Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thoughts on Recent Events

I began this blog about 18 months after 9/11 in an effort to help friends and acquaintances of mine, mostly from the US, understand why I insisted on living in this backward, terrorist-ridden woman-hating country...that was pretty much how Egypt was described in the media back then. I looked online for webpages or information about the joys of living in Egypt (and there are many) but I couldn't find anything. So with all good intentions, I decided to write about living here as a long term resident and lover of Egyptian society and life. In March, my blog will be about eight years old.

From the beginning, I chose to avoid discussions of local politics, partly because I'm not an Egyptian citizen, not for want of trying but because of some utterly inane bureaucratic hitch in the Mogamma that prevents me from being given citizenship even though my husband and children carry it. As someone without formal citizenship I was very aware of my precarious position under a regime that was notoriously touchy about criticism and I had no wish at all to be deported or barred from entering the country that I consider my only home. In addition, I don't read or write Arabic and I really felt that it was rather inappropriate for me to be sounding off about things here that I could only partly understand for lack of complete information...and I was quick to find a group of much younger Egyptian bloggers who were doing an infinitely better job, at great personal cost.

I chose instead to try to talk about aspects of daily life here that could give the country a more human face, things that anyone could relate to in terms of family life, philosophy, those smaller things that keep us going when the larger events threaten to trample our souls and that are universal to all people. Sometimes I feel that maybe I did too good a job as I get a lot of email from people who for various reasons want to come here to live and work. I always have to point out that Egypt has never been without its problems (no country is), that it is essential to learn to speak (at least) Arabic so that there is a possibility of communication, and that this isn't Indiana with pyramids. Egypt has its own culture and way of life and doesn't need to have anyone else's imposed upon it. With my children grown and studying in the US, I had a constant pressure to remember to be tactful as they were not keen on hopping a flight to try to dig their old mother out of one of the Egyptian prisons.

With the January 25 protests and in the days following, I found myself sitting by the television at the farm, following events on Twitter and the net, and biting my tongue almost off. My son and daughter are still in New York studying and working, and they pointed out the wisdom of not being in Tahrir given my citizenship and the knee surgery that I underwent last summer. (I'm not so nimble on the ground although I am still fine on horseback.) I was devastated like everyone when Mubarak unexpectedly did not step down on Thursday night and cheered with most Egyptians when he finally left on Friday. And again, I was constantly asking myself if it would have been right for me to be there or not. A large part of my spirit says "Hell, yes!", while the part that probably keeps me alive, fed and safe, says "Maybe no". In the end, the deciding vote was cast by my work and lifestyle which meant that if I disappeared a group of people who depended on me for their living and a bunch of animals to whom I am terribly attached, would be set adrift with no one to provide for them. In addition, I actually hold my farm in trust for my daughter and I need to protect that trust. So discretion won out, at least for the short term.

Watching the revolution from the safety of the countryside was rather surreal. Out here the main difference in life was that many of us had a very hard time getting hay and feed for our animals. In our area people helped each other out with supplies so that no one would suffer too much. Thankfully, I'd withdrawn a reasonably large amount of cash from the bank before they all closed during the protests, and this helped a lot. I still had staff responsibilities even if the banks were closed, and animals could care less about politics...they simply want to be fed. Out here the neighbourhood watch was quickly instated and extremely efficient. At the height of the problems you had to go through about 6 checkpoints to get near my farm. If the driver and/or passenger wasn't recognised, they had to show ID, declare who they were coming to visit, and they had to call that person to verify the fact. Even now the checkpoints are in place and cars are carefully vetted. We could hear the tanks rolling around in the desert for much of the revolution. I understand that some archaeological warehouses were raided the first night that the police vanished, but things were quiet here other than the odd time the villagers caught people who had been stealing from stores in the Pyramids Road area trying to smuggle their loot through this area.

My staff, like many rural Egyptians, are mostly at the lower end of the educational scale with many of them illiterate. Even those who could read were incredibly confused. They were accustomed to reading the usual newspapers and watching state TV, so when Al Jazeera began showing what was actually happening in the streets, they didn't know what to think as the government newspapers and TV shouted out that A) Nothing was happening at all; B)There were small protests instigated by foreign powers variously and sometimes simultaneously identified as Israeli, Iranian, Hamas or simply "foreign"and C) Al Jazeera was lying about everything just to make Egypt look bad. I guess that the unspoken word there was that Qatar was also trying to bring down the Egyptian state. When the government satellite cut Al Jazeera Arabic, we would let people come to the house to see it in English, as that hadn't been cut. I spent hours talking to them about what was happening, what was hoped and why it was so important to them...and how it might change their lives but that it would not be an easy road.

Family and friends were, naturally, concerned. My children offered me a flight to NYC, but I declined saying that I felt safe and I wouldn't miss this for the world. As long as it was possible we spoke to each other daily. I don't want to think about my long distance bill. When the net returned after being cut off for a bit, reception out here was still a bit dicey and it took days to respond to people who were writing worried about me. And at the end of it all, I felt drained, happy, bewildered, concerned and frustrated. It's taken a week at least to work out all those emotions.

I was drained as many of the young people who were involved in this revolution were those who I'd been following online for many years. After a while they feel like friends, although I'd never met them, and concern for their safety and relief when they were released from custody was enormous. I was delighted with the outcome inasmuch as our unesteemed head of state departed finally with his family. The cronyism, corruption, and violence were never far from anyone's sight, so I was cheering for the revolution from day one. I think everyone in Egypt is a bit bewildered at this point. This is the first time in probably over eight thousand years that Egyptians have had a say in their government. They have gone through any number of systems of monarchy to military dictatorship and now finally have a chance to have the people of the country speak for their needs. In a sense, they have the chance now to reinvent democracy on their terms. There certainly isn't much in the way of baggage to encumber them since everyone acknowledges that what existed here was certainly not any kind of real democracy. Everyone is looking about asking where to go from here, but they are not simply looking. This afternoon a neighbour took Catherine (a friend of my daughter who is staying here and helping me) into Zamalek for a meeting of a group of people who are wanting to help to rebuild Egypt. There are many groups of this sort on Facebook that I know of and quite likely many more being organised offline. People are collecting money and hospital supplies to help the victims of violence during the protests, they are establishing food banks, going out and sweeping and repairing the streets, directing traffic and taking care of neighbourhood security. Many of the police are either on strike (the lower ranks do get appallingly bad wages and working conditions) or in hiding.

While in many respects, the country seems to be quite normal in these post-revolutionary times, in many others it is not. The stock exchange has been closed indefinitely for some time now. I don't understand stock exchanges when everything is terrific, so I have nothing to say about that now. The strikes that are being held are totally understandable in that no one has had the freedom to complain about anything for longer than anyone can remember, but they are definitely inconvenient at times. Banks were closed all last week and we have had no assurance that they will open this week. This is primarily because the employees of the National Bank are on strike. But the strikes are not indefinite, they come and go causing temporary problems. These are growing pains and I remember being inconvenienced plenty of times by strikes in Canada. In Egypt, people simply have not become accustomed to any labour unrest. A group of my neighbours got together on Friday morning to check out the situation for horseback riding in the desert here, something that is important for both our sanity and some of our budgets. On Friday it was fine, but one neighbour reported seeing soldiers jogging in the desert on Thursday morning. No one is quite sure what that means.

My theory is that Egypt works on a special chaos filter and very close to the red line at the best of times, so when things aren't quite normal...they really aren't that far off normal. On February 12, Catherine and I drove down to Beni Suef (with the ever protective Mohamed of course) to buy some goats to improve our flock. We picked up two males (one Alpine/Syrian cross and the other Saanen/Syrian cross) and three females (all Saanen/Syrian cross) to breed with our flock of baladi goats. The males were named Google and Twitter while the females were dubbed Mona, Zeinobia, and Nadia, after three of my favourite Twitter posters during the protests. We saw nothing unusual other than a couple of burned cars on the side of the road, a couple of tanks and a four year old boy in the village where we bought the goats who picked up a stone and brandished it at us shouting "Horreya" (Freedom)...only to be firmly scolded by his mother who told him that was enough. The revolution is over.

But is it over? Not really. The military leaders are the same military leaders who were in power under Mubarak, while the cabinet is largely made up of the same old gang of suspects. There is still an awful lot of housecleaning to do. Much of the frustration I mentioned has to do with the influence of other countries in Egypt's affairs through the use of the aid given, primarily to the military. Most of the US aid was given in the form of credit that could be spent in the US arms industry to buy tanks, planes, guns and tear gas canisters...though oddly enough many of the latter were way beyond their expiration dates apparently. Wonder where the money for the new tear gas went...or are there huge warehouses of the stuff lying about? Basically the aid went to prop up a regime that was everything the US government claims to hate. They've gone into Iraq and Afghanistan to rid the poor citizens there of repressive regimes supposedly...while causing major collateral damage to both countries. When the protests in Egypt began, the leaders of the free world sided with Mubarak, although no one can believe that they were unaware of the real situation here. Maybe they only lead the "free" world and don't really have anything to do with the oppressed world except to sell the governments there arms. At any rate, the Egyptians "freed" themselves and with a much lower cost than we would have had with help from the US military.

During the protests there was much discussion of the "Tunisia" effect referring to the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime only a short while earlier. Of course, there are still issues there as the "interim" government of Tunisia has also kept on entirely too many of the old regime. Within days of February 11, protesters in Bahrain marched to demand reform and more voice in their government, perhaps a constitutional monarchy rather than what currently exists. Like the Egyptians, they marched without weapons, chanting in peace, and when the government soldiers, mercenaries for the most part unlike the Egyptian army, encountered the protesters, they were fired on with tear gas canisters at point blank range. The army's responses to peaceful protest has been so violent in Bahrain as to be termed a massacre at times. And the governmental tactic has been to ban the press, penning them in the airport so that there can be no international oversight...except that there is no such thing as no oversight anymore. Telephones shoot videos and can transmit them abroad. The protesters across North Africa (Libya is fighting a vicious battle with largely foreign troups as well against the citizens) are for the most part following the nonviolent doctrines of Gandhi and the governments opposing them fail to realise that they'd get further by allowing discussion and participation than by reacting with violence. Watching the idiocy of the regimes' responses is wildly frustrating. We all know that they have huge stakes to protect, but the violent approach in the long run simply does not work. Soldiers might be able to shoot 10, 20, 100 people...but can they hold out over 1000 or 1,000,000? What the Egyptians learned early in February is that you are as free as you can imagine, or you are as oppressed as you allow yourself to be, and that lesson seems to be one that is easy to learn.

Photos of Tahrir by Zena Sallam

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani