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 “...