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Egypt Reflections
Egypt Reflections
Many of the younger guys, about 22 or 23, generally refused to talk seriously about the political situation. They said it was a pointless, albeit frustrating conversation, and they would rather not spend their nights recapping their daily disappointments.
Saturday, October 13,2007 22:00
by Amanda Craig LCHR

Practically every weekend during this past school year that I spent at the American University in Cairo (AUC), I sat just outside of my friend Asley’s house in Imbaba, a district of Cairo, for at least a few hours. His family house is situated at the intersection of a major street and the beginning of a tightly connected neighborhood, where family disputes are arbitrated by whoever is most respected on that street. We would sit with a group of friends, order tea from the coffee shop next door, and talk for hours—about Ahly vs. Zamalek, our friend Ramy’s attempts to open a video gaming café (which are quite popular and widespread), and, to them, the intermittently laughable, persistently deplorable Egyptian state.

Many of the younger guys, about 22 or 23, generally refused to talk seriously about the political situation. They said it was a pointless, albeit frustrating conversation, and they would rather not spend their nights recapping their daily disappointments. “Mubarak has been our president longer than we’ve been alive,” they proclaimed (more than once). “What can we do?”

One friend, named Osama, had a video clip downloaded to his phone that he replayed often. In it, President Mubarak went on and on for about two minutes, oft-repeating the catch words democracy and freedom—il hurreyyyyyya, Osama would draw out with eloquent mockery. But that’s about as far as Osama or his fellow comrades in disaffection, who all attend Cairo University, would tread.

Asley, an accountant and auditor approaching 30, has stacks and stacks of books—including classic literature, philosophy and non-fiction galore—piled high in his room, and he is constantly awaiting the occasion to talk history and politics. Ask him one question, and he’ll be engaged for hours, discussing what he refers to as Egypt’s decline, the horrific economy and opportunity structure, and politics in Egypt and beyond. He is thoroughly disheartened by the stale political atmosphere and the lack of political freedom, but often cites the well-known threat of arrest and torture as a deterrent to any form of organization, confrontation or protest.

He speaks with disgust and sadness about the lack of both democracy in Egypt and political resolve among Egyptians. “There is no trace of democracy here, no matter what the Americans want to believe or promote or pretend,” he often said. “Look at our elections in which everyone votes for Mubarak. Look at our government in which every seat belongs to the NDP. Look at our media. Look at the police, the arrests. Where is democracy?”

Almost weekly, he would also repeat a sort of fable—that all it takes to keep Egyptians disempowered is fuul for breakfast, football for lunch and hash for dinner. This pacifying routine keeps Egyptians, discontented with the political situation as they are, from rebelling, Asley would say, shaking his head.

Football, recreational sport thought it may be, does seem to represent some sort of mangled and ineffective political outlet for a large number of Egyptian men. The majority are fans of Ahly, which is rumored to be supported by the Egyptian government, in the sense that the government rigs games in Ahly’s favor. Fans of the rival team Zamalek, which are widespread but number less than Ahly fans, claim that those who support Ahly support the government in its attempts to pacify the population, or keep them just happy enough with a winning team.

At an Ahly vs. Zamalek game I attended in May, I was startled by the intensity of the atmosphere. Ahly and Zamalek fans had separate entrances—on opposite sides of the stadium. Police, which lined every entrance, every section of seats and the line between fans, were decked out in riot gear. Here, indeed, is an outlet for a group of people who are otherwise voiceless; and here, also, is another face of the government’s obsession with controlling and being a visible threat.

Back at Asley’s house, I listened to Asley and Ramy, who adamantly support Zamalek, argue with Osama, who cheers for Ahly. Asley and Ramy gave example after example of blatantly unfair refereeing and apparently rigged games, but Osama wouldn’t budge. He won’t expound on his feelings about Mubarak, and he disregards whatever manipulation of the game that is said to occur.

Before living in Egypt this past year, I might have given less credence to the association of football teams with politics, or doubted that corruption would extend from the government to the far corners of a sports stadium. But stories illustrating the proliferation and promulgation of corruption were plainly described to me by friends, acquaintances, professors, taxi drivers—a constant stream, and often, surge.

Nearing spring semester finals in May, my Arabic professor said it was “that time of year” for his son to go shopping for ties and watches for his professors. Our class pressed him, and he asserted that he was not at all joking—gifts aren’t the only way to receive a passing grade in the Egyptian university system, he said, but they certainly are one well-trodden way.

Our Arabic professor was somewhat of an oddity as a professional figure; he seemed to be interested in genuinely portraying his perspective of the Egyptian system to us—though he practically giggled at the absurdity of each anecdote he told about his government, or American rhetoric about his government.

In early May, he told us about his trip to a government office and towing station where he traversed with pockets full in hopes of retrieving his car. The week before, his driver had been pulled over; he argued with the police officer from the backseat, and had his car towed as a result. He brought his police officer-friend with him to the office to direct him through the maze of well-established bribery; his friend told him how much the government employee behind each counter should be paid to keep the process of paperwork moving. Without an adequate bribe, our professor said, employees would claim to be “out of forms”—forms that would magically appear alongside enough Egyptian pounds.

When he finally reached the counter where he could pay for his actual ticket, he found that a plethora of tickets—from areas in Egypt he had never traveled to—had also been assigned to his license plate number. This, he explained, is commonplace: when a police officer writes up a ticket, the offender can pay a small bribe to have the license number slightly altered, transferring the ticket to someone else’s record. So our professor proceeded to pay another load of cash to have those tickets bribed into oblivion.

This sort of scenario is what Asley often referred to in describing how the government system keeps everyone disempowered. Highly underpaid government employees are tempted to get extra cash where they can. Those without access to a police officer-friend or bribery stashes can’t push their cases through, thus their cases can be caught in the system for years—during which time they endure tremendous losses.

Asley also spoke with disquiet and dejection about the general state of the economy, and how it affects his daily life and the lives of those who suffer levels of poverty far, far below his own. He is a member of the lower middle class, working but unable to accumulate enough money to move out of his family home. Financial strapping has prevented him from marrying and starting a family—he says that he won’t marry until he can provide, and he won’t be able to provide under this corrupt government.

The widespread poverty could be seen on so many levels and in so many different circumstances in Egypt. Sitting outside Asley’s house, I watched teenage girls slowly approach our group of friends, and listened as they mumbled that they were hungry. Riding the metro out to Ain Shams University, I saw an entire community of people living amongst stones piled beneath a large highway intersection. A homeless child or five lingers on just about every block downtown.

Even above the poverty line, people are searching for ways to get by. Numerous taxi drivers told me they had turned to this occupation after struggling through professional careers. One man said that he was a lawyer for five years, and he could barely sustain his family—now he makes a bit more as a taxi driver, though he lives in daily fear that something might happen to his car, his livelihood—there is no safety net. Still, he said, he prefers sitting all-the-day long in Cairo traffic to participating in the circus-like court system, where everything is predetermined or subject to blatant manipulation.

But as often as Asley and others expressed frustration about Egypt’s economy, the lack of opportunity, constricted freedoms and Mubarak’s longevity, the passing of the constitutional amendments this spring seemed to veer whatever political musing that might have still circulated into a deep abyss. After March 20 and March 26, Asley spoke with a noticeably less-spirited banter about the state of his government. He was always quick to throw up his hands and say “what can we do!” with an incredulous smile, but after the amendments were pushed through and passed, he often said khalas (it’s finished) without a hint of a grin.

There are some things that many Egyptians I spoke with seemed to know and accept as deplorable but unavoidable, such as Gamal Mubarak’s ascendancy and his place in line as Egypt’s next president, or the state of the economy. Even the corruption they seemed to take with a pack of cigs. But these amendments, and most noticeably the Emergency Law, brought with them a peculiar despair, especially for Asley. “The government has a free hand now,” he said. He’d been stripped of what little freedom he clung to.

And how could the American government react so quietly to the amendments? he asked. Condoleezza Rice said the amendments were “disappointing,” but to Asley, they were crushing. Years ago, the Bush administration used its leverage to force some initial steps toward democratic change, but by March 2007, Rice said, “It’s not a matter to try to dictate to Egypt how this unfolds, but it is a matter to say that Egypt is an extremely important country… and so that’s the spirit in which the democracy agenda has been followed by the United States,” according to USINFO.

Asley would often say that he loves Americans and loves the freedom America stands for—but hates the American government. How can they support an Egyptian government that treats its people the way it does, and even suggest that their ultimate motive is the spreading of democracy? He was especially aflame after reading about Rice’s attendance at Gamal Mubarak’s wedding in the Sinai in early May. “They support our government as friends,” he said, “which makes them our enemies.”

The group of friends that found ourselves amassing outside Asley’s home weekend after weekend consisted of about ten Egyptians (five or six consistently), myself and one other American; there was the aforementioned Asley (whose real name is Mohamed, but is nicknamed and always referred to as Asley, or “the original”), Ramy, Osama and Mahmoud (two of the disaffected Cairo University students), Walid and Mohamed. Among the group of close-knit friends were various manifestations of religiousness and conservatism that periodically surfaced.

Everyone described himself as religiously open, or tolerant. Asley and Ramy said many times that Christianity is akin to Islam, that Jesus is considered a messenger, and that Copts are fully accepted by Egyptians. Both also said that they have no problem with Jews, only Zionists; it is the Jewish settlements and the suffering of Palestinians—not Judaism itself—that they find unacceptable. “It is all the same God,” Ramy said with energy and sincerity. Asley, who was one of the most outwardly observant Muslims in the group, often said he would have no problem marrying a Christian wife, or letting his children choose between Islam and Christianity—though he believes they would choose Islam.

Dr. Mohamed Habeeb, Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brothers, expressed a similar sentiment about Copts at a lecture this past November at AUC. He stressed that “our Christian Egyptians are part of the texture of our society, and we respect them very much” and suggested that Copts should be headmasters, judges, ministers or members of Parliament, because “no society should have any kind of monopoly” and “citizenship is not restricted to Muslims, it’s for everyone.”

Yet this religious tolerance, whether apparent or actual, only went so far. When a religion outside of Islam, Christianity or Judaism was mentioned, the discussion would suddenly become strained and circular. When I asked Mohamed, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and an accountant, what he thought of the Baha’i and their fight to have national identification cards that either leave the religion section blank or recognize them as Baha’i, he asserted over and over that Baha’i is not a real religion. Dr. Habeeb had a similar assertion in November, when he also said it is not a real religion, and those without religion should respect the religion of the majority.

Ramy backhandedly said Baha’ism, Hinduism and Buddhism are not real religions, and Asley thwarted the question time and again.

I could never understand how Ramy and Asley, who both seemed so generous and intent on being fair, avoided granting other religions, outside of the state-recognized three, any status. Is it because of a cultural distance? But Asley has read pages and pages of world history; he knows every capital city of every country in the world—he’s interested in all things foreign.

Is it a lack of exposure? In Egypt, the Baha’i are not only marginalized—they’re excluded. Granted, the population of Baha’i is rather small; estimations run from five hundred to about two thousand—but the community is also denied participation in the public sphere and under intense government surveillance. Perhaps it is this stigma that is reflected in Ramy’s and Asley’s reluctance?

Amidst the above-described environment for Egyptians, marginalized groups suffer with even less opportunity and, often, more violence. The Baha’i have de facto lost their status as Egyptian citizens since a December 2006 Supreme Administrative Court ruling, which said that national identification cards must designate Muslim, Christian or Jewish affiliation only. As a result, many Baha’i are without ID cards and are thus deprived freedom of movement, access to schools, other social services and more.

Refugees—often arriving from Palestine, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea, and most recently Iraq—also bear intense discrimination and exclusion. Though the Egyptian government signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, it maintains five key exclusions pertaining to refugee education, employment and protection. Thus refugees remain without access to primary school or degrees that might lead to higher education, and they must rely on non-governmental and community-based organizations for many services.

While studying in Egypt I volunteered with an AUC student-run organization called Student Action for Refugees (STAR), which offered language classes (mostly English, sometimes Arabic and Swahili), provided a space for refugee women to sell their handiwork, and organized Global Day for Darfur in September and World Refugee Day in June. In the fall, I co-taught a women’s English class with about thirty women, ranging from 17- to 38-years-old, on the AUC campus. In the spring, I coordinated the women’s English classes at AUC and taught a class with eight men and women in Ain Shams, at the El Wafa Cultural Center newly opened by STAR.

As difficult as daily life is for many women in Egypt, the plight of refugee women is absolutely horrific. Many women, including Egyptians, feel constantly harassed in public. Even my Egyptian professor, who struck me as quite an independent and fierce woman, said that some days she just can’t leave her apartment—she can’t face the street, where harassment most definitely awaits. But refugee women, especially those hailing from other countries in Africa, face even graver threats—Egyptian police raping African refugee women is considered a common occurrence among many working in the human rights and refugee status fields in Egypt.

Among the refugee women I taught and worked alongside, I saw so much frustration yet so much endurance. One woman wanted to start an orphanage for all children in Cairo, including refugees. She said that under many circumstances in Egypt, including a father’s death or divorce, children become orphaned; but because of the overcrowding of orphanages, refugee children are entirely excluded from Egyptian orphanages. She has no money to begin her project, but she hasn’t given up on her idea yet.

Another woman was running from her family in Sudan, which she said had threatened her with “honor killing” after she eloped with a man from a lesser tribe. She felt absolutely alone—she couldn’t go to the Sudanese embassy, for they would turn her over to her family, and she couldn’t go to the Egyptian government, for they would turn her over to the Sudanese embassy. She was raped in the fall by an Egyptian police officer, but she had no recourse. So she moved often, and tried to hide—all while trying to find work.

All six men from the class I taught this spring said they hate being trapped in Cairo, where they can’t find work or provide for their families. They live in fear, and they just want to go home—but they can’t.

During World Refugee Day in Cairo, which took place June 15 on AUC campus, the fear, intimidation and lack of protection many refugees in Cairo live amongst was manifested. After violence broke out between two rival Sudanese groups on a street just outside of AUC, about 70 Sudanese men were arrested in connection with the event—including a World Refugee Day volunteer who was on campus when violence broke out, and Sudanese who were in Ain Shams at the time, about an hour-long metro ride away from the university. Egyptian police, who are a constant presence on the street outside AUC, were noticeably absent when fighting broke out, and many of the Sudanese who were arrested are still being held.

Earlier in the day-long event, at a kids’ activities station where paper and crayons were set out, little hands reached for myriad colors and drew with enthusiasm. Yet these kids did not draw flowers and sunshine; they depicted guns and national flags. From an early age, these children are being thrust into an environment where they’re being excluded, pressured and threatened; as a result, they’re already fighting for an identity.

While in Cairo, I often felt an underlying tension between boundless bigheartedness and an occasional flare of vexation or resentment. I met so many people—Egyptians and Sudanese, men and women—who were so welcoming, so forward in sharing their perspectives, their stories and their thoughts in general. But in so many I also stumbled across this struggle; it was mostly internalized, but sometimes manifested in little jangles on the street, Asley’s poetry or youngsters’ artwork. They were all fighting so many different battles: some were fighting for any little bit of economic viability, others for their rights of citizenship, their right to walk on the street in peace or their desire to assert an identity.

But in the closed system of the Egyptian government, they just didn’t know where to direct their fight.


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