Saturday, August 24, 2013

Safe Havens

"How are you?" 'Are you safe?" The questions come in emails, in phone messages, on Facebook....heavens, even verbally. On these long hot summer days when there seems to be so much going on in the media, but when reality seems to be stuck in a  puddle of tar on a melting road, it's hard to know what to answer. We are in the midst of strong currents that push us in directions we don't want to go. The hope and vision that we saw in the winter of 2011 is darkness and worry in the heat of the summer of 2013.

My staff came to me today to talk to me about their annual raises. This is a topic that usually comes up in June but when it did this year, I told them that I couldn't do any raise at the present time, but we could talk at the end of the summer...and we are now at the end of the summer. But my funds are limited and while they are sufficient to pay salaries and the feed bills at the farm,  they are not going to be sufficient to pay increases without income from clients. I explained this to them and told them that we simply had to be able to get by on what we have for the time being. This is hard. We have good land on the farm where we are growing vegetables that the staff can use to help feed their families, but they are used to the idea that things get better, and right now they are NOT getting better.  They have good salaries and I help them with their medical bills and other things, but no one has ever taught economics or even accounting in Egyptian schools. It isn't very easy to explain that we just can't do raises.

Developments in Egypt are disturbing. The Ministry of the Interior has posted a notice showing two symbols that are being used as avatars on Twitter and Facebook in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is asking that people turn in friends as terrorists. This is a very bad sign, and in connection with the fact that the Ministry of the Interior has raided Human Rights Watch and is asking for a number of 2011 activists to appear for questioning.

We are under curfew, which is less than any kind of problem for me since I never go out anyway, but this is meaning terrible losses in an economy that is already crashing for most businesses. During the summer heat, most Egyptians are nocturnal and do most of their socialising and shopping in the cooler evenings. For the past week everyone in most places in Egypt has had to be home by 7 pm, although today they announced that the hour has been extended to 9 pm every day except Fridays. With all the businesses not making any money, how can everyone survive?

I've loved my life in this country and I still  have no wish to be living anywhere else. I look to the US where I lived during my childhood, but I see huge problems there. Most of the Middle East is  a crashing disaster. Europe is having major climate problems and its own share of political unrest. There simply seems to be no safe haven these days.

copyright 2013 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, July 29, 2013

Laugh In The Dark

A couple of little old ladies (ok, one of them was me so maybe the "ladies" part is an exaggeration) were having lunch yesterday at the new Lebanese place on Road 9 in Maadi. (Al Balad is nice food, a little pricey, but good.) Anyway, we were talking and my companion told me that at every single shop where she'd stopped that morning the workers within were bursting to talk to her about all the advice Egypt seems to be getting from governments abroad. The gist of each outburst was "But none of those people have been here! None of them has seen their businesses go under because there's no power/gas/clients/money! None of them have had to listen to the crazy religious jabber of people who think that the age at which a girl marries is more important than the security of our hospitals!" There were variations on the theme, but essentially that was what she was hearing, and being a nice woman originally from Pennsylvania but also a 25 yr resident in Egypt, they really wanted to understand where all this was coming from.

The problem was that my companion felt the same way. As she put it, how could Pakistan, for heaven sake, where people get killed in horrible sectarian violence all the time, stand with a straight face and criticise the "coup/revolution/junta"? Neither of us are happy with the situation as it stands, especially since if people start running down streets away from mobs or CSF forces, us little old ladies aren't very fast. We make terrible revolutionaries.  Over olives and bread, I had a thought and it was that as much as what Egypt is doing in terms of our social/political growth (hopefully) and change (certainly) scares us Egyptians, it is TERRIFYING most of the rest of the world.

In my search for thought-provoking articles for my Facebook page, I follow people who comment on events worldwide, and one of the remarkable things I've noticed is that the general discontent level worldwide is rising. This is accompanied by a rise in conservative-unto-fascist thinking as many people retreat in the face of their worry and confusion (which is a whole other topic but it is feeding into the general divisiveness in Egyptian society), but many governments around the world must be really worried that if crazy, chaotic Egypt can get a ton of people (and I will not get into the question of just how many but it was a hell of a lot) into the streets, what would happen if THEIR people did it! This is a very sobering thought because no matter what form of government is concerned, the fact is that no army or police can really deal with a situation if literally millions of people simply walk into the streets and refuse to leave. So far, most places have not been driven to the point of distraction that Egypt was, so it hasn't happened, but the fact that we've done it means that it can be done. I'm quite sure that this is a lesson every government is hoping that their people don't notice or learn.

I think that, while being aware of others' opinions is not a Bad Thing, being overly concerned with them is debilitating, especially when the ship of state is sailing uncharted waters. Please forgive the nautical metaphors but having spent some years helping to skipper a sailboat around the Mediterranean, the image is the best I know.  The reality is that we don't know what is going to happen here. The MB seem to be digging in their heels and refusing to accept the political world that the majority of Egyptians are currently willing to be living in, which means that the military goal of clearing Raba'a and Nahda is going to be very difficult to achieve. And the recent allowing of "emergency" powers to the military AGAIN! is troubling to many of us who remember all too well that the military have kept a subtle but firm hand on our government throughout all since 2011, much to the detriment of the people. Will Tamerod be able to pull off another coup/revolution/whatever against the military should everyone realise that we are being steered back to 1990...or will the threat be enough to keep the military somewhat in line until we have some sort of real  opposition party? We simply don't know but we can't stand still. We must move on.

Friends in the US and Canada who read alarmist headlines contact me constantly about possibly returning to the lands of sanity (in their minds, but not mine), but I'm here for the long haul. Life these days reminds me of a carnival ride I went on when I was about seven in San Diego. It was called Laugh In The Dark and you sat in a small car that went through dark tunnels where skeletons and the like would pop out at you around corners or fall almost into your lap. It was terrifying and I believe I went on it three times that day. This is all utterly mad, but I wouldn't miss it for the world.

copyright 2013 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Redefining Political Realities

I haven't written anything in my blog for a very long time. To be honest, life in Egypt has had a fluidity lately that most people only encounter while white water rafting.  It's pretty hard to comment on something that is changed the very next day. But the past few days have been amazing. The demonstrations called by Tamarod surpassed everyone's expectations and the political response has been no less astonishing than the events of 2011. To be quite honest, I did not expect the popular outpouring that brought millions of Egyptians out into the streets. In my old, jaded mind set, a petition is something someone does to make him/herself feel better about something that they aren't really going to do anything about. Egyptians have redefined the concept of petition, very  largely because they don't generally use them and felt free to define it in a new way.

I've been doing a lot of thinking over the past couple of days. I get notices, often a half dozen a day, on FB and in email, to sign this petition or that one to save the spotted orangutan that is being hunted to extinction in Afghanistan or to tell politicians that Americans really don't want ground plastic in their corn flakes and some of them I take the trouble to sign and pass on and others I don't. Have I ever really had the sense that a petition would change my world? Not really. Maybe someone would read it but most likely not.

But in Egypt, we just removed a president who was delusional, irresponsible, unresponsive, and incompetent (pretty good reasons to get rid of him) by petition. Yes, it wasn't an army coup that did it, it was a petition. Over 20 million Egyptians signed a petition saying that they could not tolerate Mohamed Morsi any more. The army came in only to say to Morsi's followers, many of whom are just as delusional as he is, that the people REALLY have spoken and we will NOT have a blood bath here. The issues of whether or not this was a military coup are, in my mind, secondary and complicated and they don't really speak to what has happened. They may, in fact probably will, be very important in the days to come as the military and the people try to build a constitution and a means of ensuring both political change and stability that doesn't necessarily mean bringing millions of Egyptians out into the streets. But right now I want to talk about what happened here because I think too many people are seeing it through the lenses of predetermined labels and thought.

When I was a little girl, I clearly remember dreaming that if I were walking along a sidewalk in San Diego I could fly simply by picking one foot off the ground, and then picking the other foot up at the same time. I would then float along the sidewalk at roughly the same speed as if I were walking and at the same altitude. I must have been afraid of heights even then because I don't remember any soaring above clouds or anything. Then one night in my dream I was doing this and someone walked up to me, I can't recall who, looked at me flying along the sidewalk and said, "Don't you know that you can't do that?" and BOOM, I was on the sidewalk and never flew in my dreams the same way. I could only do it until someone told me it was impossible. I never forgot that dream because I always had a sneaky feeling that if I could convince myself that I could fly it would work again. So far, in sixty years, it hasn't so perhaps some real innocence is what is needed and this innocence speaks volumes in understanding Egyptians' approach to politics.

Egyptians don't really use petitions. Tamarod was the first real grassroots petition I've seen here. Upper class Egyptians are prone to the same petition signing online, but "normal" working class Egyptians haven't really been exposed to petitions. When I first heard of Tamarod, I was intrigued but not impressed. I thought, terrific for the minority who understand petitions, but what about all the poor, the farmers, the workers? As the Tamarod movement grew, these kids who were running it did the smart thing. They moved the petitions into cigarette kiosks, small grocery stores, and Egyptians by the millions who had been allowed no other voice suddenly found an outlet for their frustrations and they signed it in droves....and they passed the petition on. And, even more important, having taken this massive step of actually signing a piece of paper saying that they wanted a voice in their government, they came out at the end of June to back that statement up with the presence of their bodies in the streets. I'm willing to bet that at least 80% of the people who signed Tamarod came out into the streets at one point...and remember that there were 22 million of them.

Do you think it would work in France, the US or China? I don't know but I think that my dream speaks to that. In 2011, thousands of Egyptians went out to protest police brutality on Police Day. They encountered police brutality, which didn't surprise them, in a really brutal form, which did surprise and anger them, and they basically decided that it was ENOUGH!  No one went out in January to bring down the Mubarak regime and everyone was quite astonished when they did. It was probably the first time in Egyptian history (hieroglyphics don't have much to say about popular uprisings) that the Egyptian people brought down a government by simple force of will (combined to be sure with some Machiavellian maneuvering on the part of the Egyptian military). We and the rest of the world were stunned and like a dog that has finally caught a car after chasing it for so long, frankly we didn't know what to do with the country.  Reality in the form of referendums, elections and the incompetence of the people elected who had no experience at all with the nuts and bolts of governance, set in. Expectations that the Muslim Brothers who had always been the first on hand with help for the poor or disaster-struck would be able to handle governing were pretty much shot down by the time the presidential elections came around and Morsi squeaked in more by virtue of people NOT voting for his opponent than by anything else. Many Egyptians boycotted the elections hoping that large numbers of people NOT voting would be noticed....but they weren't really. People don't notice something that should happen but doesn't. What they notice is something that shouldn't happen but does.

So when Tamarod was organised and the more worldly of us sort of looked at it and thought "Cute. Nice try, kids. A petition never changed anything." the rest of Egypt was learning to fly because no one had ever told them that it wouldn't work. This was one of those things that had never been done, so why wouldn't it work? And it did work. It worked because the signers put their heart, souls and bodies into their action. And this morning, whether we see peace or fighting, whether the army deals with us honestly or not, whether Mubarak's weasels try taking over the government or not, this morning is the result.

At this point, I suspect that there are a lot of governmental types all over the world viewing Egypt very suspiciously. A country that has a terrible literacy rate, has one of the worst school systems in the world, has carefully taught its population to follow orders, that has a huge population of poor people who barely manage to survive, and that has no experience in that exalted form of political activity, democracy, has toppled two leaders in two years. Doing it once can be dismissed as a fluke, but doing it twice could mean that these people have actually figured something important out. I think that Egypt's complete inexperience in political matters has actually worked to its advantage because there are young people out there who come up with a simple idea like Tamarod and try it, not knowing that it isn't supposed to work. And as long as no one believes that it isn't supposed to will work. Ignorance can be bliss.

copyright 2013 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Friday, May 03, 2013

An Arab Citizen Speaks On Gaining Wisdom

Ten years ago I began writing this blog in response to all the questions friends abroad (meaning outside Egypt, for me) kept writing to me wondering how I could live in this terrible country that they were seeing portrayed in the media, a country of hate-filled terrorists and violent people. Obviously, to me at least, there was something seriously wrong with the information available to the world  if this was what my friends were seeing. I searched the internet for information that wasn't just dry facts and figures, something to show that Egyptians were, in essence, just like everyone else in the world, people with hopes, dreams, fears, problems, and solutions. I didn't really find much so in an act of utter hubris I began writing this myself.

In 2003, I was a recent widow, the lost wife of one of Egypt's more important (albeit by family plan lesser known) business figures, who was coping with a monstrous job of sorting out my late husband's estate and businesses that were in a pretty godawful state partly through the monumental incompetence of Egyptian banking and partly through his amazing ability to surround himself with people he considered friends who were, in fact, anything but. Mubarak was in power still and we were quite used to the fact that our phones were, and always had been, tapped. As a non-citizen, I was very careful not to discuss politics. In the first place, I felt that this was not my place and that the young bloggers who were appearing rapidly could do a much better job than I could. And more importantly, talking about Egypt's political problems, which were many, was not my goal. Letting the outside world see that Egyptians were "just folks like us" was my goal. So my blog was very much a special niche.

As time has gone on and changes have happened in Egypt, I have become more political just as virtually every other person in Egypt has. I'm less likely to hide my political feelings these days, but I must admit to a lethargy when it comes to posting to my blog. So much is happening here now, that many times I simply feel overwhelmed and I'm trying to find a way to deal with this as far as my blog goes. One of the things that I want to do with my blog is to take the opportunity to let my readers meet some of the wonderful young people who are doing much to try to create a new Egypt, and to this end I will occasionally present links to their blogs. I heartily recommend that you take the time to read these posts.

Bassem Sabry is one of my favourite bloggers/journalists in Egypt. His writing on the political scene here is excellent, but the post that I want to share is more personal. Last fall he turned 30 and wrote a meditative post on what it felt like to pass this milestone and what he'd felt he'd learned in his life so far.

A few of the thoughts from his post:

"I have learned that every human being must think well before taking a decision, but that too much thinking could paralyse a human being as well, and that it is at times wiser to leap into the waters and attempt - in a magnitude of panic - to learn how to swim."

"I realised that it is not the right of any human being to exercise control over a fellow human being except in what prevents the harm of others, and that we are much stronger than the conditions we find ourselves in - more than I had imagined. I realised that no one has the right to silence someone, or control what he reads and knows, for he is nothing but another human being like he is, and he is no way better than another to control him had the roles been reversed."


copyright 2013 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, March 18, 2013

Not A Lynch Mob

 A recent report of rural justice has seized the imaginations of news organisations all over the world, most of whom are carrying on about "vigilantes in Egypt" and lynch mobs. This is rubbish to be quite short about it, and I really wish that people who write articles about us would bother to find out something about the situation as it really is.

The hard fact of the matter is that the "rural" areas of Egypt are full of so-called "villages" of anywhere from 5 to 100 thousand or more inhabitants and these "villages" have no legal municipal governments, no local authorities, no services from the central government...basically little or no support from the central government, who generally knows about as much about them as do the idiotic writers of these ill-informed articles. Most urban Egyptians harbour a secret fear of the rural Egyptians and are hesitant to venture out into the wilds of the countryside. As I have found living in this amazingly misunderstood environment, the facts of life out here are simply different from city life but no less fact, I believe they are in many respects more so.

The incident in Samanod, a "village" in the Delta about 90 km north of Cairo that has so captured the imagination of the world press and led (naturally) to a vivid portrayal of Egypt as collapsing into gang warfare and vigilantes was that a couple of men were preying on tuktuk (motorised rickshaws) drivers, stealing the tuktuks, abducting school girls and so on. These men from a neighbouring village (as is generally the case since one doesn't foul one's own nest) were captured by the villagers where the actions were taking place, were beaten severely and then hung by their feet. They subsequently died from the beatings.

To speak from my own experience, when a thief is caught in one of the villages here it is in fact customary to hang him by his feet at his front door to allow his neighbours to witness his shame and identification as a thief. If a beating accompanies this punishment, it is rarely sufficient even to cause a doctor's attention. The punishment is the public shaming and it tends to be quite efficient, especially as it alerts everyone to who the thieves among them is. I haven't heard of women being punished in this fashion. In the city, if a theft occurs the victim is lucky to get a response of any kind from the police (who aren't even present in the first place in rural areas) and if the thief is caught and can't buy his way out of trouble, he will likely be beaten, spend some time in jail awaiting trial, and if found guilty spend more time in jail afterwards. Egyptian jails being what they are, I would think that an hour or so spent hanging upside down being embarrassed in front of one's neighbours is the far more attractive option.

My area is between the edge of Giza at Nazlit Semman, that unsavoury neighbourhood next to the Sphinx, and the next so-called "village" of Abu Sir that houses roughly 40 thousand souls. Our local authority is a highly respected older man who is one of my neighbours, a gentleman in his 60's with white hair and bright blue eyes, who in a Harris tweed could pass for an Irish farmer. Haj Abdou is quite a character. When I had an issue with a housekeeper who decided to liberate some money from me, I consulted with him and he called a meeting with me, the housekeeper and her mother which resulted in the prompt return of my funds.  1000% better service than any of the urban police and no one was beaten or hung upside down.  Shortly after the revolution a gang from Abu Sir was stealing electronics from shops on Pyramids Road in Giza, sending in one member to case the place, another to steal a jeep from somewhere and they would hit the store at night loading the jeep with their goodies and heading back to Abu Sir through the desert from the area at the end of the Moneeb. One night the army was moving tanks through the desert so they dodged out onto the asphalt road just north of us only to be stopped by one of the security patrols watching traffic by a campfire at night, as was the custom during those confusing days.  As they were unknown and unwilling to identify themselves or their reason for being in the area, the car was searched, the loot discovered and they spent the day tied up next to the wall of the omda's home next to their stolen jeep waiting for someone from the army to come to pick them up. Compared to the treatment of my saddlemaker who found himself in a military prison for asking for a death certificate for his brother than included the gunshot wound (courtesy of the military/CSF) that he actually died of rather than the accidental death listed, this was a pretty good deal.

Last night a visitor and I were driving home from a neighbour's place after dinner about 9 pm and I noticed that the areas of the roads that were not immediately lit and inhabited were completely empty. This was not the case a few years ago. Rural settlements are in small clumps in many parts and the people are used to visiting after dark, since they are working in fields during the day, but not any more. They will walk to the homes of friends or family or use a tuktuk if the distance is very far.  My staff tell me of gangs who are abducting women from tuktuks (the usual mode of transport in the countryside being cheap and plentiful), of tuktuk drivers being beaten or murdered for possession of their vehicle (current value new about LE 20 thou), and other problems in the darkened isolated areas away from the main villages.  Many don't venture out after dark at all and they all resent this enormously. When I announced that I was going out  to my neighbours for a 6  pm dinner to arrive home about 9 pm, they wanted me to bring my Great Dane to protect me on the road. Since the neighbours are cat people and Mindy isn't the best with cats, I pointed out that it wasn't a great idea and that it wasn't so far, but they were not pleased.

While in an optimal world incidents such as that in Samanod wouldn't happen at all, the fact that the villagers took their justice themselves isn't that remarkable. The fact that they would have to is sad...but that has been the way in rural Egypt for millenia. Most issues are decided by the elders and omdas, and the solutions are generally just registered with the police for public record. Perhaps when the rural areas of Egypt are really considered part of the country and not a foreign environment things will change a bit.

copyright 2013 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani