Cautious Optimism in Cairo

My cousins in Cairo don’t watch Al Jezeera or the Egyptian-government channels. They think Qataris don’t like Egypt, and Al Jezeera is making the situation look worse than it is. And they know not to trust the state-run channels. So they watch O-TV, Orascom Television, a satellite network whose founder Naguib Sawiris says, “It will be a television for young people, without religious or loud content.” Sawiris seems to be aiming for that all-too-touted media buzz-word, balance:

We want to report on the good and bad qualities of Egyptian society but without being neither vulgar nor superficial. The aim is to attract the public’s attention onto itself and to make people reflect on who they are. Recently, television in Egypt has enjoyed more freedom and, though it’s not enough, it’s better than nothing.

My cousins lives in Medinat Nasr, Nasser City, one middle-class neighborhood over from affluent Heliopolis, where Mubarak has his presidential palace. Egyptians call Heliopolis Masr Gedida, New Egypt. There’s no radically new Egypt just yet—Mubarak has refused the protesters’ demand that he step down immediately, using his usual excuse for continued repressive rule: There will be chaos. But my cousin thinks the revolt is a step forward for Egypt: “It will make the government care for her people more.”

She was working from home Friday, since there’s no way she could commute to her office with the mass demonstration at Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Some of her co-workers went there to tell the protesters they’ve done enough: The government has gotten the message. Mubarak has agreed to step down in September. And he’ll have to honor that promise; if he doesn’t, people will kill him.

My cousin said the streets were calm Friday near Heliopolis. Anti-government protestors did not march to the presidential palace, as was planned earlier for what they declared the president’s “day of departure”: They stood firm in Tahrir Square—two million strong, in the largest turnout since the demonstrations began twelve days ago.

On a Skype call, my cousin asked what I think of the foreigners—many Israelis and Americans—who are agitating the revolt. I told her I hadn’t heard that. After our conversation, I read in American news sources about the Mubarak regime using its usual tactic of scapegoating foreigners. And I spoke with a Connecticut rabbi who says this is the most vulnerable moment for Israel since 1948: the Egyptian army is the largest in the Arab world, and the Suez Canal is vital for transporting Middle East oil and petroleum.

My cousins aren’t just consuming state propaganda—they’re watching independent channels and viewing the protests with ambivalent eyes. They want what seems impossible in Egypt: change and stability.

I asked my cousin if she has any particular prayer requests.  She gave me three: safety for the Egyptian people from the prisoners who broke out last week; protection for the church, especially after the Alexandria church bombings in New Year’s; and peace.

“We want to live in peace,” she told me, “after eleven days of civil war.” Again, she said it’s a step forward, “even after all that’s happened.” She’s cautiously optimistic, and patient: She thinks the revolt will make the Egyptian government care for its people—pay attention to poverty and provide jobs—“one day, maybe in a year.”

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.