When reading the election bulletins over this past weekend, two themes kept coming up more often than any others: apathy and depression. Under Western reasoning, recent events should have greatly engaged the Egyptian people. We have directly witnessed pivotal developments such as the sentencing of Mubarak and his sons, the dissolution of Parliament, and the first democratic presidential election in the country’s history, among many more. But nevertheless, the general mood has been one of indifference or even resigned acquiescence. I don’t mean to dismiss the Egyptian people’s incredible public awareness – everyone clearly knows where he or she stands, and there have been demonstrations of celebration or frustration far greater than those we could ever seen in America.
But the harsh reality of the situation is that in a non-trivial sense, very little has truly changed from the situation two or even ten years ago. A couple days ago, we had the privilege of meeting with Professor Abdallah Schleifer from the American University in Cairo. One of the most interesting points he made was that the real coup in Egypt, rather than the dissolution of the Parliament, occurred right after the revolution. Despite all the anti-establishment sentiment and raw strength of the revolution, the SCAF retained power and has been running daily public functions ever since. As such, the people got excited about the first several rounds of elections, but it has now become apparent, in Mr. Schleifer’s words, that there has been “no change in who is holding the power.” A shift from SCAF holding most of the authority to SCAF holding slightly more authority has very little impact on the lives of average Egyptians.
We’re still waiting for the final election results to be announced, but regardless of who wins, the political situation in Egypt remains the same as it has been for much of recent history – a constant struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military establishment. We still haven’t seen the radical rebalancing of society associated with a true revolution. As of right now, the liberal revolutionaries simply cannot organize to match these formidable, long-standing institutions. And as a result, there is a vast sense of uncertainty and helplessness – no one knows what powers the President will have, what shape the eventual Constitution will take, what the power balance of the new Parliament will be, even whether Mubarak is currently alive or dead. The great promise of the ثورة (an Arabic word encompassing revolution, demonstrations, and a shift towards something new) seems to have been disappointed for the time being.
Another incredibly insightful figure with whom we recently spoke – independent journalist Noel King – posed the DE Cairo group this question: “Where is Egypt’s economy going to be in 10 years?” It’s an important concern and, in the vein of the uncertainty mentioned above, no one quite has a definitive answer. Egypt has any number of incredible natural resources – it’s a beautiful place to visit, it’s experiencing tremendous growth in its population and intellectual talent, it has an unparalleled position of regional significance geographically and historically.
The Egyptian people could go any number of different grand strategy paths that could make their nation a regional economic power. They could revive their formidable manufacturing resources. They could continue to develop their tourism industry. Or, perhaps most promising, they could capitalize on their growing intellectual and R&D capital that has already begun to attract prominent Western investors.
The sad truth, however, is that none of these possibilities are being developed to their true potential. Given the confusion in government, the nation’s infrastructure simply isn’t keeping up with its rapid population growth, particularly in Cairo. I’m always struck by the fact that the vast majority of large buildings we see on any given day are high-density housing. Further, there is no stable intellectual and economic policy which could encourage corporate and individual risk-taking and development. On an international level, the same internal instability discourages foreign investment – no one knows what ideological position the government is about to take, especially with the Camp David accords at stake.
As a result, we have observed near-Western affluence in some areas and abject poverty in others. When the two are juxtaposed, the contrast is striking. You can buy a single glass of lemonade for 40 LE at the Four Seasons, then walk out the door and see the lower class begging for pocket change. This problem is a common one in developing countries worldwide, and there is enough possibility such that Egypt may well break out of this pattern in the near future. But currently, this raw economic potential of every kind is disappointingly underutilized.
A common theme among our group discussions is the kindness and public engagement that characterize the Egyptian people. Both qualities generally surpass those found in America, as far as I am concerned. If you’ll pardon the generalization, the people here care about one another, and deeply hope to do the best they can in life. But their ability to actually effect change is ultimately limited – there is virtually no middle class and a distinct lack of social mobility. The sheer wealth disparity, as discussed above, forces the majority of Egyptians to stay where they are.
We often run into the same issue at Ana el-Masry. The children there, despite the many and intense challenges they’ve faced all their lives, are incredibly talented and bright. We’re consistently inspired by how much hope there is at that compound in the desert. But at the same time, we’ve grown more and more frustrated by the general organizational confusion out there – at times, even the staffers don’t seem to know what to do next. And although the children’s opportunity to learn and eventually work some service job or another basic career is a vast improvement over their earlier prospects, I can’t help but be disappointed given how beautiful and bright they are now.
This all is meant to be neither overly depressing nor an indictment of Egyptian culture. I write it celebrating the potential, not grieving the loss per se. And “unrealized” necessarily means not knowing, a lack of awareness. The kindly fellow who sells us croissants every morning doesn’t understand national grand strategy, and doesn’t need to. The average Egyptian isn’t concerned with these macro political, economic, and social concerns.
But I do understand, I do know, I do realize how much potential there is here. What responsibility do I have to these people?
When we arrived at the compound this morning after a long break due to the elections, the kids were ecstatic to see us. One of my little friends kept telling me over and over again – اخي، اخي، اخي. I didn’t know what it meant at the time since he was pronouncing it with a heavy accent, so I asked Professor Lo. It means “my brother.”
That made me stop and reflect, more so than anything else so far. My 8-year-old brother reminds me so much of this particular child from Ana el-Masry. But my biological little brother in America will have infinitely more opportunity than my spiritual little brother here. He will grow up learning, in a stable home, and likely pursue a successful career after attending a prominent university. If he was born on the streets of Cairo, he probably wouldn’t. I honestly don’t think I could have surpassed such a massive institutional challenge myself.
I’ve been struggling with finding my place in society and the world for the last nine months. But now that I place my life in a global context, that quest suddenly assumes much greater significance. It can’t be just about me anymore. What can I do with my specific talents and historical narrative given my place in the global community? Or the more relevant question – what ought I to do? There is suddenly a new sense of responsibility and necessity, in an almost moral sense, to what I should do with my life. To waste what I’ve been given is to insult the constant efforts of Egyptians and other global peoples to do so much with so little.
I seem to have written you all another epistle instead of a blog post. Thanks so much for keeping up with my thoughts from our crazy last couple weeks. I’ll close with this – I’m not sure I have an answer to how to realize my own potential in a global context, but perhaps realizing the necessity thereof is the beginnings of an answer in itself.