[This will be posted on my Islamic issues blog, The Middle Everything, tomorrow.]
I wish I could this is one of the latest photos of the protests in Egypt, but it's a photo my friend Faisal took of the scene at Tahrir Square, Cario, in late 2009 -- after Egypt won their first World Cup qualifier match against Algeria. If you see a white dude in the picture, that's probably me; there weren't many of my kind around that night.
During this happy football riot, I was with an Iranian AUC student I had just met that night, Wahid. As we surveyed the scene at Tahrir that night, Wahid impressed upon me the point that I was witnessing something very, very special. The leaders of Middle Eastern nations hardly ever let masses of people congregate together, whether it be for celebration or a protest. I was witnessing something that happens only a few times in a lifetime.
I'll tell you what, I wish I was back in Egypt witnessing it again. And given my activist past and marching towards riot cops in my own country (Seattle, 1999, during that little WTO thing...), I'd probably participate despite the risk. After all, I wouldn't want to be one of those pansy fleeing foreigners.
Understanding foreign cultures at a detailed level is difficult. Americans can read all the history and political science books and articles about Egypt they want, but those are just an author's interpretation of Egyptian society. They pick and choose topics they want to cover. But when you're living there, trying to make sense of Egyptian society for yourself but struggling with the language, gaining your own
understanding is difficult. It's a task that can't be accomplished in the four short months I was blessed to study out there.
But I did feel a palpitatble, very tangible vibe of a repressed society and failed government. When I complained about the cab drivers ripping me off, some Arab friends of mine at AUC would remind me that these cab drivers have law degrees -- yet they are driving a cab. How does this happen? Egyptians are not uneducated people. Take a walk through the Khan el-Khalili and you'll hear merchants talking in English, French, Russian, and Italian; trying to sell their wares. Social economists would say Egypt has a lot of "human capital" the government can invest in and build their economy off of. So what happened?
Well, for one thing, the government of dictator-for-life Honsi Mubarak is corrupt as hell. It is holding Egyptian society back. It's a typical case of a dictator ruling by fear in order to stay in power. Whether they are a violent dictator who choose to murder thousands (the Saddam route), or they are more benign, it's still disgusting.
But with the recent mass protests in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and other Egyptian cities, the only question now is what will hold the Egyptian people back?
The Islamic Revolution in Iran started out as simply the "Iranian Revolution" -- not was not religious. It was a revolt against a dictator-for-life named the Shah who couldn't administrate a society to save his life. (As is turned out for the Shah, my last statement is literal.) The Shah didn't bring jobs, education, or even electricity to the Iranian countryside -- as a result, shantytowns formed around Iran's major cities. Many Iranian people lived in dire conditions, and that helped foster a revolt.
Similarly, if you go around the outskirts of Cairo, poor neighborhoods are spouting up -- very similar to shantytowns. Jobs in Egypt are in its cities, and the major city is Cairo. But even when you goto Alexandria, there is the rich tourist area near the Mediterranean coast, and the demographics of the neighborhoods get progressively -- and drastically -- poorer the farther away from the shore you travel. I've seen the neighborhood of Sayid Darwish's first house -- tourism dollars do not hit that part of Alexandria. Which, by the way, is only a couple miles away from the Sheraton.
Many commentators that will be quoted by Western news outlets will downplay the notion of President Mubarak being driven from office. Looking at the state of Egyptian society, and comparing it to pre-revolution Iran, I'm not dismissing this notion. The conditions in Egypt are ripe for a people's coup.
And being the democracy-supporting American that I am, I fully support the overthrow of Mubarak's corrupt government.
Of course, the implications for in the Western world for Arab democracies cannot be understated. If Mubarak has accomplished one thing, it's this: He's made the world forget about Egyptian power. He's kept the populace under his thumb and hasn't challenged the peace pact with Israel. For the past 30 years, Egypt has been a sleeping giant.
Well, the giant is about to be startled. Tunisia just screamed in the giant's ear, and it is awakening from it's slumber. If a new, more democratic government takes hold in Egypt, there will be a massive ripple effect across the Middle East. And nobody will doubt the power of the giant.
Labels: democracy, eypgt, revolutions