Upon American President Barack Obama's arrival in Cairo Thursday the bustling city of 20 million is expected to come to a virtual standstill as many of its main traffic arteries are blocked, businesses shuttered and schools closed to make way for the president of the world's superpower.
As Cairo prepares to host Obama and his convoy of 100 journalists and 3,000 security personnel, Egyptian and American security agencies have stepped up security measures in and around the city and the ministry of interior renovated key sites Obama is expected to visit.
High-level dignitaries typically visit the Red Sea resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh, but Obama said he wanted to visit Cairo as a historic venue of knowledge and the heart of the Muslim world.
Obama is scheduled to arrive at the presidential palace to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at 10:00 a.m. local time along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was already in Cairo Wednesday.
He will then visit Sultan Hasan mosque in Muqattam before heading to Cairo University to give a long-awaited speech to the Muslim world. Afterwards he is to tour the Pyramids.
The president will reportedly meet with several of Egypt’s leading politicians, dissidents, experts and activists including recently released dissident Ayman Nour, the wife of recently pardoned Saed Eddin Ibrahim and the Ahram Center’s Muslim Brotherhood expert Khalil al-Anani, and hold a roundtable discussion with journalists. He will finish his day at the American embassy where he will meet with embassy staff before leaving Cairo.
Turning Cairo into a “military base”
Washington has taken full control of security in the Cairo for the eight-hour presidential visit.Thirty-thousand army and intelligence personnel have been put on special duty under U.S. command until Obama leaves, according to online Egyptian network al-Misriyoon.
Some 1,000 CIA and FBI agents, three special aircrafts loaded with armoured vehicles equipped with firearms and detector sensors have landed at Cairo’s International airport and 3,000 bodyguards are still on their way.
Palestinian Maan news agency reported that marine forces have been deployed on the banks of the Nile River, train stations, and other unknown routes in Cairo.
Cairo University, Egypt’s oldest and largest secular university and the site of vibrant political dissents, was handed over to state security last Wednesday ahead of Obama’s coming. Security personnel could be seen roaming the campus, inspecting possible security loopholes in and around the Dome building, where Obama is to give his speech.
Obama will land in the sports stadium and cross Tharwat Street on foot into the main campus for the speech.
While state security officials were tight-lipped, campus patrol service staff agreed to speak to Al Arabiya on condition of anonymity.
“This is certainly the biggest security procedure I have seen take place on campus,” a patrol security staff said. “They have posted police at every intersection in and around campus and have given strict instructions about locking building entrances and campus gates."
Cairo University and two affiliated universities have postponed final exams scheduled for Thursday.
“It is normal that security measures are heightened for official visits, but not to this degree of paranoia,” Hani al Hussein, Cairo University professor and anti- security , told Al Arabiya. “Obama was at Notre Dame University last week to give a speech, did you see such disproportionate measures that stops the city dead for a whole day?”
However, during former George W. Bush’s visit to Dubai in 2008 the main roads and universities were also closed for the day.
Routes closed, residents under house arrest
Egyptian security authorities have gone door to door in the three main districts surrounding the university -- Masr al-Gadidah, Giza and Manyal -- collecting the identity cards of residents and businesses. Meanwhile residents on Khalifah al-ma'mun, a street near the presidential palace, were instructed "not to look out the window throughout Thursday."
"Security officer came to my door yesterday and told me not to leave my house or dare look out the window. My family and I and all my neighbors will be on house arrest so the president can feel safe," Shehata, who did not want to give his last name, told Al Arabiya.
The far-reaching security plan also includes a traffic freeze in central and Islamic Cairo starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday and emptying all streets surrounding key places on Obama’s itinerary, or most of the western part of the capital.
"This is to ensure that all ways and any location the president will use or come close to are checked and secured," an anonymous patrol officer told Al Arabiya.
"American security services have arrived in Egypt and have secured the route that the president will take, street by street, no corner is being left out," another anonymous security official told AFP. "There will be security members on roofs, in houses, everywhere."
There are more than 50 public transportation lines on the streets surrounding the university, according to Egypt’s ministry of public transportation.
“A day off is therefore the best way around this freeze since they have created a red line around central places,” Hussein, the professor, said.
To the consternation of many Egyptians, businesses and offices have also been instructed to close on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday.
"I sure hope Mr. Obama can compensate me for loss of income on Thursday," Mahdi Saadawi, owner of a fast-food outlet across from the university’s main gates, told Al Arabiya jokingly. “Last week Egyptian agents came and collected everybody’s ID cards and gave strict instructions to stay home on Thursday.”
Egyptian security has reportedly rounded up hundreds of students from al-Azhar, Cairo University and Islamic studies centers in Madinat Nasr for “security questioning” ahead of the visit.