Shortly after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, I was walking along the Corniche, the Nile promenade, as the sun was setting. The sails of feluccas were tipping in the evening breeze. A young man approached, dressed in a galabeya, the flowing robe that marked him as a migrant from the countryside. In Egypt’s cities such migrants are a constant sight among the street vendors, hawking fruit or fake papyrus or bottles of mineral water.

But this one wasn’t selling anything. Reaching into his pocket, he produced three euro coins and asked if I could change them into Egyptian currency. 

I took out my wallet. All I had were a few hundred-pound notes, each worth far more than the three euros he was offering. “Sorry—“ I began. 

His fingers were quick. They snatched a hundred-pound note. I tried to grab his hand, but he was gone, dashing across the street and down a lane between two gift shops.

I walked on, bemused. This was Egypt, where such things were not supposed to happen. At least, they hadn’t happened when I had lived here some years before. Back then I’d walked the streets of Cairo with a wallet full of cash after a bank withdrawal and never had a problem. Cairo was virtually crime-free, kept safe by the Middle Eastern honor code, which dictated that personal reputation, once compromised, can rarely be repaired. But that was the “old Egypt.” The tumbling of institutions had led to a breakdown in the social code. The new Egypt, the one emerging from the jubilation of Tahrir Square, had been stricken with sudden lawlessness, beset by roaming gangs of thieves that seemed to form overnight.

Ten minutes further up the Corniche, two more street vendors approached, carrying bottled water. Before they could shout, “Mister! Mister!” I told them that one of their friends had stolen a hundred pounds. They peppered me with questions:  What did he look like? Did I see where he had gone? Dropping the bottles of water, they implored me to wait. They would be back, they promised, with my hundred pounds. 

So I waited, doubtful, but curious to see how this would play out. Fifteen minutes later they returned, along with four other young men, also dressed in galabeyas. The group asked me to describe the thief. I did, and names rang out as the young men fashioned a list of likely culprits—“Ashraf!” “No, Hassan!”

After a while, two men dressed in neat slacks and shirts appeared—plainclothes policemen—and a black jeep pulled up to the curb. The chief of the Aswan police department emerged and asked what had happened. I went through the events once again. More names surfaced—“Fawzi!” “Hadi!” Cell phones were produced and more suspects were called and told to present themselves on the Corniche.

For the next half-hour, young men appeared out of the darkness to be paraded before me in a makeshift lineup. “Is this the boy?” the chief would ask. Each time I said no, the young man gasped with relief and then joined the group to add his two cents’ worth. The list of suspects grew. 

Then a name was called out and a chorus of agreement erupted.

“I know where he is!” one of the young men shouted. He ran off. The police chief followed in his jeep. While we waited, the vendors amused themselves by testing my Arabic with humorous profanities. Soon the chief was back, and with him the boy who had fingered the thief, smiling proudly, holding up my hundred-pound note. The vendors dispersed and one of the policemen walked me back to the cruise boat where I was staying. And the thief? No doubt they took him back to the police station. I hope they didn’t beat him.

Small events sometimes reveal what a broader view cannot.  With the Arab revolts rolling through the Middle East, it is easy to forget that all political revolutions are ultimately human revolutions, that behind the political slogans are the voices of human beings, expressing their needs and dreams. Honor and reputation, pride and personal dignity—these are not slogans but the indispensible values of human beings. Egyptians rely heavily on their tourist industry—“The Tourist Is Our Guest,” read a banner in Tahrir Square—but alongside the cash economy runs another, personal economy—one of honor. Loss of face means loss of trust, and loss of trust can mean a social breakdown far greater than the one faced by failed institutions.

Published in the 2012-04-20 issue: View Contents
Christopher Thornton teaches at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
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