For the first time in my life, only two years longer than Mubarak’s reign, I’m excited to see the Egyptian flag. Red, white, and black. Even the eagle doesn’t irk me anymore.
I’m not one to be patriotic—not for my native country, the United States, and not for my father’s, Egypt. I haven’t been proud to be an American since I learned what “democracy promotion” means for US foreign policy in the Middle East. I’ve never been proud to be half Egyptian; it was embarrassing when I was growing up in Alabama, cool in an exoticizing kind of way at my liberal arts college in Connecticut, and disorienting ever since I started spending summers in Egypt. I think of Cairo as an agitated beehive. But now there’s a tent city at the center of the hive in Liberation Square, and Egyptian flags wave on the periphery.
The day after mass anti-government protests broke out in Cairo, I was in line at the Egyptian consulate in New York. “Did you see the clips on YouTube?” asked a guy named Sherif, next to me in line. He was talking about the footage of Egyptian riot police beating protesters with sticks and shooting into crowds. “If I were you,” Sherif told me, “I’d give up my Egyptian citizenship.”
In a recent New York Times piece, Anthony Shadid says Egyptian protesters “have re-imagined the very notion of citizenship.” Doctors and engineers, farmers and factory workers, clerics and secularists have transformed the Arab street: the disaffected masses didn’t capitulate to the authoritarian regime; they haven’t rallied for an Islamist revolution; they haven’t fallen for a personality cult. There are no signs that read “Death to America,” and no rose-colored glasses about the American dream. For three weeks now, they have sustained “a movement that is, so far, leaderless.” Just bodies in the street, asserting their dignity, demanding that Mubarak leave. A radical imagination generated out of hunger.
But there are martyrs of the revolution, and there are heroes. Three days after what demonstrators declared a “Sunday of the Martyrs,” to honor those who died in the demonstrations, Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing director and internet activist who helped start the protests, spoke on satellite TV. He’d been arrested, then blindfolded for twelve days. Several of his activist friends had been killed, and he apologized to their parents. He said, “I’m willing to die, and I have a lot to lose in this life”: a wife and kids, a home and a dream job in Dubai.
I’m all for re-imagining citizenship. Especially now that the nation state is giving way to something more global. It makes me want to sing “We Are the World” and believe in it all over again. But I’m watching Egypt from this side of the Atlantic, with my coffee cup and cream of wheat next to the computer screen. Can those with full stomachs really be good citizens to those without?
When I got home from the Egyptian consulate, my inbox was full of messages from friends I’m not in touch with, writing excitedly, wanting to know my take on was happening. It made me think of that scene in Persepolis, when the Austrian anarchists think Marjane, the Iranian kid in school, is cool because she has “known war.”
I haven’t “known war”—not even by association. My dad got an exemption from mandatory military service because he was in medical school, then left Egypt on a tourist visa to Lebanon. At the time, the Nasser regime wasn’t allowing anyone to emigrate, but my dad took a plane from Beirut to London, where he did a residency in ophthalmology, and his family wired him money until he could support himself and immigrate to the States. So he watched the ’67 War from abroad, privileged to be a successful part of the brain drain. And those he left behind did pretty well for themselves; his brother was a renowned physician in Alexandria, his sister a principal in a French private school. My family in Egypt is part of a minority within a minority: affluent Christians.
When some of my American friends ask, almost as an afterthought, how my family in Egypt is doing, I say “They’re okay. Mostly laying low at home.” Two weeks in, my cousins in Cairo thought the uprising was a step forward for Egypt, but that it had gone far enough: the government had gotten the picture, and Mubarak agreed not to run for re-election in September. They wanted life to go back to normal. They wanted to go back to work and to school, to be able to buy groceries at state-subsidized prices, to be able to be out on the streets after four in the afternoon, and to stop seeing machetes, sticks, and aluminum barriers everywhere they went. They wanted what seems impossible in Egypt: stability, and also change.
“Laying low at home” was not, I suspect, what my friends who are so excited about the revolution want to hear. It’s as if I’m killing their Al Jezeera English buzz. And when I sense their disappointment, I get angry.
What’s happening in Egypt is exciting. But it’s painful and scary, fragile and fierce. We liberals hungry for liberation may be projecting our longing for radical politics on people whose lives we can’t fathom. Not only those whose empty stomachs brought them to Tahrir Square, but those who don’t want for anything, except freedom.
In these last three weeks, Egyptians from all walks of life have shared the same concrete plight. If the protesters had left Tahrir Square without Mubarak’s resignation, they would have been punished with his usual brutal tactics: killings, incarceration, and torture. Many were willing to die for the cause. But they weren’t willing to compromise, at the risk of perpetuating the regime. And although Mubarak is gone, there’s no guarantee his legacy won’t live on. What may happen in Egypt could shatter us, if it weren’t for the comfortable distance of our computer screens, watching Al Jezeera live stream on full stomachs.
If this leaderless revolution were happening anywhere besides Egypt, I’d be cheering it on wholeheartedly. So why begrudge others the thrill of watching a mass slap-in-the-face to a Middle East strongman? Their longing comes from a deep, good place: a place that aspires to liberation for themselves and others. It’s the place that makes Wael Ghonim willing to sacrifice his good life for his country. And the place that makes me say “Amen!” to the social gospel and “Hell, yeah!” to a New Jerusalem. But with Egypt I don’t know what to say.
I’m skeptically hopeful. Skeptical that realpolitik won’t continue to be the prevailing rule of international relations. Skeptical that the leaderless revolution in Egypt won’t be co-opted by opportunist leaders. Skeptical that what many are celebrating as a democratic, nonreligious, popular revolt won’t buckle at the usual fault lines of class and religion: in Egypt, the deep tensions between the haves and the have-nots, and between Muslims, Christians, and secularists. Skeptical that liberals on the American side of citizenship can be any more than sympathetic spectators.
I believe “We Are the World.” But I believe power entails disparity, and comfort too often yields to complacency. And yet Egypt is surprising me. It’s not only the poor rioting for daily bread; it’s those who were born with silver spoons in their mouths, demanding a better life. Most of the young people who organized the first protests—largely through Facebook and Twitter—are of the newest generation of Egypt’s educated elites. Although I don’t know them, I recognize them; they’re the college graduates in their thirties with no jobs. They have plenty of food, because they’re still living with their parents, but not enough of their own money to move out, much less get married. They’re the guys I would see on their laptops at the Starbucks near American University in Cairo. The guys I assumed didn’t care about the men on the corner eating fava beans out of a plastic bag on a quick break from construction work.
An Egyptian-American family friend, a public health researcher who lives in DC, told me she’d almost given up on Egyptian youth—until this month. She told me how proud she and her colleagues in Egypt are of “these Facebook kids.” She said they have more courage than the people of her generation, who lived under the repression of Nasser and Sadat. She mentioned some terrible things she has heard from her friends who’d been providing medical care to those injured in Tahrir Square. And a telling story from the early days of the protests: these kids who started the revolution, these “computer nerds,” don’t know how to stand up to the police, so workers and peasants were protecting them.
Those used to brutality were taking it as usual, but they couldn’t protect the Facebook kids for long. My family friend heard that many of the so-called Mubarak supporters who disrupted the til-then peaceful movement were drug addicts, so high they could hardly feel the stones people were throwing at them in defense. The police disappeared. Criminals and thugs were let loose in the streets. Her brother in Cairo had been staying up all night. Even the doorman who guards his building was scared. Mubarak was trying to set the stage to justify his security-first regime, using addicts and prisoners on the front lines.
I wonder if that’s what Sherif meant when he advised me to give up my Egyptian citizenship. We were in line for the same reason thousands of Egyptians flocked to the New York consulate the week the protests broke out in Cairo. Once every two years, the Egyptian government sends a delegation to the consulates abroad to issue and renew state identity cards. I need one so I can take care of some family business in Alexandria.
Like Sherif, I’d tried to apply for the identity card the day before. Both of us gave up, after a couple of hours pressed into a hallway with twenty or so others outside the consular office door, more arriving by elevator every few minutes. Many people were holding the numbers on green slips they’d been given the day before.
“Those numbers mean nothing today,” a man said, who told us he’d driven five hours the day before, to stand there from ten in the morning until seven at night, promised he’d be taken care of in fifteen minutes. After half an hour, a couple of consular officers came out to say they were closing for business that day; come back and try again tomorrow.
That’s an inkling of what it’s like to be Egyptian: to be subject to a bureaucracy that’s incompetent and inefficient, that doesn’t value your time, much less your dignity; to be crammed with hundreds of others vying for the same thing, something you need from a government you can’t trust.
The line extended out the consulate doors, with NYPD police there to control the crowd: young men in leather jackets, old men in prayer caps, families, frail ladies with canes, all standing out in the sleet, waiting indefinitely—to get a number, to get on the elevator, to be even more crowded in the hall where we earlier birds were standing in front of the office door.
The people outside were pushing and elbowing each other, jockeying to get in to the revolving door of the building, some yelling “Allahu akhbar!” It was a taste of how I imagine the scene at Tahrir Square: crowds clamoring in different voices, some saying “Allahu akhbar.” It’s not a coordinated exclamation; not, as some post-9/11 Americans may fear, a rallying call to jihadist attack. Egyptian Muslims say “Allahu akhbar” when they’re excited or distressed. It’s a reflex, like when American Christians say “Jesus Christ!” A colloquial combination of “damn!” and “great God!” It carries anger and astonishment, reverence and exasperation, hope and frustration.
This God-is-great on the street is not just a Muslim thing. Although Egyptian Pope Shenouda has called for the protests to end, and many Egyptian Christians are afraid the Muslim Brotherhood will co-opt the so-far secular movement, the Coptic cross has made appearances in the demonstrations. As Christians offered prayers for the dead a week ago Sunday, some hands held up a carved wooden cross, while the Muslims around them held up open Qur’ans, joining their voices to say “one hand.” Christians made a human chain around Muslims doing their Friday prayers, and Muslims have been standing guard outside churches to protect them from looters. I hope this is deeper than just a superficial display of Muslim-Christian solidarity in Egypt.
The God-is-great on the street is radical and secular enough for the internet generation. Many young Egyptians are as tired of religion as a marker of Egyptian identity as young Israelis are of Holocaust memorialization. Some are making new national stories. Young Egyptian activists are expressing that Allahu–akhbar alchemy of anger, astonishment, and hope—in strident tweets from Tahrir Square.
But Egyptian identity is officially tied to religious affiliation. When I finally got in to the consular office to make the identity card application, I filled in a box asking for my religion. I wrote masahiya, Christian, with my third-grade Arabic penmanship. In Egypt, you’re either Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. No other religions are recognized by the state. There are hardly any Jews left, and the Christian minority constitutes 10 to 20 percent of the population, living as second-class citizens. Most Muslims say, “We’re all Egyptians.” But Christians tell persecution stories among themselves: stories of medieval Muslims cutting out Christian tongues for speaking Coptic, or stories of the “Kosheh martyrs,” the 21 Christians killed by Muslims in Upper Egypt, at the turn of the millennium. A London Daily Telegraph article reported that some Christians in al-Kosheh suffered crucifixions. None of the murder suspects were convicted.
This New Year’s Eve, 21 more Copts died in a church bombing in Alexandria. The next day, Coptic protestors threw stones at a nearby mosque. Demonstrators at the monastery of Saint Simon the Tanner called for the government to resign, blaming state security for not protecting Christians.
Worse news of the Alexandria church bombings appears on the Facebook walls of my Coptic friends. There’s strong evidence that Egypt’s former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly was behind the attacks. Al Arabiya news reports on the investigation: according to UK intelligence sources, a colleague of al-Adly’s recruited an Egyptian prisoner to coordinate the attack with a militant group “to discipline the Copts.” This was part of al-Adly’s “special security system” that hired former militant Islamists, drug dealers, and security firms to sabotage potential unrest, “in case the regime was under threat to collapse.” Other media reports suggest that al-Adly orchestrated the attacks intending to blame Islamists, justify a government crackdown, and garner Western support for the regime.
The Egyptian government was sicker than I imagined. And the Egyptian people are better than I imagined. A week after the Alexandria church bombings, Muslims flocked to Coptic Christmas mass—to show solidarity in prayer with Christians, and to serve as human shields.
An investigation of the government’s role in the church bombings opened on the same day the cross and the Qur’an were raised in Tahrir Square. As horrified as I am by evidence that the Mubarak regime was provoking Muslim-Christian strife to maintain its power, I hope it’s true. I hope the government was the right enemy so class disparities and sectarian antipathies can finally give way to radical imagination, to all the bodies on the street.
I couldn’t figure out why I had been getting so angry at the perfectly well-meaning mania about Egypt, until I surprised myself with a tantrum last week—crying out of frustration, then the clarifying relief of grief.
The people most dear to me in Egypt, the people I most want to talk to, whose hopes and fears I most want to hear, are long dead. My Uncle Latif and Aunt Elene, who’ve been like grandparents to me, who’ve made our apartment on the North Coast of the Mediterranean my second home, did not live to see their country embroiled in a new kind of revolution. Their bodies are not out on the streets, but buried in the Coptic cemetery in Alexandria.
It was from Uncle Latif that I learned, by hearing, the Christian Arabic way to say you’re distressed and amazed, hopeful and afraid: Ya rab irham, Lord have mercy. He would say it, over and over, in the interfaith chapel of the Alabama hospital where my dad was recovering from a kidney transplant. Ya rab irham, ya rab irham, ya rab irham. He would say it, moving his fingers over his keys as if they were worry beads, in the ICU waiting room of the Alexandria hospital where my aunt was dying.
I imagine what they would do if they were living in their Alexandria apartment now, hearing the shouts from Saad Zaglul Square. Elene would say “Ya rab!” (my Lord) and deadbolt all the doors. Latif would say, “We are in a critical position,” and lie in bed, listening to BBC radio in Arabic. We’re not a family of activists, but we weren’t immune to the ills of the Mubarak regime.
After crying, I can see more clearly now. The way Uncle Latif died has a lot to do with why there were so many bodies demonstrating against the Mubarak regime; the government hasn’t taken care of people’s basic needs. Their country is not a place to live, or die, with dignity.
Two years ago, my seventy-eight-year-old uncle was hurrying to catch the tramway on an Alexandria street. He almost made it, trying to jump onto the moving car, when he fell—hard enough to crack his skull on the concrete platform. He lay there hemorrhaging for over an hour. No ambulance came. But someone who recognized him, a relative of one of his patients, took him in her car to the nearest hospital. It was a government hospital, where he waited for hours with other trauma patients to see a doctor.
My dad, an unapologetic elitist, says that “only the indigent go to government hospitals” in Egypt. The nurses are incompetent; the equipment is inadequate; the rooms are unsanitary. “You go to government hospitals if you want to die.” Uncle Latif could afford a private hospital, but he didn’t have a choice that day. He was unconscious, and the good Samaritan who helped him took him to a public hospital. He had to live that day the way most Egyptians live every day. And he died two months later of a hematoma in his brain.
Ya rab irham, ya rab irham, ya rab irham. Irhamna Allah.
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.