Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reverse osmosis water filter

The water in Cairo is very heavily treated and chlorinated. There does not seem to be a problem of parasites and bacteria in the city water supply, but the result is not so tasty. It is probably not immediately dangerous to drink the water, but the consensus is that over time it may be unhealthy due to the high chlorination levels. (If the fading colors of our clothing are any indication of what our insides would look like, I would be concerned.) So since we moved here, we have been drinking mineral water.

First, we bought cases of large 1.5 liter bottles. Then, frustrated with all of the plastic we were consuming (even though disposed bottles are often reused by someone in the city), we upgraded to refillable 19 liter jugs which were less expensive and better for the environment.

We paid a little bit more than $2 for a bottle. At first, we operated it with a basic hand pump which never worked especially well.

Then we hit the jackpot. A friend who was leaving sold us a water cooler—office style—shown here.

This worked great—it was hot and cold

Over time, however, there is also concern about the mineral content in drinking water, also with regard to long-term cumulative effect. A few friends had installed filtration systems. We have a small shower-head filter that we to soften the water for bathing. When the plumber was here installing it, we talked about it, particularly with regard to an infant. The conversation shifted to drinking water, and he pointed out the mineral content, which was labeled on the water we were drinking. Many of the minerals are very hard for a baby to process (and possibly for an adult as well.)

So our latest, and perhaps final, move is a reverse osmosis five-stage water filtration system, connected to the faucet, which you can see here. It is quite impressive. And the water tastes great. One of the filters is visible, and you can see the color of it after a little bit more than two months of use. We are due for our first filter change in a couple weeks, so I will be interested to see what everything else looks like.

On police and security

Over the past few months, there has been a lot written about security and safety in Cairo after the revolution, mostly as a result of the disappearance of the police (or their reduced numbers or their decreased effectiveness for a range of complicated reasons). Even the New York Times got into it about a month or two ago, and people feel insecure, mostly with good reason. In these situations, it is hard to distinguish fact from impression (people’s fear of crime, and the state’s response often has very little direct relationship to the actual crime rate), but things have changed here in a way that legitimately make many people feel unsafe. In our well-to-do neighborhood, the concerns are different than those in other, often more vulnerable, areas, but there are extremely legitimate concerns.

Very basically, under Mubarak, there was a corrupt and brutal police force. During the revolution, the police disappeared completely (and in many cases instigated violence and looting and other destabilizing things) and then gradually returned, in fits and starts. During the revolution, neighborhoods took it upon themselves to set up patrols and provide security, essentially civilians providing a necessary service that the state neglected to provide. This was all remarkably well organized, especially considering how rapidly communities were forced to organize (literally over the course of couple hours). Often civilians also took up traffic posts during rush hour.

Today, the police are not present at their previous level, and, for those who are on the streets, the kind of attitude that dominates many police departments is gone. It is no longer clear that they can behave with impunity, or are even the ones in control. For me, all of this came to the forefront in something that happened in New Maadi, near where we live, about two weeks after the end of the revolution, as police were slowly beginning to return to the streets.

In Algiers Square, a microbus driver was stopped by a police officer who was known in that area for harassing drivers. (At this point, I should add that my understanding of what happened is not very authoritative—it is compiled from what I remember reading in several newspapers at the time and online since, and from talking to people, so my understanding of the facts is limited.) One driver stood up to him, in a way that seems like it would not have happened before the revolution, and in an ensuing scuffle the cop shot the driver. Then, the crowd came to the driver’s aid and attacked the cop, beating him up pretty badly. The initial reports were that both were killed, though I don’t think that either one was. The crowd, led by other microbus drivers, burnt a few police vehicles in the area and even ran up on the cop’s home though they did not do anything (which I initially took as evidence of how this cop was familiar to people though I think they may have found his id card). This cop, it was also either known or learned, was the son of a well-known high-ranking officer. Eventually the military came into to rescue the police, who stayed away from all of Maadi for at least a week afterwards as I recall, which resulted in the cancellation of the rest of the public school week (or delayed its resumption at least). With the police gone, the youth directed traffic. Lots of ramifications in the short term.

In the long term, this seems to be one incident among many, but it looks like part of a very messy, and occasionally violent, transition from a system where the police act with impunity to a system where they are held accountable. Part of what is described throughout the city are examples of police becoming increasingly passive, unwilling to get involved as they do not know if they will have appropriate support, or if the people will turn against them. So they are much less effective. Yet, despite the chaos of what happened in New Maadi, it does seem to suggest the possibility of an alternate order that does have accountability built into it. And ultimately I think that is what people want and what people deserve—security with accountability. My sense is that the overwhelming majority of Cairenes want an increased effective police presence, without a return to the old regime. Accountability has to involve meaningful legal and other processes. (What about democratic elections of police officers by the communities they serve?) I also think the combination that emerged—citizen security, other private measures, a moderated police force—can achieve a certain kind of effective balance. Something that allows us to imagine a system other than one where all security is handled by the government. I certainly hope so.

In events like this one, a new dynamic is being formulated. The re-formation of security apparatus can result in its reformation, as everyone learns and understands the new roles that are expected of them. While I am not sure my optimism is warranted, I do believe that an effective system of accountable policing is being formulated (inevitably perhaps, through events like Algiers Square) and hopefully will take hold.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Street Lights

Since we have lived here (three years now), the street lights have not worked. Some of the individual buildings have lights and there are some stores at one end, but the lights on the lamp posts have not worked. Some of these lamp posts were taken down during the revolution for use as road blocks by people in the neighborhood to block cars from driving down our street. Since then, they have laid by the side of the road.

Now, people in the community have apparently gotten together and fixed them— rewired and remounted them without the government. And just a couple of days ago, they were working again* (presuming that they did work at some point in the past) for the first time in at least three years. Here is the view from our balcony.

Monday, June 13, 2011

More on election results

You can read about the election and its results on Al-Masry Al-Youm (including 88% turnout).

Sunday, June 12, 2011

University Dean Elections

I have recently heard a bit of good news from colleagues at Cairo University, which is the largest in the country with 250,000 students (as I recall). This weekend, they just had their first democratic election of a Dean of the Faculty of Arts, with seven candidates running and extremely high turnout among the faculty and staff electorate. The new Dean is also the first woman to hold the position. Part of what intrigues and inspires me about this process is the way that, amid so much remaining tense in the streets and so many serious questions about the military rulers of the country and the future, that the “revolution” has taken greater hold throughout many spheres.

My initial inclination was to describe this as the way that democratic practices have transformed “civil society,” but I think that presumes the existence of “civil society” as such. The universities were administered by the government, operated through political pressures, and, perhaps most damagingly, surveyed and patrolled by state security. So what has happened is in many ways a two-step process (a ridiculous over simplification for sure). First, the university had to be civilianized (a process which began in some sense before the revolution with a court ruling evicting state security from campuses, though it has taken the revolution to see even a modicum of enforcement). And then, secondly, processes like this weekend’s elections are able to take place, thanks to the impressive and longstanding activism of so many faculty and students on the campuses. I think the results are both transformative and sustainable.

And I guess I think in some ways this may be what the revolution looks like—at least in part—the transformation of civil institutions in such ways. A similar electoral process took place at Ain Shams University earlier in the year, so there is reason to be encouraged. Such changes do not carry much weight in the international media, unfortunately, and things elsewhere in the city remain as unsettled as ever, but I do think this reminds us that, if we looks in the right place, there are reasons to be hopeful.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Donkey Cart

I love the fact that I live in a place where, on the three-block walk home from where I get off the bus, I pass a guy selling watermelons off of a donkey-drawn wooden hitch. If we were not going out of town, I surely would have bought one.