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Observing the curfew
Published in Ahram Online on 14 - 04 - 2020

It is five o'clock in an afternoon on the second week of the curfew imposed by the government as one of the measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Egypt.
“Stay safe” appears on my mobile network, and more of the same slogans are appearing on satellite channels. “If you love them, keep a distance” is written on billboards on the streets. “Save yourself... Save your country” and “Stay home” slogans are received in messages or voice notes over mobiles and are the topic of conversations between family members and friends over land lines.
The taxi driver was at first hesitant to drive me from 6 October City to Downtown Cairo. “I must be at home before 7pm,” he said. At 5:45pm, a young police officer wearing a mask was looking at his watch, and when he raised his head I looked at him smiling and pointing at my own watch, saying “there is still some time before 7pm.” The policeman did not reply and continued preparing traffic barriers.
A 7pm to 6am curfew was officially imposed for two weeks starting on 25 March to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in Egypt. The Ministry of Interior, for the first time responsible for a curfew, has deployed its forces in various locations ready to take legal action against people who violate the partial lockdown.
There is a fine of LE4,000 and a prison sentence that could reach three years for breaking the curfew. While it is in force, people are not permitted to leave their homes during curfew hours when all public and private transportation is prohibited. This includes taxis, trains, buses, rideshare services, and private transportation. While it has not been explicitly banned, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli has called on everyone to limit as much as possible travel between governorates during this period.
This is the fourth curfew in Egypt's contemporary history. The first took place on 26 February 1986 when around 25,000 conscripts in the Central Security Forces staged violent protests in and around Cairo. The army was sent in to restore order. The second curfew took place in January 2011 after the demonstrations on 28 January, known as the “Friday of Anger”, when protesters called for an end to the former Mubarak regime.
In 2013, former president Mohamed Morsi imposed a 30-day curfew in the three cities of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez after they witnessed deadly violence. People were not allowed to go out in these cities between 9pm and 6am, but the curfew was often violated.
The present curfew, by contrast, is being taken very seriously, and by 5:50pm the fruit shop where I took my taxi from was almost closed and the workers were in a hurry to close. “People are observing it very seriously,” the taxi driver said. “Although my work is limited and a decrease in income is a problem for me, all this is very understandable. Everyone is aware of the danger of the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.
Journalists, doctors, officers and some others having security permits are allowed to move around during curfew hours. I decided to make use of that permission and go out to see the unseen.
As the curfew was almost starting, I decided to start near Al-Ahram's main building in Downtown Cairo to see how Covid-19 has changed the face of the city. Accompanied by Al-Ahram driver Hassan Ahmed, we started the tour at 7:45pm. For the first time, the driver asked me what story I was going to write. “The decision to implement this curfew is totally right,” he said. “It is for people's good, and people are obeying the law this time more than they ever did before.”
He asked me where I wanted to go, and I suggested the Nile Corniche. “It is totally empty, and you won't find anyone to talk to,” he said. We decided to turn left and head to Downtown by Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Street.
CAIRO UNDER CURFEW: We passed through the first police check point, and the driver told the policeman Al-Ahram, so he let us pass.
Galaa Street was empty, except for some homeless men who seemed to be sleeping under the 6 October bridge. At the second police check point in Ramses Street, the policeman stopped us. The driver showed him the security permission, and I showed him my press card. I noticed that I was not wearing gloves or a mask, even though the curfew is because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I must be more cautious and not touch my face at all,” I told myself. The Downtown streets were almost unrecognisable. The shops were closed and the streets were dark except for the traffic lights. Some cats and dogs were walking about while silence enveloped the empty city.
Pharmacies along with bakeries and supermarkets are allowed to open during curfew hours. Our first stop was a pharmacy with its doors open. There was a ribbon marking off clients from shop workers. Mohamed, one of the latter, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the curfew was for people's good, as were the markers showing a safe distance.
He compared the present situation to the curfew that took place in 2011. “In 2011, the doors of the pharmacy were closed at night, and we used to deal with clients through a small window in the door. We were afraid of thieves and chaos. Now we feel the danger of Covid-19,” he said. “People believe in the threat of Covid-19 because they have seen countries abroad facing hard times,” he concluded.
His colleague Ahmed was surprised at some people's attitudes during the day and in rural areas. “In Attaba, the shopping area in Downtown, it is still hard to enter before 5pm when the shops are obliged to close. If people are obliged to go to work, they should still make sure that they keep a safe distance between each other,” he said.
The same goes for Imbaba, a district in Giza. “During the curfew hours, teenagers still gather like on normal days,” Ibrahim, a colleague at the pharmacy, said. He added that the police presence should increase in such districts. “Although praying in mosques and churches is forbidden during this critical period, some people spread carpets in alleys and pray together knowing that the police are only in the main streets,” he said.
The only thing such districts have in common is the fact that the shops close at 5pm. As all means of transportation are included during curfew hours, Ahmed told the Weekly that he went home with his friend every night after they close the pharmacy at 12am instead of 2am on normal days. His friend is a delivery man from another branch of the pharmacy who owns a motorcycle. “Permits are issued for us to move during curfew hours,” Ahmed said.
While we were talking, a father with a small child entered the pharmacy showing Ahmed a prescription after coming out from hospital with his son. I left them exchanging wishes to “stay safe”.
The driver turned right along Talaat Harb Street heading to Tahrir Square. Passing through Downtown under these conditions gave me a feeling of sadness, as it was almost 8:30pm and all the shops were closed. Many of the windows had notices up saying that the sales were starting for the Coptic Christian holiday next week followed by the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. When we reached Mohamed Mahmoud Street, there were some policemen sitting in a van, but they refused to talk to me.
I asked them what “citizen notifications” written on the van meant. One of them said that “if a wife notifies us that her husband is fighting with her, we are there to solve the problem.” I understood that this was part of government efforts to help people to “stay home and stay safe” as well.
Tahrir Square was totally silent, and even the construction work that was taking place before the Covid-19 pandemic has been postponed. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has postponed the openings of national projects until next year.
The silence and emptiness of the streets was disturbed by a cleaning vehicle containing a cleaning team. Romani Gouda, the driver of the vehicle, said he would not mind talking to the Weekly.
He said permission had been given to work during the curfew hours because the nature of their work was to collect waste and clean the streets at night. They used to have three working shifts before the curfew, but then these were decreased to two.
“The main shift starts at 11am, but during the curfew the shift is between 5pm and 6am. The waste is less than on normal days,” one of the men said. Do they prefer to work during curfew hours? They said they did due to the absence of cars. They also said they had been given good facilities by the management and the police.
One of the men remembered the curfew of 2011. “In 2011, we used to see cars and people while we were doing our work,” he said. Although they knew that preventing the spread of coronavirus was the main reason for the curfew, they did not have masks or gloves. “We are protected by God and this vehicle,” they said, pointing at the cleaning vehicle.
photo: AP
THE CITY AT NIGHT: On the corner of Talaat Harb Street, a young man wearing glasses was sitting on a wooden chair with newspapers, magazines and books on the ground beside him.
The young man, named Mohamed Lasheen, described the curfew as a dead time for selling newspapers. “Even in the morning, the number of employees at companies in the neighbourhood has decreased, and students no longer come to the area. The papers market during the curfew in 2011 was far more profitable,” he said.
He added that he stayed in his place to guard the books and papers and receive new editions from distributors and give them unsold papers. “Electronic newspaper editions have taken many readers,” he said.
Gamal Hafez of the Al-Ahram distribution department agreed with Lasheen regarding the decrease in demand for print newspapers. He told the Weekly that the first edition of Al-Ahram was distributed in Upper Egypt with Al-Akhbar and Al-Gomhouriya. “This integration of distribution is happening for the first time, and each night a different organisation is responsible for delivering the editions to Upper Egypt,” he said.
“Although the number of distributions has decreased, it still exceeds the lowest rate that happened after the stormy weather that attacked Egypt last month. Readers have not missed a single issue from the day the curfew was implemented,” he added.
He believes that the government and officials are doing their best to prevent the spread of the pandemic. “I don't wear a mask or gloves, although many people do, but I wash my hands all the time and clean them with alcohol. I had severe flu last November, and I think maybe that could have been the coronavirus, in which case I have antibodies,” he said.
Campaigns to raise awareness about washing hands and keeping a physical distance seem to have achieved some success at the Al-Ahram printing house. Abdallah Salah, one of the workers, told the Weekly that a shifts system had been implemented since the beginning of the curfew to decrease the number of workers in the same shift. “There are now 10 workers instead of 30 in the same shift. We are committed to the curfew hours and the daily cleaning of all the tools and bathrooms”, he said.
Passing through Emadeddin Street, once the street of art and amusement, only a kiosk is open selling drinks. “People are afraid of the pandemic more than they fear paying the fines,” the young man responsible for it said. He added that he only sold products for two hours during the day.
“As you see the refrigerator is outside the shop. If it weren't, we would close during the curfew hours,” he said. He said he had come to Cairo from Sohag five months ago after giving up a job growing sugar cane. You are not wearing a mask or gloves, I told him. “I am neither concerned with the pandemic nor the curfew,” he said. “I am here to guard the goods,” he concluded.
The heros of the scene are the doctors and others who work in the medical services. It is very hard to find one of them free to chat with, as they are under emergency regulations all the time because of the pandemic. However, I was lucky enough to meet two of them.
Hassan greeted them and asked them to stop, and in Ramses Street I found myself talking to the driver of an ambulance and his colleague. Ahmed Afifi has been working in that Ambulance Service for 15 years, and he said that this curfew was safer than the one in 2011. “In 2011, we were allowed to move during the curfew with patients, but we had hard times with some groups of people stopping us and checking the cars,” he remembered.
They were not wearing masks or gloves as they had no patients with them and had just cleaned the ambulance.
The first to offer help for patients are the ambulance paramedics. According to Mohamed Ibrahim, one of the men, 95 per cent of the cases they help are psychological and five per cent are medical, including problems relating to diabetes, high blood pressure, or old age. Ibrahim has been working for four years in the Ambulance Service.
“The calls increase at night, especially from those who have colds and think it is Covid-19,” Ibrahim said. He added that a shift can last for 24 hours and most of the work is at night.
Sometimes a patient's relatives do not cooperate with them, he said. For Afifi, driving during curfew hours was great. “During the day, people's attitudes have changed. They have become more impolite.” The police are very helpful and deal with people tactfully during the curfew hours, he said. “We are all in the same boat, and we are implementing the law so we can all get out of this crisis safely,” a policeman told the Weekly who preferred to remain anonymous. He was standing in Ramses Street on our way back to the office.
While I was talking, an officer in his 50s came towards me and asked what was going on. I showed him my press card. Other curfews have been implemented for other reasons, but this was a medical curfew, he said. “Our main mission during curfew hours is to keep people safe and offer them aid to return to their homes,” he added.
He walked towards a young man who appeared later to be a doctor, Ahmed Sweidan, 33, who works in a children's hospital in the Al-Haram district. The policeman stopped a car to drive him to Nasr City, and Sweidan was able to ride with a doctor who was on his way to the Galaa Military Hospital in Heliopolis. “Why didn't the Ministry of Health offer transportation for all doctors during curfew hours,” I wondered.
Turning to the left, we met a small family consisting of a father carrying a bag full of bread and a mother holding her children's hands. They entered the nearby supermarket. Rasha Al-Sayed told the Weekly that she goes to the market every day in the morning to buy food. She wished the curfew could be canceled and life could return to normal. The market was very crowded and people behave as if there was no pandemic, she said.
She said she was out during curfew hours to buy bread and jam for her mother, and the kids asked for sweets. I smiled and told her that “it seems every thing is normal.”
At that moment Shady Gamal, 34, the owner of the supermarket, said that “before the coronavirus there were many clients from many categories, but during this curfew many people don't leave their homes. We keep washing our hands with water and soap most of the time, while doctors and policemen are our main clients,” he said.
When we reached the Al-Ahram building, it was almost 10:30pm, “Don't forget to wash your hands and your face with water and soap before you greet your family,” I told myself and the driver.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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