Image by Maha Salem.
Egypt is rarely predictable, so it wasn't surprising to see snow in the desert this weekend.
By Friday morning, social media had gone mad with photos of an Egyptian winter wonderland. Pictures from Madinaty and New Cairo on the eastern outskirts of the city showed white stuff frosted on cars and swanky apartments. @GalalAmrG tweeted a camel in the snow. One meme joked, “God bless Sisi, he transformed our country into a European one in two months,” and a popular satirist, who tweets as @KarlRemarks, tweeted, “It's snowing in the desert. I think God is dropping hints that the Arab Spring is over.” At the same time, a government official told OnTV news channel that this cold snap had nothing to do with global warming.
This is the first time many Cairenes have seen snow. The British newspaper the Mirror claimed this was Cairo's first snowfall in 112 years, but the Egyptian Meteorological Authority later denied this claim. Either way, it's been ages since Egypt has had snow.
In the middle of Cairo, the weather treated people to day-long rain and flurries of hail stones, and the streets turned into mush and puddles – in the posh Garden City, cars navigated through inches-deep rivers, as streets next to the Nile River flooded in Zamalek, a high-end neighbourhood in the middle of the city.
But away from all the excitement of snow-frosted neighbourhoods – most of the winter wonderland pictures came from upper middle class satellite towns – the unusual climate made people's lives more difficult, weathering the existing cracks in Egyptian society. As internet chattered on about whether pictures of pyramids covered in snow would surface, many Egyptians suffered.
Some activists worried the snow would worsen conditions in Egypt. Sara Bergamaschi, co-founder of the Sina Network, has been working with her organisation to improve refugees' conditions inside Egypt during a time when both locals and authorities are turning their backs on them. She thought the snow would only create more problems.
“This is bad news for us,” she said. “We all know that the Syrian crisis in the Middle East has worsened, but in Egypt too, it has gotten worse. This weather will only amplify the risks refugees are already exposed to.”
In the midst of Cairo's first winter in years, the authorities released Syrians and Palestinians who had been held in inhumane conditions for weeks. “When the cold weather came, they were released and basically just left on the streets,” Sara said. “We don't know why some of them were held, and some let go. The situation is blurry.”
Children and the homeless have also been negatively affected. Nelly Ali, a human rights lecturer and activist for children's rights based in London, said, “These really are dangerous months.”
“You would be forgiven for thinking that blankets were the number one requirement during the winter. What we actually have gapping shortage of is first aid and burn cream,” she said, noting that street children are building fires to stave off the cold and end up hurting themselves. “This is also a time when children are offering sexual favours in return for shelter, warmth, and food,” Nelly said before telling the story of a young girl with Parkinson's disease who became pregnant this way.
“There are many things that we can do. The first is to realise that every one of us has a responsibility to alleviate the suffering that others are enduring.”
Meanwhile, life in Egypt trundles on. Yesterday, Al Jazeera reported that two demonstrators died, cops arrested 54 activists and three policemen were injured during anti-military protests. The government has announced the dates for a nationwide constitutional referendum in January, and the specter of Egypt's third revolutionary anniversary is now firmly on the horizon. Unrest is guaranteed, and tidy conclusions are thin on the ground.