When my Egyptian dad saw news photos of water cannons unleashed on Cairo protesters in the first days of the January 2011 uprising in Egypt, he said “It’s like what happened in Birmingham.”
Before moving to the Magic City for his dream job in cardiology, all my dad knew about Birmingham were images of civil strife he’d seen in the newspaper: Church bombings; police beatings; water cannons, streaming with enough force to break skin. When Egyptians from all walks of life came out for a “Million-Man March” against the Mubarak regime in February, my dad said “I’m with the people.” But he was watching the protest on satellite t.v., from his recliner in Mountain Brook, Alabama. I’m “for the people,” too. But I’m watching the violent aftermath of the Egyptian revolution with my coffee cup and cream-of-wheat next to my computer screen, tuned in to Al Jezeera live stream. Can those with full stomachs be good global citizens to those without?
I’m skeptically hopeful. Skeptical that we can be more than sympathetic spectators from comfortable suburbs. Skeptical that what many celebrated as a democratic, nonreligious, popular revolt won’t buckle at the fault lines of class and religion in Egypt: tension between the haves and the have-nots; between Muslims, Christians, and secularists.
What’s happening in Egypt is exciting. But it’s painful and scary, fragile and fierce. Mubarak’s gone, but his legacy may live on. As Martin Luther King, Jr. would say, the struggle continues. As the world celebrates International Human Rights Day, Cairo is reeling from the latest round of gunfire in Tahrir Square. Human Rights Watch reports the use of lethal force against protestors demanding an end to military rule. Now that Egypt is having the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, the interim military rulers just announced they will intercede in the constitutional convention to come, to prevent the Islamist parties, who’ve won over 60 percent of the vote so far, from taking over. This October, security forces violently stopped a protest march, with gunfire, armored vehicles, and tear gas unleashed on Coptic Christians demonstrating for the rights of religious minorities in Egypt.
On International Women’s Day, Egyptian men forcefully dispersed a group of female demonstrators demanding that they be given a voice in building the future of Egypt. Some of the male counter-protesters, many of whom had demonstrated along with women against the Mubarak regime, shouted them down with misogynistic chants: “Go home, go wash clothes…find a husband…shame on you!” http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0308/In-Egypt-s-Tahrir-Square-women-attacked-at-rally-on-International-Women-s-Day]
What will happen in Egypt could crush our suburban solidarity “with the people” of Egypt. It could shatter us, if it weren’t for our t.v. and computer screens. Power entails disparity, and comfort too often yields to complacency. Egypt has disappointed and surprised me. In the January 25 uprising, it wasn’t only the poor rioting for bread; those born with silver spoons in their mouths were also demanding a better life. The young people who organized the first protests—largely through Facebook—are of the newest generation of Egypt’s educated elites. They’re the guys I would see on their laptops at the Starbucks in Cairo, the guys I assumed didn’t care about the workers eating fava beans out of plastic bags on the street.
An Egyptian-American friend told me some terrible things she’s heard from her colleagues who were providing medical care in Tahrir Square: the “Facebook kids” who started the revolution didn’t know how to stand up to the police, so workers and peasants were protecting them. Those used to brutality were taking it as usual, but they couldn’t protect the Facebook kids for long. My family friend heard many of the so-called “Mubarak supporters” were drug addicts, so high they could hardly feel the stones people were throwing at them. The police disappeared. Thugs were terrorizing the streets. Mubarak set the stage to justify his security-first regime, using addicts and prisoners on the front lines.
Being half Egyptian was embarrassing growing up in Alabama, cool in an exoticizing kind of way at my liberal arts college in Connecticut, and disorienting ever since I started spending time in Egypt. Now, my Egyptian heritage is a blessing and curse. The week the protests broke out in January 2011, I was at the Egyptian consulate in New York. The line extended out the consulate doors, with New York police there to control the crowd: young men in leather jackets, old men in prayer caps, families, frail ladies with canes, all standing out in the sleet, waiting indefinitely—to get a number, to get on the elevator, to be pressed in the hall where we earlier birds were waiting outside the office door. That’s an inkling of what it was like to be Egyptian under the Mubarak regime: to be subject to a bureaucracy that’s incompetent and inefficient, that doesn’t value your time, much less your dignity; to be crammed with hundreds of others vying for something you need from a government you can’t trust. The people outside the consulate were elbowing each other, to get in to the revolving door, some yelling “Allahu akhbar!” That’s a taste of how I imagine the scene last January at Tahrir Square: crowds clamoring in different voices, some saying “Allahu akhbar!” It’s not, as some fear since 9/11, a jihadist outburst. Muslims say “Allahu akhbar” when they’re excited or distressed. It’s a reflex, like when Christians say “Jesus Christ!” A colloquial combination of “great God!” and damn!; astonishment and exasperation.
I first learned an Egyptian Christian way of stunned prayer—ya rab irham, Lord have mercy— from my Uncle Latif, in the interfaith chapel of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center. We would go there on breaks from sitting in my dad’s hospital room, where he was recovering from a kidney transplant. Latif would say ya rab irham over and over, in hope and awe: astonished at the distress we were in; hopeful that the Lord would have mercy. I thought the Egyptian revolution had little to do with us. We’re a minority of a minority: affluent Egyptian Christians. I thought we were immune to the Mubarak regime. I was wrong. The way Latif died has a lot to do with the protests in the Egyptian streets: The government hasn’t taken care of people’s basic needs. Egypt was not a place to live, or die, with dignity. Two years ago, Latif was hurrying to catch the tramway in Alexandria. He almost made it, but he fell and cracked his skull on the concrete platform. He lay there hemorrhaging for over an hour. No ambulance came. A passer-by drove him to the emergency room, in a public hospital, where he waited for hours to see a doctor. My dad says “only the indigent go to government hospitals in Egypt.” The nurses are incompetent; the equipment is inadequate and unsanitary. Latif could afford a private hospital, but he didn’t have a choice that day. He died of a hematoma in his brain.
Adapted from essays that first appeared in The Birmingham News, The New Haven Register and on killingthebuddha.com.