Last December The Economist of London published the “World in 2011.” This excellent preview of the New Year’s economic and political trends contained this prophetic statement: Egyptians “won’t be prevented from taking to the streets to protest low wages and poor living standards.” No one could have anticipated that the predicted protests would result in complete and total defeat over the reign of Hosni Mubarak. I was in Egypt this last July and in the midst of the heat, the crowded streets, the polluted air and the extraordinary diversity of the people in Cairo, there was one consistent theme, which even as a tourist I could feel. Present at every turn was the feel and smell of tyranny.
Whether my hosts and I wanted to enter a mosque, or park outside the National Museum, or walk too slowly down the avenue in front of the Presidential Palace, Egyptian authority, armed, sometimes uniformed and sometimes in civilian clothes, pushed us around. Long arguments ensued between my hosts and the authorities and in these the only word I understood was Harem “prohibited”, “forbidden”, “not allowed.” My hosts were embarrassed by the unnecessary and dominating attitude of authority. But no apology was needed I knew something about what the Cuban poet had called “the sad coloring of submission.”
It is really hard to find sadness in an Egyptian. The sadness of submission I witnessed was anathema to my personal treatment by my hosts. Great big smiles and warm hugs greeted us everywhere we went, their great generosity present in every man and woman we met and after ten days I had gained 20 pounds, unable to say no –for it would insult—to the people who offered us their homes and brought us to their table with more food than a person could consume.
During that trip I had met with an official of Al-Ahzar, the oldest university in the world and as such the great survivor of invading armies, despotic leaders, changing monarchs, communists and army-supported governments. He confided to me the unpopularity of the regime, how much it damaged the culture and spirit of the Egyptian people and how it had succeeded in bringing Al-Azhar under its control. Of all of the people I met during this trip, only he had been open when talking to a stranger like me about the tyranny.
My other colleagues and friends were very cautious. As I would inquire about the politics in Egypt, invariably my hosts would execute the usual maneuver of people living under political repression…they would look both ways to see who was listing, lower their voice and carefully, very carefully, choose their words. “Mubarak is like your Papa, very strict.” When I countered, “But surely fathers should also be loving” a repeat of the both ways looks and lower voice would occur before my hosts replied, “Not so much that.”
The image of an “almost smiling” benign-looking Papa was everywhere. Over the cash register at the restaurant, from a 30-foot portrait at the public square, on the side of trucks, highways and every public building. The personality cult of the despotic leader is not unusual but the presence of Papa’s image was so ubiquitous it went far beyond my experience. Occasionally, the young people who accompanied us to some places would be more courageous. “He is old, I know my children will not see his face as I have all my life.” I would ask tentatively “Would they see his son’s face instead?” (look both ways, lower voice) “ I hope not, Allah is great, he will see us through.”
As we drove by on the elevated highway we could see the ancient cementery where squatters had built their shelter from discarded wood and corrugated tin. I asked my surprised hosts if we could drive through it so I could see up close how people lived. In between ancient musolems there were narrow spaces crowded with people, their meager possessions in plastic bags. The poverty in corrupt tyrannies seems to be worse, more numerous and pronounced, than the poverty in democratic systems.
What galvanizes this city populated by seemingly every nation and culture in the Middle East, their religious faith –whether Islam or not– is paramount. The people suspended our meetings when the call to prayer was heard. As we talked to university officials about future programs they punctuated each wishful thought with Insha-Allah (God willing).
The academic offices I visited had a TV set in the corner, tuned to the Islamic channel, playing the Adhan (Islam call to prayer) or repeating the sermon from last Friday’s Call to Prayer or singing the Quran. Islam was a daily, hourly presence in the life of the secular Egyptians and what brought them together in a powerful union.
This Islam I saw in Egypt was not a state policy or a political movement, it was a deeply held faith in the way of Mohamed and it is the opposite of the Islam of Al-Qaeda.
As we all saw on television, the revolutionaries who crowded the streets of Tahrir square, brought their Islamic faith with them, the Islam of peace and non-violence, of praying, begging, resisting, inspiring and protecting. At the same time that Islam was present at every turn even the traditions of Islam were set-aside at this historic time.
CNN broadcasted the pictures of a middle-aged woman removing her hijab in public to wipe the blood from the brow of a protester injured by a rock. When she finished, she kissed the forehead of the stranger she had nursed.
But it was all about kids who had grown up. Since the beginning of the uprising in January 25th, my Facebook page became a communications central for the young men and women I had met at the Suez Canal University in July who subsequently had made me their Facebook friend. At the beginning of the conflict, one of them sent me a message, asking me to pass it along to the White House. It said. “President Obama, please stay out of this.” I did as I was asked and surprisingly, the White House responded. “We hope the Egyptian government listens to the wish of its people and takes action to address their grievances.” I sent back the message to the young girl who had asked and she answered. “No, tell them stay out of it, not a word, not a word, this is our fight.”
The Egyptians are proud people. Seven thousand years of evolving culture and history burdens one with the weight of the past and enables one to see life in a different way. While I was there I was told a joke making its way among the young. “Did you know” the joke went “that Egypt has the fastest computer in the world?” I said no, I didn’t know that. “I’ll prove it to you. In the United States you have a computer so fast that within minutes of closing the electoral polls, you know who won. In Egypt, we know who won two years before the election!” Proud and funny too.
Dr. Mohamed Sywelem my former student, now an Assistant Professor at Suez Canal University wrote in his Facebook page: “Today you can Ride Suez Canal and smell the freedom and the Democracy, thanks to Allah we kick the dictator out.”
May this freedom bring you the Democracy you are beginning to smell. Insha-Allah