09.04.2013 | Waiting for normal

Cairo is quiet. Not just Tahrir Square, the country's most obvious monument to revolution, which remains eerily empty during the day; but all over the city, the streets are strangely empty.

Cairo's twelve-mile long north-south artery, the 6th October Bridge, usually nose to tail traffic along its length for most of the day, is now unusually fluid, with traffic clearing after less than a mile.  The police, usually sprawled in sentry boxes and on pavements across the city, are notably absent.  The dust has visibly settled on the capital's homes and businesses.  It is even further ingrained in the yellowed concrete of its tower blocks and it dulls the city’s sun-faded billboards.

I last spent significant time here in summer 2010, when dissatisfaction permeated every fissure in society but resignation with the thirty year regime reigned.  Having followed developments from television and computer screens in London, I was dreading returning to a city I love to feel tension in place of the ubiquitous humour, hostility in place of its famed hospitality.  The humour and hospitality remain, subdued but unmistakably Egyptian, but there is also a sense of weariness, a strong desire for it all to be over.

A few stoic protesters camp in the square, braving the already impressive heat.  The burnt-out headquarters of Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party tower over the red facade of the Egyptian Museum.  Numbers swell at night and on Fridays when voices are still heard condemning corruption in the new regime, demanding quicker, more effective change.   By day, all that remains of them are a few stalls selling Che Guevara t-shirts alongside Egyptian flags.

Signs of the former crowds are most visible in the graffiti, which proliferates across bridges and hoardings.  The city had previously been remarkably free of it, but now tributes to young men killed in the uprisings abound: winged boys with bleeding eyes, their dates of birth poignantly recent, each one now named a martyr.  On the spot of each death, a stencilled sign reads: Dead Body.  In particular, the 72 men killed in football riots in January 2012 are remembered with huge banners over the entrance to Ahli football club, of which most were fans.

So where is everyone?  Not, as the International Herald Tribune would have me believe from my free in-flight copy, storming the streets and murdering each other at petrol stations over the lack of diesel.  Indeed, when I question the taxi tout at Cairo airport on the matter he seems entirely ignorant of the shortage, showing only a flicker of interest when I suggest it might have affected taxi prices.

Instead, they are inside patiently awaiting a return to normal, hoping that Mohammed Morsi will not further divide the country or drive its economy over the brink, disappointed that their revolution appears to have changed nothing but the face of a deaf government.

Behind the smashed neon signage of the McDonald’s on Tahrir Square, the restaurant remains discreetly open, home delivery still available.  But business is bad.  Shops are closed awaiting better times.  Foreign investment has all but dried up since the uprising and three years of uncertainty have taken their toll.  In one restaurant I hear the sentence I thought no one would dare say: "I wish Mubarak were back.  At least he gave us stability".

Returning to the airport across the 6th October Bridge, crowds swarm in the streets below, not huge, perhaps a few hundred people marching between Tahrir Square and the Cathedral.  Suddenly tear gas burns in my eyes through the taxi windows. We speed away and the next morning I read of the murders of Coptic mourners and the riots and clashes with police that ran on deep into the night.  It may be quiet, but calm still evades this weary, resilient city.