Something equivalent to the American Revolution has been happening in Egypt this week. The assorted faces and costumes of the crowd make it clear that this is not radical Islam on the move. This is the people of Egypt, finished and done with their tyrannical leader.
I was surprised. I visited last year and found complete cynicism regarding government. Our guide, a sophisticated, Christian Cairo girl with doctoral level education, put it this way: “President Mubarak wants his son to become the next president. We’re fine with that because the Mubarak family has already stolen so much money from the country that they don’t really need any more. If we elect someone else, they’ll have to steal it all over again.”
A good friend insisted I learn some Arabic before going on my small group adventure tour to Egypt. What happened when I spoke with people using my few phrases was amazing. Instead of continuing their quest for a sale, vendors being our most frequent contacts, we connected, and really talked. We acknowledged each other as friends, governments aside. None of them were fond of their government, or ours, but they really hoped that our electing President Barack Obama represented a new era of international respect and understanding.
The people of Egypt are a very mixed group, from Burka-clad women having to hold a husband’s hand to find their way around, to exotic dancers, rural boat captains in their galabea robes to sophisticated city dwellers.
Many women have head coverings, mostly the hijab, or small scarf, but also more ethnic coverings and robes, most allowing free movement, and reflecting the diversity in the population. My personal favorite was the lightweight black, polyester cover up worn by young girls over their tight jeans and spike heels. I can picture them hanging on a hook inside their apartment doors.
The people are smart and vibrant, warm and devoted to their families, very cosmopolitan in their melting pot. After an Arabic “Peace be with you” greeting, I heard many stories of principled lives, care of parents, deep love, and sophistication about the ways of the world.
Cairo was a mess when I was there in January 2010. The poverty and filth were astonishing for such an international metropolis, even to someone who had spent time in the third world. It virtually never rains there, so Cairo was filthy. Naked, dirty babies sat on the curbs with their thin, ragged mothers. More than a few middle-aged people walked around with the swollen bellies and yellowed eyes of end stage liver failure. It came from the Cairo water system.
Trash was everywhere. The government had taken over collection from the private contractors; neighborhoods previously paid for hauling. After that, no one picked it up. The only clean place in Cairo was the neighborhood of Heliopolis, the entry to the city from the airport, and the home of the wealthy, a place of good first impressions.
Oppression has long been the habit of Egyptian governments. A more inappropriate situation in such a vibrant, cosmopolitan society is hard to imagine. Seeing this melting pot of ordinary people and their shiny faced children standing in peaceful solidarity against their government, with very limited looting, has moved me deeply, and affirmed my belief in human beings.
Now their president, a very tough old dictator, has decided to turn the dogs on them, so to speak. Allegedly pro-Mubarak demonstrators, termed “pro-stability” by state-run media, are attacking the crowd with machetes and Molotov cocktails. Some are riding in on camels and horses. Trust me; no camel driver has ridden into town of his own volition to support Hosni Mubarak. The anti-Mubarak demonstrators welcome the international press. These “pro-stability” folks are attacking the journalists. I’d be glad to take bets on how the prison escapes occurred, too. What a perfect way for a tyrant with no limits to create chaos at this time.
Egypt is the center of the Middle East. The real people of Egypt, our friends, are standing for freedom. There are many dangers ahead for them and their country, but success in creating democracy there could change everything in the Middle East. Their government has been the number two recipient of U.S. foreign aid. It’s time for us to stand with the people, and end our policy of supporting tyranny in the interest of stability. That’s just not us.