Reflections from Cairo: hope amid despair

Reflections from Cairo: hope amid despair



Tens of thousands of angry demonstrators fill the dusty streets of Cairo. Traffic is completely stopped, passionate cries of “Ya Rabb!” (O Lord!) Echo amidst the incorrigible clamor of car horns being made both in support of the mob and in frustration at the ongoing delay in their respective journeys. Fighting erupts as those deemed to resemble the enemy are attacked by the rabble spurred on by media outlets intent on dehumanizing the “enemy”; blood is spilt, hundreds of replica national flags of the “enemy state” are set ablaze before their embassy is firebombed. Riot police clash with protestors, and sensitive diplomatic ties are on edge as ambassadors are summoned and the president himself intervenes in defense of his people. Is Gaza burning? Has the US invaded another Muslim country? Has new information emerged about the brutal torture of Muslim prisoners? No — Egypt has just lost the crucial football World Cup qualifier match against Algeria and has missed out on its chance to compete in South Africa next summer.



Such is the state of affairs in Egypt today that the kind of passion and fervor which should be reserved for issues of social justice and human dignity is now injected into the outcome of a game often derided by critics as “22 grown men chasing an inflated piece of leather for 90 minutes.” It is noteworthy that during the same week in which Egyptian football fans suffered their emotional rollercoaster ride, leading members of the banned opposition social and political reformist party, the Muslim Brotherhood had their appeals against their imprisonment overruled by the Supreme Court of Military Appeals.


Khayrat el-Shater from the executive guidance bureau and 17 other leading Brotherhood members were sentenced in April 2008 by military tribunals to seven years imprisonment for financing a banned organisation. All of the 18 men are civilians who were twice acquitted of the charges by the Cairo Criminal Court. The decision comes at a critical time coinciding with the election of the next chairman of the Brotherhood after current leader Mohamed Mahdy Akef steps down in January 2010. Within the ranks of the Brotherhood, El-Shater seems to be the most suitable candidate to replace Akef. El-Shater possesses a charismatic personality, proven skills and has an excellent reputation of level-headedness amongst those who surround him making him a suitable candidate to take over the leadership of the MB. Yet, his continuing detention is an obvious deterrent to this outcome. At this critical juncture, football remains the only focus for the majority of Egypt’s 77 million citizens, most of whom are oblivious to these developments.


But one should not be surprised by such behaviour. In a country where the most minor form of political dissent is brutally suppressed, the outpouring of emotions on the streets following the football defeat is symbolic of a frustrated populace, desperate to raise their voice whenever permitted. In Egypt, such permission is rarely granted, football being an exception, and one which is cruelly manipulated by the government to bolster nationalist fervor and popular support.  Yet, when the demonstrations are over and the protesters disperse, many will return home hungry and exhausted, still without a job and without hope.


According to United Nations statistics, over a quarter of Egypt’s population lives below the poverty line. Despite the existence of an affluent class that controls the country’s wealth and enjoys an elevated standard of living that includes shopping at Western style malls that feature the best imported goods, many Egyptians exist in the most oppressive of slums. Hidden behind the pyramids, buried beneath the Nile and concealed from the view of millions of tourists who flock to Egypt every year, there are nearly 20 million Egyptians living in squalor, with poor and overcrowded housing, limited food supply, and inadequate access to clean water, good quality health care, or education.


Their homes are made of brick or cement, built wall to wall in buildings that are usually three or four storeys high, with one or two apartments per floor. The cheapest apartments are shacks built on rooftops. Some of the slum apartments have a small kitchen equipped with a two-burner gas stove. The bathrooms are tiny, with a squat hole and a water tap; it also serves to house the tenants’ animals. Out of necessity, beds are usually shared by two or more family members. However, most people sleep on the floor. The worst cases involve entire families squeezed into one small room, approximately 5 foot wide and 8 foot long, with no heat in winter or air-conditioning in the oppressive summer heat, no electricity, running water with barely any possessions.


The lack of adequate shelter and public facilities usually leads to various physical and mental ailments among slum dwellers. The gravest of these illnesses however is pessimism and passivity. For many Egyptians, the difficulty is not that the future is bleak; it is that there is no future. They have accepted that this is their lot in life and struggle to view life any differently. Dictatorships and tyranny are all that they have known from Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak. Envisioning freedom and liberty is a dream not worth dreaming. For the average Egyptian, simply feeding his family for the month is a mammoth task. Issues involving political reform which could result in indefinite detention and sadistic torture do not figure on such a person’s agenda.


Many parallels can be drawn between the Egyptians of today and the Bani Israel during the time of Prophet Musa (a). Just as the Bani Israel were enslaved by the great tyrant, (Pharaoh), so are the Egyptians enslaved by the government of the day.    The Pharaoh’s oppression was so severe that he did not need shackles to enslave the Bani Israel; they were shackled by their own cowardice in the face of the oppression they faced. A similar fate afflicts the Egyptians today.


Just as the Bani Israel could not imagine a life free from the Pharaoh’s tyranny, Egyptians today have become so familiar with oppression and humiliation that they cannot envisage life without it. It has become a defining characteristic of their personalities with success only visible in irrelevant pursuits such as sport or entertainment, which explains why they are so emotional in their reaction to such matters. Success beyond such trivial pursuits is almost unimaginable for them. This perpetual state of humiliation ingrains within the people a defeatist mentality whereby they lose hope at every stage, similar to how Bani Israel lost faith in Allah at every stage of their journey to freedom. More disturbingly, it causes an inferiority complex to develop within the psyche whereby the people feel ashamed of their own values and cling desperately to any fad or system they perceive as successful or superior. The blind imitation of Western culture and dress and the abandonment of Islamic values is equivalent to the modern-day parallel of the Bani Israel’s desire to worship a golden calf as they saw others doing, not appreciating the favours Allah had bestowed upon them.


Unfortunately for them, this attitude and mentality resulted in their persistent disobedience of Allah and Prophet Musa (a), particularly when commanded to fight the people that had occupied the Holy Land. This disobedience ultimately caused Allah to punish them by causing them to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Many scholars have reasoned that these forty years were so that this generation of people who had only known a life of humiliation and oppression would die out leaving room for a new generation who did not know enslavement and who would therefore have the courage to fight in the way of Allah.


One wonders what could possibly be the solution for Egypt today. Amidst the gloom, there is still room for optimism. This is the same country that has given birth to such great heroes of Islam as Hassan al-Banna, Sayed Qutb, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, and Zeinab al-Ghazali as well as countless others who have paid the ultimate price for their struggle. And it is this parallel which we should always remember. Despite the intense subjugation of Bani Israel, Allah raised among them a man who would ultimately deliver them from their enslavement, against all odds, because of the sincere unwavering belief he, and his mother before him, had in their Lord. Courageous men and women, true to their covenant with Allah, continue to emerge in Egypt and many, like Khayrat el-Shater, are paying a heavy price for their struggle. Like fear, courage too is infectious and with the growing influence of the Brotherhood in Egypt, one prays that there is a pandemic such that next time the Egyptians take to the streets in their tens of thousands it will not be because of a football match but because of the call for political reform and meaningful change.