5 Survival Lessons From Inside a Real World Dystopia
Movies love stories of scrappy heroes overthrowing an evil regime, and in these stories, there are exactly three types of characters:
1. The heroic revolutionaries
2. The evil empire
3. The nameless civilians running screaming in the background
We never get the story from that third group -- even though the vast majority of us would fall into that category should regime change ever come to our land.
Well, we spoke to two residents of Cairo, Egypt, who had to live through not one but two full-blown, honest-to-God revolutions in less time than it took to make the latest Transformers sequel. They were Adam, an Egyptian living in Cairo during the overthrow of President Mubarak in 2011, and Jim, a British student and teacher in Cairo during the overthrow of President Morsi in 2013. Here's what they told us about coping with everyday life once the world around you completely loses its goddamned mind:
The Post-Revolution Chaos Is Fucking Terrifying
Here's the thing about overthrowing a regime, even if the regime is full of assholes: it's usually followed by a period where nobody is in charge. And if you think that sounds pretty sweet, it's only because you've never experienced it -- imagine a world where if somebody breaks into your house in a murderous rage, there is absolutely no one to call. Yep, it's basically The Purge.
But the army guys are at risk, too.
This was the case during both of Egypt's revolutions -- there were stretches of time where the cops just ... gave up and left. As you can imagine, this was like surprise Christmas for any criminals or aspiring criminals out there. At that point, the populace was able to step in and dispense some good old-fashioned frontier justice, which in reality tends to look a lot like a crowd beating a man to death or a mob lynching a pair of alleged thieves.
As Cairo resident Adam told us: "Picture a thief tied to a lamppost. He has been beaten to within an inch of his life. There is euphoria around him; his captors are celebrating their swift imposition of justice. Some are taking pictures with their phones."
It's never too violent outside for a selfie.
Were those guys actually guilty? Who knows -- an angry mob of revolutionaries full of pent-up rage is subject to even less oversight than the corrupt Egyptian cops who were unjustly pummeling them in the first place. As Adam put it, "They gradually become enforcers of a 'law' that is essentially a result of their own opinions and sometimes mood."
Jim, the British student/teacher who was working in Cairo during the second revolution, had to avoid the protests entirely -- white people don't blend in terribly well in Egypt, and word was beginning to spread that foreigners were secretly spies, aligned with whatever hated ruler happened to be in power. "You were at risk even trying to have a look. It was a running joke among me and my friends ... me looking like a spy." Jim wasn't just being paranoid -- an American student (in Egypt to teach English, just like Jim) was stabbed to death at a protest by pro-military rebels swarming an office of the Muslim Brotherhood. He wasn't attempting to block the entrance or hold anyone back -- he was literally just standing there, being obviously non-Egyptian, and he took a knife to the chest for his trouble.
"Wait a sec ... this guy doesn't walk like us at all."
The fact is, large groups of angry people don't tend to make the best decisions, and suddenly handing them the reins of power after decades of government pacification gradually dulls the "righteous fury of revolution" to the less-dazzling "self-righteous fury of revolution," until eventually all you have is just plain old fury. And once the government is out of the picture, the only thing left to vent that fury on are the people you claimed to be fighting for in the first place. It's like that friend you had in 5th grade who was really cool until he became a hall monitor and immediately transformed into an insufferable shitbasket.
Adam recalls: "As I was walking past one of these rallies, which was rather unhelpfully setting up barricades to block one of the vital [roads] ... I watched the glee with which they began refusing passage to the cars that had begun to pile up, forcing them to U-turn and drive away. It may have been for a political cause on the macro level, but on the micro level there was an unequivocal sense of giddiness."
Sometimes it's just fun to build barricades.
Without a doubt, that giddiness was originally born from the triumph of successfully standing up to a terrible, oppressive government. But at some point, you realize there are certain people in that crowd who just saw a blank check to harass people. This is, we suppose, why revolutions often just result in other revolutions -- the movement gets co-opted by people who simply wanted their own turn in the asshole chair.
You Need to Make Lots of Friends, Fast
So, how did things get like this?
Well, back in January 2011, citizens of Cairo took to the streets to protest unemployment, government corruption, and pretty much the whole grab bag of shitty things disenfranchised people are subjected to. President Mubarak, responding in the traditionally restrained manner of a dictator, dispatched riot police with orders to bash the dissenters into changing their minds. Everything came to a head on Jan. 25, the "day of rage," which looked exactly like it sounds:
It was a great day for torch salesmen.
Several police stations and prisons were targeted by revolutionaries with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an international organization that had recently announced its support of the uprising, resulting in the systematic jailbreak of over 20,000 inmates, including a handful of high-level members of the Brotherhood (one of whom, Mohammed Morsi, would eventually become president -- until he would get deposed just a year later when the whole thing repeated itself). The police realized they were outnumbered and left the citizens to fend for themselves.
And, the second the last cop dropped his riot shield and ran screaming over the horizon, roving gangs of looters began rampaging unchecked through the streets like platoons of Australian motorcycle raiders. Rational non-maniacs like Adam had to band together to try to keep people safe once the cops pulled out. "People took to the streets and formed checkpoints in their neighborhoods ... if you did not know who your neighbors were, then you ran the risk of not knowing who was a potential threat and who was not, and, more importantly, it would be difficult to determine who could be trusted if push came to shove (as it sometimes did)."
If you don't know which checkpoints are manned by assholes, you'll have to assume they all are.
In other words, if the only time you ever exchange words with your neighbor is to ask if he would mind turning C&C Music Factory down a few decibels, chances are you wouldn't be able to team up and form a New World Coalition in the event that society breaks down. You'll be on your own, and that's a problem. "The more tightly knit communities fared the best; when they pooled their resources, they took control of larger areas and were able to tightly control access through a consistent presence ... safety in numbers held true, particularly in terms of reducing soft target appeal. Why attack a place that is protected by 20 armed people when there are areas with barely anyone in the street?"
"One gun, two hats? We like our odds."
So if your apocalypse strategy is to barricade yourself inside your house with a rifle and a six-month supply of SpaghettiOs, rest assured that the bunker-busting robbery squad rolling up and down your street has taken notice of the fact that you are completely alone. It's always better to be part of a like-minded group, even if it means sharing your SpaghettiOs.
Speaking of which ...
You Need to Stock Up on Unexpected Things
If truth is the first casualty of war, well-stocked pharmacies are definitely the second. Adam recalls that medication deliveries during the revolution were, at best, "intermittent," which is a word here meaning "good luck with your diabetes, friend." Diapers also ran out fast, and their absence was felt "in the most ... offending way possible."
These baggie white things are the ticking clock on civilization.
Adam was young and healthy and baby-less in early 2011, just before all of the shit in Egypt hit the fan, so you might think he would have been more or less OK just holing up inside his house with a laptop. You would be very wrong. You see, just before President Mubarak got booted out of office, the embattled Egyptian government cut off all Internet access in a last-ditch attempt to prevent a large-scale revolt, presumably hoping the people's desire to torrent Game of Thrones would overwhelm their desire to tear free from the 30-year bonds of subjugation.
The blackout extended beyond just the Internet -- mobile phone carriers were forced to suspend their services too. Now, that may sound like a minor inconvenience, but think about what would happen if every communication network in the country suddenly went down. That means no electronic transactions, which means everything has to be paid for in cash in a sea of lawless malcontents. So, how much cash do you keep on hand? Now, imagine you're in this situation while visiting another country, like Jim was.
Every ATM withdrawal turns you into a squirrel around a watering hole in the Serengeti.
Only a few ATMs were still working, but these were out in public spaces in a city which suddenly had no police presence to speak of. If people wanted to pay for food with anything other than the barter system, they had to venture out to make a cash withdrawal, which is the equivalent of wading through Deep Blue Sea in an albacore track suit.
See, this is the other part that never gets mentioned in "Let's take down the evil emperor" epics like Braveheart or Star Wars -- the fact that during the historic uprising, most people are still trying to get to work, and buy groceries, and live their lives. Which means ...
You Have to Adjust to the Chaos
Adam's job had him traveling in and out of Egypt during the first transition between revolution and quasi-legitimate government. "The first time I arrived in Cairo after the 2011 revolution, there was a curfew in effect, and I was worried that the late arrival of my flight would be a problem. I raised the point with my family, who had come to pick me up at the airport, even as we came upon a military checkpoint after curfew. I was tense, my family was not; they behaved as if this was standard fare and nothing out of the ordinary. For them, it had become the new normal."
"Normal," it turns out, is a punishingly relative term.
It's a special kind of bad when your basic street policing is being done by guys on tanks.
The next time Adam came back to Cairo, there were widespread political rallies and demonstrations all across Egypt; routes were often blocked that made entire sections of the city completely inaccessible. Locals developed a bestselling app to help users navigate this volatile mess by sending out important traffic updates such as "people firing AK-47s into the sky -- use alternate route."
Adam didn't realize how jaded he had become to the city-burning violence until the day he watched two armed factions battle it out across a nearby bridge and wondered if that shit was going to muck up his afternoon commute. "My main concern was whether they would be done before my shift was done, or would traffic be hell because of all this trouble?"
"Google says it's red for the next three miles."
It's like planning a vacation, only instead of rain you're trying to avoid the stirring fires of revolution. Said Jim: "Every Friday there were protests; you organized your life around them: 'Oh, there's a protest on Friday, let's stay out of the city center.' For the January Revolution anniversary we went to Dahab [a small town on the opposite end of the country], because we knew there'd be big protests ... you're constantly watching the news, and you treat new political rallies and developments like storm fronts moving in."
No One Is Neutral -- Even if They Want to Be
You've probably sat through your fair share of "debates" between tipsy relatives on opposite sides of the political spectrum over Thanksgiving dinner. Now imagine an equally polarizing debate taking place in the middle of an armed revolution consisting of Islamic extremists and pro-military secularists, and you wind up in a situation where even having a "moderate" viewpoint can get you fucking stabbed for failing to sufficiently support one side or the other.
Behind that box is only a knife.
As we mentioned, after President Mubarak was given the boot and the country languished without an official president for a full year, the recently jail-sprung Morsi was elected into what would turn out to be a very short-lived presidency. During that time, Jim was teaching English to children ages 6 to 11, which traditionally is an age group that pays the exact same amount of attention to national politics as they do to the rules of etiquette governing the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese's.
However, kids are pretty good at parroting whatever politically charged vitriol comes out of their parents' mouths, regardless of whether or not they really understand what they're saying. And, when mom and dad come home bloody because of political rhetoric, or don't come home at all, you'd better believe those kids are going to repeat that shit.
Children are like nature's parrots.
"I was teaching English, and I taught them the word 'thief' at one point, and this 11-year-old says, 'Oh the Muslim Brotherhood, they're thieves,'" Jim said. As if this were part of the lesson plan and the kid was just helpfully reminding him that he'd skipped over it. "You couldn't go through a day without speaking about politics. You'd introduce yourself to someone, and they would almost always ask, 'What do you think about Morsi? What do you think about the Muslim Brotherhood?'"
"What do you think about my new face paint?"
And, keep in mind, you'd better be very goddamned careful about how you answer a question like that in a country where a judge recently sentenced 720 people to death for being alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters after what could just barely be called a trial. Just in the last year, the new government has killed more than 1,400 people and thrown another 16,000 in jail. Most of whom were supporters of Morsi -- the last guy who got thrown out -- who want him back in. If that happens, there'll be a whole different list of arrest warrants, for the other side.
And on and on it goes.
For more insider perspectives, check out 8 Terrifying Life Lessons From a Former Terrorist and 8 Things I Learned as an American Governor in Occupied Iraq. Have a story to share with Cracked? Email us here.