Egypt Has Long Deserved Better

Egyptian children playing. (Photo: Gary Jones)

Seventeen years ago, not far from where thousands of Egyptians are descending on Medan Tahrir, or "Liberation Square," in downtown Cairo in anger against their government, a young boy staggered under the weight of a small but heavy consignment of bread on a dusty side street.

The boy, perhaps seven or eight years old, struggled as best he could, swaying back and forth, to maintain his footing. But it was for naught; he swiveled and collapsed, instantly spilling his fresh bread off the basket on his back and across the fetid sidewalk beneath him.

As if having no other choice, he sat bolt upright and cried instantly. Not so much a resigned wail, it was more a harsh, sustained sobbing. It was almost aggressive in its way—as though the youngster fully anticipated the very harsh beating that awaited him.

It was a plain portrait of a city in a free-fall of decay: Passersby, shopkeepers and a clutch of unemployed men chatted, smoked Cleopatra cigarettes and pulled on fruit-flavored water pipes as if nothing had happened. I leaned over and pressed some wrinkled Egyptian pounds into the boy's dirty hands, which helped dry his tears, momentarily anyhow. Without an acknowledgment—or, more likely, not knowing what to say—the stunned youth picked up his dusty bread and moved on.

Egypt has changed much since I lived there in 1993. Its population, now a teetering 79 million, continues to skyrocket by one million per year. In many ways, if my past experiences in Cairo are any indication, the only surprise about the most serious unrest ever to threaten President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year regime is that it didn't erupt far sooner. This is somewhat ironic, given the fact that—even among their remarkably relaxed peers across the Arab world—Egyptians enjoy considerable notoriety for their fatalistic patience and, some would say, outright passivity.

But one way or the other, everyone has their breaking point.

Spanning centuries, Egyptians are deeply proud of their history and millennial culture. However much they detest Washington's foreign policies, the vast majority of Egyptians draw great inspiration from the concept of the American "dream," given its contrast with their own day-to-day nightmare. But to give any Egyptian the opportunity to discuss the greatness of their heritage is to invite a boastfully impassioned, one-way dialogue—maybe second only to topics regarding Zionist and CIA conspiracies.

Today, by virtue of its geographic location and, not least, its cinema, Egyptians and their dialect are widely familiar to people across a very diverse Arabic-speaking world in which people from countries like Morocco and Iraq seldom understand each other with clarity, despite the language they share. 

But of an importance that speaks critically to current events is the fact that Egyptians also find dignity in the pivotal role their country plays as a regional power broker in a turbulent part of the world—one where democracy is often recklessly confused with the right to vote.

Which makes their plight all the more insufferable. In downtown Cairo, amid stores selling papyrus, silver ankhs and other tourist souvenirs, small packs of Egyptian men in their twenties voraciously seek relief in the arms of a foreign woman. Casting their Arab masculinity to the desert sands, the young men don their most stylish clothes and memorize their best pick-up lines in their unending quest for a romance—from anyone from anywhere—to deliver them from their purgatory.

Those who proved successful in their expeditions are few. "I just want to leave," sighed one womanizing papyrus seller, sporting an Adidas sweatshirt and a neat haircut. "I don't care how old she is, how ugly—we just want to get out of here."

I made fast friends with many young Egyptians in that part of town who easily won me over with their trademark hospitality and enduring loyalty. One, Ashraf, brought me to his home outside the city, to show me the real Egypt, outside the relative veneer of prosperity in Cairo. It was shocking; the two-story hovel was as dirt-brown and sparse as any in the poorest developing nation.

No running water, no mattress, no heat, no front door—just a dirt-brown-colored abode with nothing in it. "Egypt man's house, it's very poor," he said, angrily.

That's not to say all Egyptians live in squalor. "More than a billion dollars a year," a European diplomat lamented. "That's how much the United States pours into this place to make them promise they don't attack Israel. It's obscene. At the end of the day, it just goes down a giant black hole, and yet they act like all hell will break loose if they don't get it."

Plenty goes to Egypt's military and its pervasive security apparatus. Late one night near my hotel, I was out with a few Egyptian friends when we were set upon by a pair of plainclothes policemen in white uniforms demanding our identification. My companions were already agitated by the time the men turned to me and demanded my documents as well.

"But he's American!" one of my friends exclaimed defiantly. I handed over my passport. One of the men looked up at me and my photo with an icy glare. As we walked off into the night, my friends were still steamed. "Tsk, tsk, tsk," they said in characteristic disdain.

Far more benign but, at times, more scary were the security guards the government had deployed at tourism sights, hotels and wealthier neighborhoods across the capital. In similarly white uniforms and red berets, the poor, illiterate men from the countryside were outfitted with AK-47s so very casually slung over their shoulders at all hours of the day and night.

In one alarming episode, I came across two such guards at my hotel who, when I stopped to engage in pleasantries, began playing with their safeties as a way of showing off, grinning almost maniacally. Thus it wasn't to my complete surprise that, while driving through his upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, my diplomat friend recalled a grim incident involving one such guard near his home who, sitting on a chair, leaned his forehead on the top of his gun barrel for a rest, fell asleep and promptly shot his head off.

Time will tell whether the end of the long, autocratic reign of President Hosni Mubarak may be at hand—or whether tear gas, water cannons, flying truncheons and bans on social media will subjugate a proud, yet miserable people who have long had their fill.

One thing is for sure. The Egyptian people have long deserved better.

Joseph Kirschke is an Asia-based political analyst and a former foreign affairs columnist for Al-Ahram Weekly, an Egyptian English-language newspaper.