The sounds made lately by curfew violators here are mostly not shouts or gunshots, but the clacking of dice on wooden backgammon boards, the clicking of dominoes on cafe tables crowded with hookahs and grumbling fueled by years of upheaval.
When the conversation turns to politics, the predominant topic is a surprise to American ears: the conspiracy between the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood to destroy Egypt.
However crackpot that view may sound, it is widespread among supporters of the military, which ousted the Muslim Brotherhood’s elected president, Mohamed Morsi, last month.
For journalists who ventured out Saturday night in violation of the curfew, the biggest danger was not from police officers and soldiers at checkpoints, but from angry men with a chip on their shoulders and a grudge against Al Jazeera, the Western press and America.
The “people’s committees,” which sprung up in Egyptian neighborhoods as a counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood, in theory were disbanded last week. But that did not stop self-appointed guardians in the Zaki Street market of the Maadi neighborhood from repeatedly demanding identity documents, letters of permission and, especially, proof of not being affiliated with Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab news network, which is reviled because it is owned by Qatar, a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.
As patrons of the Red Apple Cafe ignored the new 9 p.m. curfew, the presence of an American elicited bountiful conspiracy theories, all of them involving America’s plan to destroy Egypt through its paid Brotherhood confederates. Even innocuous questions about the curfew, which on Saturday was shortened two hours, became ideologically fraught. “What are you doing, why are you asking about curfew?” yelled one man. “It is something internal.” A group of other men surrounding an interpreter, their faces only inches from his, introduced themselves by saying, “We are not thugs,” before proceeding to threaten and berate their interlocutors.
Egyptians have always shrugged off curfews. Cairo’s night life continues pretty much as normal in places like Maadi and especially in poor and working-class areas, where street life provides some relief to people who live in hot apartments.
On Zaki Street, the cafes were full of smokers of shisha, the flavored tobacco burned in water pipes, and of backgammon players. Outside, the driver of a horse-drawn cart full of canisters of cooking gas clanged his cans to announce his presence, and Farouq, a middle-aged man making deliveries to supermarkets with a motorcycle-drawn cart, stopped to talk.
“Americans are with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Farouq stated in a tone suggesting that it was common knowledge. “O.K., you did something good when you killed Osama bin Laden, but now you are with Al Qaeda. You support the terrorists.”
A strong anti-American undercurrent has always existed in Egypt, but such views are more normally associated with radicals and Islamists, and in reaction to American support for Israel.
But now anti-American sentiment is being stoked by an outpouring of dubious pronouncements from both state and private news media. Anti-Americanism has even been given the ultimate imprimatur of state tolerance: billboards. One next door to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for instance, shows President Obama with a beard like those worn by the Brotherhood, alongside a more flattering picture of the clean-shaven military leader, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi.
“Maybe it’s insane,” allowed Khaled Salah, Youm 7’s editor in chief, “but we are in a time when crazy things are happening.” Egypt’s leaders have carefully avoided anti-American rhetoric, Mr. Salah said. “After a time, rationality will return.”
The origin of the idea of a terrorist-friendly America is opaque. Many cite money given to the Brotherhood, but what they are referring to is the $1.5 billion in American aid to the government of Egypt, which flowed to Mr. Morsi’s government as it did to the government before it, and as it continues to do since the military takeover. Most of that, $1.2 billion, goes to the Egyptian military, and none of it goes to the Brotherhood.
In fact, Mr. Obama has taken a great deal of criticism for not cutting off aid to Egypt after the military crackdown killed more than 1,100 people, most of them Brotherhood protesters.
“We’ve been blamed by supporters of Morsi; we’ve been blamed by the other side as if we are supporters of Morsi,” Mr. Obama said on Aug. 15 when he announced the only real American sanction so far in response to the violence, the cancellation of a joint military exercise. “That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future that they deserve.”
Many Egyptians refer to YouTube clips played repeatedly by the pro-military news media, quoting Representative Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, who recently equated giving $1.5 billion in aid to the Morsi government with support for terrorists.
Back in the Maadi neighborhood, supporters of the military offered similar theories. “The American and Muslim Brotherhood project is to separate Egypt into different parts,” shouted Yahyeh, a builder, his face contorted with hatred. Ahmed, an engineer who said he had worked 22 years for Xerox in Cairo, was only slightly less hostile. “Egyptians have always liked America, but now they don’t understand how it has changed,” he said.
But a few contrary voices could be heard on Saturday night.
“Show me any evidence that America supports the Brotherhood,” said Ahmed Abdullah Wahed, a driver, after listening to others in the crowd. “General Sisi was even trained in America. Where is the evidence?”
Another man had some advice for how his questioners should handle curfew checkpoints. “Whatever you do, don’t tell them you’re American journalists,” he said. “Just say you’re tourists.”