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A new Egypt

March 29, 2011
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U-M Fulbright scholar makes pilgrimage to Cairo

Sharief El-Gabri is a University of Michigan graduate currently teaching English in Jordan on a Fulbright fellowship. He recently visited his father’s family in Cairo and posted his reflections on the U-M International Institute’s blog

Revolutions, protests, and strikes surround me. The Arab world has re-awakened after 40 years of slumber and centuries of empty promises by its dictators and monarchs.

Two weeks ago I made a self-imposed pilgrimage from Amman, Jordan, where I am teaching English to ninth and tenth graders on a Fulbright U.S. Student fellowship, to Cairo, Egypt. Cairo is considered the heart of the Arab world. The city represents the region’s complexity and heterogeneous makeup, its poverty, and its insane wealth. I visit my father’s family in Egypt on a regular basis and lived in the bustling capital the past two summers. I consider Umm el Dunya (Egypt’s nickname meaning “Mother of the World,” referring to the world’s oldest civilization) my second home.

el-gabri cousin and friendsOn January 25, the first day of the revolution, then simply labeled “protests,” I was at home in Chicago for a short break from my internship in Jordan. Four days prior, my family and I were expressing our affections while saying goodbye to my younger sister as she set off for a seemingly standard study abroad experience at the American University of Cairo.

As I observed the movement gain momentum and enter days of uncertainty and violence, my emotions went haywire. I was incredibly supportive of the demands of the people, yet I was fearful for my family. My cousins brandished golf clubs and rifles while they participated in their community watch efforts night after night for three weeks. I was also concerned for my family which lives a block away from the now world-renowned Tahrir (“Independence”) Square. I was and still am concerned for their businesses and Egypt’s economy as a whole. Yet all I could do was join rallies outside of the Egyptian Consulate and post incessant Facebook status updates.

When I talked to my father about the uprising, he originally expressed pessimism, echoing the voices of Middle East experts who were taken by surprise. My father’s disposition eventually brightened as the inevitable drew near. I truly believe that he could not envision the demise of a military government, which used its might for 59 years to harm my family and its people and to suppress the aspirations of its loyal citizenry.

I returned to Amman, Jordan, with less than a week left of what remained of the former Egyptian regime. I received warm receptions from most people, expressing their love of the Egyptian people’s bravery. This was quite a transformation. Prior to the revolution, Egyptians were portrayed as submissive (5,000 years of non-democratic rule will do that to you). Such the same is now being said of those paying the ultimate price in Libya. Of course February 11, the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down (or was it a people’s imposed coup d’état?) was filled with jubilation and astonishment. I rushed to the Egyptian Embassy with my roommates to celebrate and relish the moment with a crowd of some 6,000 – 7,000 people.

el-gabri-newpresident 2Not surprisingly, most of the chants did not refer to Tunisia or Egypt but called for freedom in Palestine and “all the Arab world.” I have not witnessed protests in Jordan directed at the king and government besides driving by a small group of thirty union workers, but the atmosphere and the current system here do not compare to that of Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, Syria, and Egypt. For the most part the protests here center on economic concerns or are organized by opposition groups, which include the Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s party. Jordan’s protests should not be viewed within the prism of a people’s uprising nor of that which seeks to dethrone the relatively popular King Abdullah II.

My trip to Egypt took place exactly 12 days after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. I was eager to take in the new environment and see my family, including my incredibly brave sister. I immediately headed over to check out Tahrir Square.

While I was walking toward the epicenter of the city, I noticed two individuals, walking in the same direction as me but a few paces ahead. They picked up litter every few steps and proceeded to place the garbage in newly situated bins. I was literally in awe. Cairo has a reputation of being incredibly polluted and far from litter conscious. What impressed me further was that these two individuals came from polar opposite social classes. One was well-to-do, judging by his apparel and briefcase, and the other was wearing a brown galabeya (traditional Arab dress) and worn sandals while he struggled to pick up wrappers with his deformed hands.

This is the new Egypt, an Egypt where its citizens feel a sense of ownership and proudly carry out their national duties. Of course the road to democracy will be turbulent and economic disparity will continue, but what made me so proud was observing this spirit of communal participation and being able to join in it. During the days of the military regime police were everywhere. I spotted 10 police officers, at most, during my four days in Cairo, most of whom were working either at the airport or side by side with the military and their tanks. Citizens as well as the military have filled the role of the police. Egyptians now run checkpoints after the midnight curfew and stand guard to protect their homes from theft. Average Egyptians are the ones who direct traffic. This new spirit of national duty and a sense of communal responsibility can only serve as a positive attribute for Egypt’s future political trajectory.

Exactly one month after the start of the revolution, the demonstrations on February 25, dubbed the “Day of Cleaning,” called for continued reform and the resignation of interim Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik. (His resignation was announced within a week on the military’s Facebook page.) While I stood there among the crowd, I could not have felt more euphoric but at the same time anxious and apprehensive that the eventual results of this movement would fall short of people’s high expectations.

Since I left Egypt to return to Jordan, much has taken place. This is to be expected in such a tumultuous time. On March 9, clashes between Christians and Muslims resulted in 13 deaths. However, last Friday, thousands of Egyptians reasserted their long history of cooperation and co-existence by gathering in Tahrir Square for “National Unity Friday.” Similarly, Egyptians stood as one following a terrorist attack which targeted a Coptic Church on New Year’s Day. During the revolution, we also bore witness to Christians protecting Muslims at prayer from Mubarak’s police. This partnership between religious groups is significant.

Egyptians’ recent storming of State Security headquarters throughout the nation has also shed light on the dubious activities of the secret police, another defining moment in the development of the new Egypt. Egyptians crave a sense of justice and these past few weeks facilitate the contextualization of what the future Egypt needs to look like.

Egypt is at a critical crossroads. The Egyptian people have inspired further revolt throughout the region and in the African Horn and Central Africa. The key question will be whether the world’s first Internet revolution transitions into a viable democracy. I’m an optimist, but what do I know?

El-Gabri graduated in 2010 with a degree in political science and Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Turkish, and Islamic Studies.

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