Monday, January 31, 2011


First things first – yes, I am perfectly safe. This is primarily because I live in Syria, not Egypt.

Glad we cleared that up. Thanks for your concern, everybody. I truly appreciate it. I know that from the other side of the world, Egypt and Syria seem right next door. But not only are there two huge deserts and a Canaan-sized no-go zone between me and Cairo, but the politics of the region make Damascus and Cairo very far apart indeed. Things are very quiet here in Syria, as always, except for the fact that the TVs in the shops are always tuned to news channels these days. I thank God for the peace that prevails in this country.

(Fun fact: I had originally planned to live in Egypt this year. When I got the job in Syria, I had to persuade my friends and family that it was just as safe as Egypt.)

So what’s going on in Egypt?

As part of my senior project last year, I wrote an essay about the prospects for the Egyptian dictatorship. I’m uploading it today for old times’ sake. If any of you politics junkies have any comments, I’d love to discuss this with you (time and internet access allowing). Here’s my take on the situation right now.

The Mubarak dictatorship isn’t as murderous as Saddam’s or Kim Jong Il’s, but it is amazingly corrupt, random and incompetent. The sheer stupidity of the regime is occasionally breathtaking. This is a government that responded to the swine flu scare two years ago by ordering the killing of every pig in the country. Seriously. It’d be hilarious if it weren’t for the 400,000 Christian farmers who lost their livelihoods in one swift stroke.

Almost half of the Egyptian population lives in poverty. The per capita annual income is $6,000. Among the world’s nations, Egypt ranks 111 out of 180 in terms of government transparency. The education system and healthcare systems are a joke. Unemployment and underemployment, especially among young people, is through the roof. Cairo is literally the most polluted city on earth. Large parts of the Nile River in Egypt are unusable for fishing, swimming or (God forbid) drinking. Military service for young men is mandatory and capricious (except for the well-connected). I have a dear friend in Cairo whose military service was extended over and over again until it swallowed three years of his twenties. I remember a conversation I had two years ago at a café with an upper-middle class Egyptian young man. “Is it hard to leave Egypt?” I asked him when he told me he wanted to go live in America. I was talking about ticket expenses, visa requirements, things like that. “No,” he replied flatly. “It’s easy, because I hate Egypt.” I remember being in my host brother’s car when Cairo’s miserable infrastructure turned what should have been a brief errand on the way to the bowling alley into an hour and a half detour. “Life is very difficult here,” he sighed. Even for the relatively fortunate, the day-in day-out chaos of life in that mismanaged country is hard to take.

All of this is accompanied by an incredibly repressive political system. 16,000 political prisoners, random torture and detention and killings by the police, rigged elections, violence against opposition candidates and their supporters – all this adds up to a system with no hope for change and no outlet for the people’s anger. Mubarak is now 82 years old and in poor health. In the last few years, he has started to groom his son Gamal to take his place, pretty much bringing Egypt around full-circle to the colonial monarchy it had before the 1952 revolution.

Long story short, the Egyptian population has been set to explode for a while now. All it needed was a spark. It appears that the downfall of Tunisia’s president was the needed spark. I’m amazed at what’s happened in Cairo over the past six days. People have seen that it’s possible, and they’re going for it, risking their lives in the streets for a chance at real political change. According to the BBC, a hundred people have already died in the protests, yet the protestors keep coming. There’s a video on YouTube that shows an Egyptian man shouting, “I will die today!” as he runs into the demonstrations. This whole chain of events was started by ordinary, desperate Arabs setting themselves on fire. It’s disturbing, frightening and exhilarating.

Which way will the uprising go? It’s far too early to tell. The key to making a popular revolt translate into real change is getting the army and police to change sides. (See: Romania, the Philippines, Tunisia.) Mubarak’s biggest response so far has been to appoint, for the first time in his 30-year rule, a vice president (and nominal successor) – Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s chief of military intelligence. Most people see this as an attempt to suck up to the military. If Mubarak is now willing to be brutal enough to shoot down the protestors, a la Tiananmen Square, that might be the end of this uprising. Or, it could spark an even bigger revolution.

This situation also puts the U.S. in an awkward position, because we have essentially been paying off the Mubarak regime not to fight with Israel for the past thirty years - $1.3 billion a year in military aid. With peace between Egypt and its only regional enemy, where do you suppose that money’s been spent? On the tanks now patrolling the streets of Cairo. Our government has subsidized the Egyptian government’s oppression for three decades and counting. President Obama has a chance, now, to try to atone for all this by making it clear where the U.S. stands on the issue of democracy in Egypt. It won’t come again.

Here in Syria, there is very little love for Mubarak. The man is seen (pretty much correctly) as an honorless lackey of the United States. One Syrian friend told me that the Syrian president once replied to an accusation from Mubarak by saying, “We don’t respond to attacks from half-men.” “It was so great!” he told me, giddy with national pride. Most of the Syrians I’ve spoken to feel the same way. But some are worried about the fate of Egypt’s Christian minority, especially if this revolt brings the Muslim Brotherhood to power. (Obviously, U.S. policymakers are worried about the same thing about now).

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and predict that the Muslim Brotherhood is not going to come out of this on top. Yes, they are the most organized opposition force in Egypt (because Mubarak crushed everything else), and yes, they will certainly play a role in the new government. But an Islamic theocracy is not what most Egyptians are yearning to replace Mubarak with. And it’s not the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood (who even knows his name?) who’s been asked by the leading Egyptian parties to form a transitional government. It’s Mohammad El-Baradei, the secular, liberal opposition figurehead. Only he can attract a base big enough. Even the Brotherhood is standing behind him at this time. This, I think, is a very good sign.

Only God knows, and he knows best. Pray for Egypt. Pray also for my friends who are living in Cairo at this time: Brian, Tamer, Ismail, Samer, Shady, David, Diaa, Ramy, Adrian, Chris, Dena, and others. The Egyptian government has cut off the internet for the time being, so I can’t really contact them at this time. Apparently foreign nationals are being advised to leave, so hopefully I'll hear from the Americans on that list fairly soon.

“Blessed be Egypt my people.” – Isaiah 19:25


  1. awesome post Joel... I am anxiously awaiting to see how this unfolds, as well as to hear that our friends are all safe.

  2. Watching on al-jazeera english as the protesters and police fought over the 6th of october bridge on the east side of the nile was surreal to me.

    Speaking of senior papers, these events seem to be proving mine to be incorrect. I guess I seriously overestimated Egyptians continued patience and apathy. The outcome is far from certain though.

    All we can do now is pray for as peaceful an outcome as possible.

  3. Awesome post Joel, I knew I could count on you to give a great summary and some educated opinions.

    I am glad you are well in Syria, stay yourself.

  4. Great post, Joel. Very insightful.

  5. Thanks Joel. It's great to hear from you, man. I trust you when you say things are peaceful there in Syria, but CNN sure isn't helping! I just read an article that is titled "Unrest in North Africa and Middle East May Spread to Syria". Apparently some people are trying to organize a protest there on Saturday.

    Can't wait until you're back and we can hang out.

  6. I've read this post for the three times, and different facts hit me each time. Mubarak just gave his speech, people are angry, and now more pressure is in the air.
    Hope you're doing well.