears and motivations will help to foster dialogue and understanding between those who fought for freedom, and those who fought for survival.
Counter-revolutionaries or not, these Egyptians form a section of society whose voice is often forgotten or ignored by self-described revolutionaries.