Alert Level

One night last February, bulldozers rumbled over to the concrete wall between the Cairo street where I live and Tahrir Square. Down came the wall and up went a spiked steel gate, opening the street once again to vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

Ever the aspiring flâneur, I’ve taken to strolling our transformed thoroughfare, focusing my attention on its most fascinating (and proliferate) specimens: the foot soldiers of the Egyptian security apparatus. There are officers in uniform, plainclothes guys who saunter their beats in casual black, and even the occasional suit with a machine gun casually sticking out from under his jacket, like the tail feathers of a rare bird.

The most interesting fixtures of the street by far, however, are the matching sets of battle-ready riot police. Perched in the choicest spots, their posture offers a convenient shorthand for the state’s state of alert.

Most of the time, the guys are sitting around smoking cigarettes—riot shields and batons nearby, perhaps, but not in hand. In the wake of, say, a failed bombing attempt, they stand in loose formation—body armor on and shields at the ready, but not in position.

But when there are referendums or cabinet resignations or presidential elections or inaugurations or big anniversaries, or sometimes for no apparent reason at all, the shields suddenly appear—like so many riot-gear-shaped-pearls yanked into an even strand and held aloft at a height roughly proportional to the perceived gravity of the news.

Defensively framing the state’s perspective in the face of threats real and imagined, the shields remind me a bit of the bristled hair on the back of a threatened Cairo street cat. Keep your distance, they say. This one may bite.