robertisenberg

Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Egypt Calls Out

In Uncategorized on February 2, 2011 at 1:14 am

Photograph of Cairo street, 2010.


“Muslims!” shouted Mohammed, our taxi driver. “Christians!” He clapped his hands together. “Like brothers!”

Mohammed sounded so confident. I wanted to believe him. And yet.

Last May, I took a trip to Egypt with my girlfriend, Kylan, and her mother, Mrs. Turner. For Mrs. Turner, the trip was a lifelong dream come true, to finally see the pyramids in person, to sail the Nile, and to walk the Valley of the Kings. She had no interest in modern Egypt and paid such cabbies little mind. Mrs. Turner wanted to see stone scarabs and alabaster tombs, not the raw face of Africa’s most developed nation.

But I was transfixed by “modern” Egypt – or least its mask. Yes, guides insisted that life was grand. At every corner, the “tourist police” stood guard in little kiosks, armed with machine-guns. Drivers said firmly, “Israel is okay! No problem with Israel!” So we felt safe, which was what mattered at the time.

Still, I didn’t buy it. For tourists, the smokescreen was thick, and it was easy to perceive Egypt as a healthy country. The tour-route carefully avoided poor neighborhoods, where most Egyptians survive on $2 per day. A well-educated woman, Amira, was hired to lead us through the Egyptian Museum – never mind that female circumcision is still widely practiced. If the endless metal detectors were signs of security, they were also a symbol of threat.

Ten months later, Egypt is in revolt. Not the tour-group Egyptians, but the real Egyptians – the people who have lived under the same corrupt regime for three decades. News photos depict streets I recently walked crammed with angry youths. Where our taxi was caught in traffic jams, protesters hurl bottles and set tires on fire. Analysts wonder: Will the military side with the activists? Is a coup in store? Will Mubarak make concessions and keep his presidency? Or are my cynical friends right – will this end in full-blown tragedy?

All we know is that this moment is critical for the Egyptian state, and decisions today will have repercussions for years to come.

I also know this: Our world is tense, and when cabbies insist, adamantly, that people are getting along, I see red flags. It’s easy, on an all-inclusive vacation, to skirt the issues that plague a modern country. From the highway and cruise-ship, the country looks as stable as the Giza pyramids. But if there is immediate value to the recent protests in Greece, Tunisia and Egypt, it is that oppressed people will not be ignored – not by their own government, and not by the Western media. In a global community of suitcase bombs and kidnappings, this kind of demonstration is not only admirable; it is crucial to human rights.

For Kylan and me, the clearest symbol of Egyptian fragility was the Aswan Dam. This colossal hydroelectric dam, completed in 1976, supplies Egypt with most of its power. “If there is no dam, there is no Egypt,” quipped one of our guides, before advising us to leave our camcorders in the tour bus. It was a moment of rare transparency. We’re actually fairly vulnerable, the guide seemed to say. Our existence relies on 3,830 meters of earthworks.

For Africa and the Middle East, Egypt has long been touted as a showcase country. Relations with the U.S. are strong, and the Egypt-Israeli peace is a landmark of modern diplomacy. And some may argue that Mubarak has been a necessary tyrant in a region fraught with violence. He may yet retain power. Free elections may not come. Violence may even escalate, and tourists like me may steer clear of Egypt for months or even years.

But at least a deeper pain is coming to light. The mask is pealing away. And that’s a start.

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