Echoes of the past as Egypt chooses a new president

Cairo at night Image copyright AFP

In Egypt it seems there has always been someone lying awake in the hot, airless night, dreading the policeman's midnight knock.

It is hard to imagine it now but once it was the old man we had come to interview. These days, straight of back and bright of eye he is the kind of pensioner who carefully puts on a suit and neatly knots a tie before going to his favourite restaurant for coffee.

He is not the oldest person in the place - one of the waiters here started work here a few months after the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 - but he has seen more history than most coursing through the streets and squares around us.

He talks of his first arrest as other men might talk of a first date. He was about 16 and the police came knocking on the eve of May Day.

Image copyright Getty Images

It is not really a story of brutality - the police did not kick the door down or beat him senseless. They just locked him up for 24 hours along with a few thousand other communists - just their way of making sure that the international day of the worker passed off without incident.

The arrest did not deter our friend from a lifetime of protest and dissent.

He can remember the silent demonstration of a million men in the early fifties calling on the British to get out of Cairo and withdraw to the Suez Canal Zone.

The long column of men shuffled wordlessly through the area around Tahrir Square where the run-down streets run down to the Nile - an unnerving sight for the young British national servicemen who were policing the Egyptian capital back in those days.

The British were fighting another of those losing battles that marked the end of empire - trying to keep their grip on the canal and to prop up the tubby, hopeless, doomed, young King Farouk.

He was the ruler who greeted his own forced abdication with the observation that there would soon only be five royal houses left in the world: Britain - then hearts, clubs diamonds and spades.

His overthrow did not, of course, bring the age of dissent in Egypt to an end.

Under the long rule of Egypt's military strongman Gamel Abdel Nasser, our old friend was interned three times - and was only finally freed when Nasser died.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption General Gamel Abdel Nasser led a revolution in Egypt in 1952 and suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood

The leader did not confine himself to a war on the Egyptian hard left.

There was also a sustained and violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood - the Islamist movement born in Egypt in the time of the British.

In Nasser's Egypt the hangman and the torturer were kept busy, as was the government censor and the secret policeman.

Nasser intended to crush the Brotherhood, which in those days mixed the training of a powerful armed wing with charitable work providing food and medical care for those poor Egyptians who were chronically let down by their state.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters was set on fire by an angry mob in 1954

Except that the Brotherhood proved uncrushable. It melted into the background of Egyptian life - but it never went away. Which brings us of to Egypt's new leader in waiting - Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

Mr Sisi is a civilian these days and in his election posters likes to appear in sharp-looking suits. But there are plenty of slightly older posters left around that remind us that he only recently hung up his field marshal's uniform.

Image copyright Reuters

Mr Sisi says the Brotherhood is a terrorist organisation pure and simple and that on his watch it will be eradicated.

Its leaders are on trial and hundreds of its activists have been sentenced to death for attacking a police station. Now, some at least of those sentences will probably be commuted but the Sisi era is beginning with a sharp reminder that he is as ready as Nasser to flex the muscles of the state.

Secular activists linked to the revolution against Hosni Mubarak have found themselves in the dock too.

There is a vague but unmistakable chill over Egyptian society - political activists who are always happy to meet us are a little less available these days, and a little more circumspect when they do.

Mr Sisi's appeal is to those Egyptians who would accept a little less freedom for a little more stability - a dangerous but tempting trade-off in a time of chaos.

Our guest first demonstrated against the British in Cairo and 60 years later he was back on the streets denouncing Hosni Mubarak.

He is too old to go in fear of the midnight policeman's knock now but he knows that others here still do.

Asked about Sisi's prospects, the old man says the new leader deserves a chance, after all, we do not really know much about his ideas.

But ask if he will succeed where Nasser failed and deal a final historical defeat to the organisation that created political Islam and he smiles.

Dissent in Egypt is a hardy perennial that flourishes even when the climate is at its harshest.

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