CAIRO – Young Egyptians are once again organizing on social media and taking to the streets of Cairo by the hundreds every Friday, not to protest injustice or clash with police, but to enjoy long runs through one of the world's most crowded and chaotic cities.
On a recent Friday morning around 300 young people gathered at a central square, a small fraction of the 2,500 that had signed up for the event on Facebook, but a reasonable showing for an event held at 7:00 a.m. on a weekend.
Organizers with bullhorns led the crowd of young men and women -- many wearing headscarves -- in a warm-up, and then they took off, flooding a four-lane road and occasionally parting before honking taxis.
Cairo, a city of some 20 million people packed onto the banks of the Nile, with few green spaces and no jogging paths, is an unlikely venue for distance running.
The streets are jammed at nearly all hours with smoke-belching microbuses, manic taxis, speeding motorbikes and the occasional donkey cart. The crumbling sidewalks are often worse -- blocked by parked cars, mounds of garbage and mangy street dogs. Anyone who runs in Cairo can expect stares and gentle mocking, and women must contend with leering, lewdness and occasional unwanted touching.
And yet despite all the obstacles, young Egyptians have launched several increasingly popular running clubs over the past two years. A half-marathon this weekend drew thousands of runners, and more than 200 volunteers -- some wearing American football pads and helmets -- deftly guided the runners through traffic circles and onto and off of overpasses.
Small running groups catering mainly to expatriates have been around for years, but Egyptians trace the growth in local interest to Cairo Runners, a group with a large social media presence that attracts hundreds of people to its weekly runs and has inspired similar groups across the city.
"The first time I ever went out on the streets to run was with Cairo Runners," says Mariz Doss, 27, who is now one of the group's organizers. "Whenever I traveled outside Egypt I saw that people had the opportunity to run outside in their own country, and I thought it was a pity that we didn't have this in Egypt."
The group organizes weekly runs and advertises them on its Facebook page, which has racked up more than 320,000 "likes." The runs are usually held early Friday -- the first day of the Egyptian weekend -- when the streets are mostly empty. Strength in numbers protects the runners from both cars and street harassment.
"We run when everything that is wrong with Cairo is asleep, and that has been our winning formula," says Salma Shahin, whose cousin Ibrahim Safwat founded the group in December 2012. The first run attracted 70 people, and now a weekly 5k run can draw up to 2,000, she said.
The group began organizing runs nearly two years after Egypt's popular uprising toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. At the time, Egyptians were fiercely divided over his successor, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi. Demonstrations regularly set off clashes, and if hundreds of people were running through the streets it was usually to get away from something.
"The first time we ran in the streets all the workers and doormen stared at us," Doss recalls. "They asked, 'Who are you running from? Is this a demonstration or what?'"
The streets have been much calmer over the past year following a massive crackdown by the military-backed government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who overthrew Morsi at the height of the unrest in 2013.
Organizers say they've never encountered any problems with the authorities. "When hundreds of people are in running shoes and shorts, we don't seem that scary," Shahin said. And the runners say ordinary people have grown used to seeing them trot by in the mornings.
"In the beginning, people thought it was very strange, but they've gotten used to it," said Ashraf Samir, a 47-year-old accountant who has been running with Cairo Runners since last year.
"You get to breathe clean air, you get to run far away from any chaos or traffic, and you get to know nice people at the same time," he said.
Mahmoud al-Aawadi, 27, who joined the group two years ago, tells the kind of road-to-Damascus story one often hears from running addicts.
"It was the first time I had done any sports at all in my entire life -- I didn't even play soccer when I was a kid," he said. "I used to smoke cigarettes."
Now he goes to the gym, swims laps and earlier this month attended a nighttime practice run to prepare for the half marathon. "I would have never imagined," he said. "When I started I ran 500 meters, now I do seven kilometers. I run further and further every time. The others encourage me, and we all encourage one another."
The running groups are adamantly non-political. But when the runners describe how the sport has brought them together, and how they have reclaimed their city's squares and streets, one hears an echo of the early days of Egypt's 2011 uprising, when a spirit of inclusiveness prevailed in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Doss says that during the darkest days of recent years, when the country was gripped by unrest and furiously divided, running brought people together.
"I remember at that time I was running and beside me were people from different backgrounds, different beliefs, different religions," she said. "It doesn't cross your mind if the person beside you is a Christian or a Muslim or whatever. You just come for one purpose, to run, and to enjoy your time running."
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