Atef is a lawyer and a lifetime resident of Imbaba. He leads me into a labyrinth of dirt alleyways, each no more than a few meters wide. The damp air is thick with dust and the smell of sewage.
Imbaba is one of the most densely-populated places in the world. Almost a million people live here, crammed into an area three times more crowded than Manhattan.
The streets all look the same. It feels like a person could be lost here for the rest of their life.
“This has been my neighborhood for a long time,” Atef said. “So, of course, I know all the streets. I know what leads to where.”
A year ago, Atef joined the uprising in Tahrir Square.
Those protests were about toppling Hosni Mubarak. For Atef, that meant changing the way Egypt works.
For decades, Mubarak’s government saw places like Imbaba as a liability – a potential source of opposition. The government simply ignored the neighborhood, failing to provide even the most basic services.
People would complain. But the former regime ruled Imbaba by sowing fear. The dreaded agents of state security were always listening. And for anyone who dared criticize the regime, arrest, torture and even death were never far off.
“The regime wanted us to think of them as the father and the mother of all the people,” Atef said. “The government does everything and the people do nothing. They don’t participate in political life. In one party rule, the people weren’t allowed to have a role.”
Atef believes that if Egyptian democracy is really going to work, people must be able to take control of their own communities. That’s where his neighborhood committee comes in. During last winter’s uprising, Khaled organized a group of local men to protect homes and business from looters and thugs.
They armed themselves with whatever they had – broomsticks, machetes, crowbars. They set up checkpoints and patrolled these alleyways. After the protests, most neighborhood committees in Cairo dissolved.
Not in Imbaba.
Within days of Mubarak’s fall, neighbors started calling for Khaled’s group to do more. Somebody wanted them to train unemployed young people to direct traffic. Another wanted them to collect dues from each household and fund a garbage collection system.
Khaled’s neighbors’ attitudes towards their community had changed.
“The revolution was a big turning point,” Atef said. “Before the revolution, people here didn’t have a sense of belonging to the neighborhood because of what the old regime had done to them. But now, people here feel that this country belongs to them again. And they want to do something about it.”
In a country that has never had local government, the idea of neighbors organizing themselves to improve their community was, well, revolutionary. Since then, Khaled’s little committee has kicked into overdrive.
They’ve opened offices all over Imbaba. Established a modest budget and attracted a small army of 1,500 volunteers.
There are, Khaled says, Muslims and Christians represented on the committee. And, they’ve welcomed members of all political stripes.
They’ve organized soccer tournaments and street cleanups.
They’ve arranged to have gas lines and streetlights installed.
They’ve mediated disputes between rival businessmen.
Anyone listening to this outside of Egypt would think that these things would be the job of the government.
“We are the government,” Atef said. “There was a vacuum after the revolution and it was necessary to fill that because this is our country.”
The committee meets in an alleyway around the corner from Atef ‘s apartment. He takes his spot on a chair under a streetlight and greets committee members.
By 8:30, a dozen men have assembled on chairs borrowed wooden chairs from the coffee shop at the end of the alleyway. Atef reminds me that just months ago, attending a meeting like this might have landed us all in jail.
“In the days of the tyrant, somebody would have reported tonight’s meeting to the state security authorities,” Atef said. “And then, after 3 a.m., there would be a knock on he door and we’d all be taken away to jail. But you would be okay. Your embassy would come and bail you out.”
There’s not a hint of fear tonight, as Atef calls the meeting to order. There’s discussion about food prices, immunization and garbage.
We’ve been blocking the alleyway and cars want to pass. So the meeting adjourns briefly as committee members scatter. When they reconvene, Atef calls on Mr. Nasr to take the floor to report back from his trip to the local social security office.
“It’s so crowded and chaotic,” Nasr said. “There are big crowds and people have to wait in line for hours. And there are lots of arguments in line and with the clerks. Meanwhile, the manager just sits in his office and doesn’t care.”
Imbaba’s poorest residents collect food stamps each month at the chaotic social security.
“Men and women end up waiting in line from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon,” Nasr said. “And naturally, when they get to the clerk they are so fed up. The clerk is fed up too.”
It’s been that way for years – under Mubarak’s rule nothing could be done about it. But the neighborhood committee is about to demand changes.
“I went upstairs to meet the manager in his office. I told him that the least he could do is give out numbered tickets like they do in banks so people can sit and be comfortable until their number is called. The manager was cooperative. But his boss was arrogant, just like the old regime used to be. Of course, I kept my cool. I told him his arrogance would not go unnoticed and that we would file a complaint. I made sure to tell him that our voices will be heard,” Nasr said.
“That’s good,” Atef said. “It will give the message to the social security employees that we paid them respect and we didn’t go behind their backs and directly to the governor. Am I right? Ok. We will assemble a sub committee and it will go on Monday. Who wants to participate? Now, onto the next item. Public hygiene and cleaning.”
The meeting draws to a close just before midnight. Khaled and his friends want to know what I think about the neighborhood committee. I tell them that in the years I’ve been coming to Egypt I’ve heard complaints about just how difficult life has become here.
But I’ve never once heard anyone offer solutions. Until now. That’s exciting.
What I don’t tell them is that I wonder just how effective their neighborhood committee will be.