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Shadows of the Revolution: An Interview With a Young Egyptian

April 8, 2013

by J. Andrew Zalucky

The sun sets over the Muhammad Ali Mosque at the Citadel in Cairo

(Photo: Reuters)

It’s been over two years since the so-called “Arab Spring” spread to Egypt, a social and political movement which would lead to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt since 1979. Despite all of the hope and goodwill that has been expressed on behalf of the movement, the transition to democracy has been less than stable. What does the future hold for Egypt? Rather than simply speculate on this, I decided to contact an Egyptian friend of mine and chat with him about it. For a variety of reasons, he has asked that he remain anonymous.

You live in the US now, but spent much of your youth in Egypt. Aside from that, what are your ties to Egypt itself?

I lived in Westchester, NY as a child before moving to Egypt. I lived in Egypt from the time I was 13 until I graduated high school (2000-2005) and then spent about 4 months per year there for the next 4 years. But I would visit every summer throughout childhood until I moved there.

During that entire time, Mubarak was in power.

What was it like to live in Egypt when Mubarak was in power?

There wasn’t a soul who questioned his regime’s power or corruption. I would constantly hear Egyptians blame everyday problems like traffic or inflation on the government’s corruption. If someone was a high-ranking government official, it was assumed that they made a lot of money under the table and profited off of other people’s hardships. Citizens often felt a lack of ownership and responsibility (often to a fault) of their country, particularly in major cities. We were reminded of his presence by pictures of him all over Cairo (some of the first things destroyed during the revolution).

Behind the overall acceptance of his corruption was the fear of his security forces. They had the lawful right to arrest and detain any civilian without just cause. This is a violation of simple human right, but few dared to question him. Those who did, were made to pay. There is a joke in Egypt that Mubarak’s police were the best in the world because they could solve any crime in just a few minutes by torturing an innocent man until he confessed to doing it.

How did you react to the news when of the so-called “Arab Spring” came to the US?

Well, first of all, I was very pleasantly surprised by the American media’s extended coverage of the Arab spring. It made me very proud to see my Arab brothers AND SISTERS stand up for their rights and to do it in a relatively peaceful manner, but I was sad to not be there at the time. I was also terrified of what could happen if things got violent (see Syria) and nervous about what the future would bring. So my emotions were all over the place.

How do you feel about the term “Arab Spring”? Some commentators don’t like the term as they think it sounds like the West trying to co-opt the revolutions and take advantage of them.

I don’t really see how that would come from the term, because all of the revolutions were conducted in order to get rid of oppressive leaders and regain basic human rights. That said, I do believe that the West can take advantage of this time in the middle east. I’m just not sure if the term has anything to do with it.

Have you been back to Egypt since the fall of Mubarak? What has changed? How are things better or worse?

I have been back to Egypt twice since the revolution (both times in 2012) and have noticed that things are different.

The good: people have political freedom to vote, debate and support whatever political party they want.

The bad: economy is struggling due to a lack of foreign investment and tourism. The police are on the opposite end of the spectrum, where they don’t have the ability to enforce laws which has led to an increase in crime, failure to enforce construction business regulations, and slum development. I also don’t think the Muslim brotherhood has operated in the best interest of the people and have, instead, operated according to their own. They appear to be going for a power-grab, rather than help rebuild Egypt in its fragile state.

What are your feelings about how the US has been involved? Was the West too distant? Or should we just completely stay out of it? Part of me feels like we should be removing any military aid until we know that the government is actually serving the needs of its people. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what sympathizers in the West should do.

I thought that the US did a good job of staying out of things in Egypt during the revolution. I didn’t want to see them help overthrow Mubarak because I wanted Egyptians to own it, but if things had gotten very violent (like in Syria) then I would have wanted the US involved.

Since the revolution, I think the US staying out of the elections process was for the best because I didn’t want there to be the idea amongst Egyptians that the US was choosing our leader. I feared that this would lead back to the lack of ownership over the country.

I agree that it wouldn’t have done much good for the US to give military aid to a new, unfamiliar regime. It doesn’t make sense for them. Ideally, they could set up aid for civilian causes, but this would be difficult to implement. Maybe something to help the lower socioeconomic class get through these difficult times would be a good idea- as these rough days could last for quite a few years.

From a historical standpoint, I’d be interested to know something, do you think things would have turned out significantly different if Sadat hadn’t been assassinated? Or were the problems in Egypt more systemic?

I think that Sadat was way ahead of his time. He envisioned an Egypt that wasn’t waging war with a more powerful Israel and was more interested in managing a rapidly growing population and the mixing of the historically upper and lower classes. That mixing process became an issue after Abdel-Nasser’s socialist scheme. I think the Mubarak regime did a terrible job managing this. I’m not sure how corrupt the Sadat regime was, but I can’t imagine it was as corrupt as Mubarak’s.

How long do you think Morsi will last? I’ve read news coverage of Liberal and Leftist parties boycotting his government and renewed protests breaking out over some of his policies. How strong do people feel the brotherhood really is?

They’re certainly not doing anything to win votes for re-election. I think they are just looking to grab as much power as possible, while they can. I think they know that when it comes time for elections, in three more years, they will still have a huge contingent of religious voters that will reelect them.

While I do think that the Muslim Brotherhood has a lot of power, I don’t think much of it lies with Morsi himself.

Keep in mind they called Morsi “the spare tire” because he wasn’t even the brotherhood’s first candidate in the 2012 election. I think he is just the brotherhood’s puppet.

What are your hopes for Egypt?

I want to see Egypt prosper politically and financially.

Politically: I want to see a real democracy where people can fairly elect their public officials. I don’t want to see Egypt elect a new Pharaoh every 4 years. I want to see Egypt have a government where the citizens can actually be represented at every level.

Financially: I hope that Egypt will recover financially and have an economy that is sustainable and not built on the back serf-like laborers and with subsidies to essential goods (like gas and bottled water).  Egypt has a poor public education system and literacy rate, which are a reflection of how poorly funded and managed the school systems are. If we are going to have a population that will make decisions and take actions to shape our country’s future, then they need to be much better educated. I have always believed that Mubarak’s regime was happy to keep quality education restricted to the wealthy because it helped blur Egypt’s enormous lower class’s vision of how they were being abused to benefit the rich. I fear that the Muslim brotherhood will do the same thing but with the added use of religion as a blinder.

(Photo: The Atlantic)

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