Thursday, October 20, 2011

Both Spinning in Space and Standing Still

I have the serious sense of the world moving both too fast and too slowly these days, and to be frank, it makes me a bit dizzy. An unhappy motherboard on my laptop has left me with an iPad that can post but not photos, for the most part, and I won't really be able to intersperse my ideas with some lightening photos. So bear with me.

Where has our Egypt gone? In some ways it is still the same place and in others it has changed almost beyond recognition. Before the revolution the standard line of the government was that they were the only dike between stability and the chaos of Islamic tides. Governments believed this and so did many people. What we've found since the uprising in Jan/Feb has been that the Muslim Brothers, the Salafis, the Sufis, and many other Islamic groups have more than enough internal disputes that no one group is likely to be taking over from the previous government. What we've realized is that this entire propaganda campaign was a diversion from the reality that since the early 1950's Egypt has been a military dictatorship and that this, in fact, hasn't changed. There are many, myself among them, who have a strongly nagging suspicion that the protesters of winter did the military here a huge favour by insisting on the removal of Mubarak and, more importantly, his sons from the picture. There was a lot of debate about the question of whether the very powerful Egyptian army would accept Gamal Mubarak, who never even served in the armed forces, as a successor to his father, and I believe that we have a resounding "No!" as our answer. The military were delighted not to have to force a confrontation and to appear to do the will of the people. They didn't exactly come down that hard on the Mubaraks, allowing Gamal the freedom to come to Cairo from Sharm el Sheikh for months, and allowing Hosny's chief of staff access to the Presidential palace and all its shredding machines for months. After all, maybe the Mubaraks had the wherewithal to perform a resurgence. It's only been in the past few months when it's obvious that the Mubaraks are truly history that the Supreme Council, a ruling group of generals, have taken even half-hearted steps against the previous regime.

Instead, they have adopted the old ways of creating dissonance among Egyptians by ambushing Christian protesters and then claiming in the government controlled media that they were being attacked. This story has only worked among those who only read, listen to or watch only the government controlled media as everyone else has been broadcasting videos and eyewitness accounts of the reality of the situation. Unfortunately one of the aspects of the old Egypt that hasn't changed is the large number of people who do rely on the state media for information, an unsettling thought to say the least. The "government's" inability to handle the issues of seeing Egypt through this period have been publicly on show and privately indicated. The prime minister has attempted to resign many times and has been told, probably very forcefully, that his resignation will, on no account, be accepted. This is likely because the military know that it is the only facade that gives them the slightest shred of legitimacy and they can't afford to lose this. But it seems pretty clear to everyone that the main concern of the military council is the maintenance of their freedom of action without the inconvenience of civilian oversight. They get about $1 billion in military aid yearly from the US and one of their primary concerns is not threatening this lucrative source of income. There has been significantly less concern with reassuring the world that Egypt is still a safe tourism destination (which it is, by the way, unless you are unlucky enough to find yourself in front of a tank...which is an occurrence of very low probability), to look to the reorganization of our schools (which have basically been holding pens for the young and have utterly failed at education), to provide a reasonable standard of living for employees of the state like teachers and doctors (they could share out some of that military largesse?), or to provide any security for the citizens of Egypt who have been living since last January without any traffic or parking police for the most part. It's okay, we can live without the Central Security Forces, who unfortunately seem to have no problem working...usually NOT for us.

One of the things that has changed is the willingness to discuss our situation among people in general, and this is definitely a Good Thing. You hear discussions and arguments over current events in Egypt everywhere now, whereas before January they were generally carried out in low voices in closed rooms among close friends. As an Arabic speaking foreigner, I can hardly buy a coffee without discussing something. People are now willing to talk about, and go on strike for, things that they have long been vexed by. While the strikes are truly inconvenient for most of us (though we saw a nice decrease in traffic during the transit buses and fewer minibuses) it's totally understandable. Everyone was gagged for so many years with repression and the inability to speak out. The Maspero incident in which the army attacked the the Christian AND Muslim protesters left real scars and worried Christians here in Egypt. Rumours abounded immediately afterwards about army checkpoints that were stopping cars and rounding up Copts. I've found no confirmation of them, but the damage that they do to the national psyche is obvious. Out here in the villages, religion is still not an issue and we have Copts and Muslims living and working side by side. The idea of conflict over this is still considered ludicrous.

The list of things that haven't changed, however, is staggering. Whatever is passing for an Egyptian government is still almost utterly disengaged from the concerns and needs of the people. Election dates are postponed and changed at random, procedures for elections are totally unclear and are changed at random. This is enormously confusing and is leading to a real sense that nothing really has happened to change the essence of the Egyptian government. The schools have been a cause for serious concern for years, with crowded classrooms taught by untrained teachers who rely on rote learning turning out citizens with only rudimentary skills at the basics and virtually no ability to analyze a situation and make an informed decision. Essentially, they've been factories for an ignorant and compliant populace.

An additional serious problem that I have only really become aware of in the past 6 months is the issue of the education of families in maternal, prenatal, and postnatal nutrition. My housekeeper had a baby and returned to work after two weeks bringing the baby with her. While this may seem way too early, it's worth noting that she probably works much less in my home than in her own, she has a number of adults available to help with care for her son, and she has decent food here. I've had meals with farm families and noticed that the men generally eat first, with the children next and the women last. These means that women who are pregnant and nursing don't necessarily get the nutrition they need. Magda has had more children that she needs (let's not even open the topic of her husband who doesn't help to support the family and stands in the way of birth control in a really secure fashion.) Now she's on pills having tried a number of other unsuccessful forms of birth control but she has always been too tired and improperly fed to be able to nurse her babies properly. When this last son was born, I began buying the formula to supplement as one can is about 40 LE. To feed this child properly would take over half her monthly income...and she has more kids at home to feed. So basically we have taken on the job of feeding this baby, who is now beginning to eat and gets homemade baby food while he is here almost every day. I've begun noticing the other infants around me and most of them are small, thin, rather unresponsive, the victims of postnatal malnutrition. Their mothers are often exhausted working hard around the house...housework in the villages is no joke. Food is prepared absolutely from scratch, keeping a house clean next to the desert is a full time job, and there is little time to put one's feet up. Additionally there is almost no knowledge of proper nutrition or even the need of a nursing mother to drink sufficient fluids. We find ourselves raising children here who due to improper nutrition have a bad start in life and then compound it with the schools. While I'm definitely not an advocate of cradle to grave imposition of lifestyle, it is absolutely the role of government to provide education to its population whether children or adults. The government here really hasn't tried much.

One of the senses that many of us have these days is the sense of there being simply so much to do to put Egypt to rights. How is this going to be done? Will we get a government that responds to the needs of the people? Will we just get another one that milks the country for wealth? Every question is still in the air.

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani