Monday, February 14, 2011

Egypt: The View from Syria, and other Thoughts

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You can track the latest developments in Egypt at this website: Is Mubarak Still President of Egypt?

When I studied in Cairo with the Middle East Studies Program two years ago, my Egyptian host brother on the program, Shadi, was a few months into his mandatory military service. (Mandatory, that is, for everyone but the rich and well-connected). Shadi is an engineer by training, but had been conscripted, and had to spend about half of every week at the military base. His schedule was completely unpredictable. This made him unable to pursue his engineering career or even hold down a separate job.

On my way to Damascus last August, I stopped in Cairo to visit some old friends there, including Shadi. He picked me up in his car. Now twenty-six, I could tell he had aged significantly since we last saw each other. I asked him what he was up to.

“Well,” he said, “I just returned from ninety days of military training in the desert.”

“Shadi,” I asked, astonished. “How long have you been in the military?”

“Three years,” he replied. His service, he told me, had been extended over and over. His recent stint in the desert was only supposed to last fifteen days. Instead, it became three months – his entire summer.

“But you’re done now, right?” I asked.

“I go in after the holiday to find out if I’m done, or if I have to serve for another three months.”

Egypt is not at war with anybody. It has not gone to war with anybody for nearly

forty years, and is unlikely to do so in the future. In fact, my government was, essentially, paying Egypt two billion dollars every year not to go to war with its only regional adversary. But a military dictatorship demands a big military, and so did President Mubarak’s image. The fact that he upheld a peace treaty with them made it all the more important to maintain the fiction of “Arab resistance!” So, drafting all the young men was the order of the day.

There are tens of millions of stories like Shadi’s in Egypt, most of them far more dire. Egyptians didn’t have one reason to revolt, they had hundreds. Take your pick: endemic corruption, police that arrested and tortured with impunity, a broken education system, a broken healthcare system, a water system that delivered undrinkable water, skyrocketing food prices that made it next to impossible for you to feed your family, air so polluted that it would choke your nostrils day in and day out and leave a thin film of grime on your clothes when you hung them out to dry, or that fact that your government wouldn’t allow you to hold them accountable for any of this.

Shadi’s family is upper-middle class in Egypt. Economically and socially, they are relatively fortunate. But even they could not escape being mugged by the system.
It is stories like Shadi’s that used to make my stomach churn with rage at the sight of the Mubarak posters littering Cairo. And those same stories are why lately I have been just So. Very. Happy.

When my friends and I first arrived in Cairo two years ago, the program director told us, “This might be the first group to experience a regime change in Egypt.” He was speaking about the prospects of Mubarak’s mortality. I don’t think he or anyone else envisioned anything like this. A mostly peaceful transition in power, brought about by the sheer force of the Egyptian people’s collective will – it’s the stuff of dreams.

It used to be a clichĂ© of international relations that the Arab world was the great wasteland of self-determination, the one region of the world that remained untouched by the twentieth century’s wave of democratization. No more. One in four Arabs lives in Egypt. God willing, one in four Arabs will now live in a democracy. If Iraq’s democracy survives and Lebanon and Palestine sort out their issues, we’ll be able to add millions of more to that happy category. This is the biggest thing to happen in the Arab world since – I don’t know, help me out here, scholars – World War I?

(Add.: And it’s a happy biggest thing!)

If all goes well, the ruling military council will soon hold free and fair elections, and power will be transferred to the first popularly-elected government in Egypt’s history. Hopefully, that government will be able to start tackling Egypt’s massive economic, environmental and structural problems. Please continue to pray for Egypt. The path ahead is far from straight.

I am watching this change from the Middle East, but seemingly from afar. On the streets, the only sign that something is different is the televisions. The televisions in the shops and street restaurants of Damascus, which usually play music videos, movies or soccer games on their televisions, now seem to be constantly tuned to Al-Arabiya or Al-Jazeera. Everyone wants to follow the news from Egypt. On Saturday, the 30th, Raymond (one my Syrian friends, not his real name) and are walking on Straight Street, in the Christian quarter, and through the huge glass windows of a tapestry shop, I see a flatscreen television tuned to Al-Arabiya. The news footage makes the unrest look pretty severe; I see tanks and lots of fire. I have friends in Cairo, so I ask Raymond to go inside a shop to ask the owner what’s going on. The owner invites us to stay and watch with him. After Raymond explains that I don’t understand Arabic, the owner summarizes the situation for us: “The army is going to restore order, so everything will be OK soon, God willing,” he says.

Looking over Alfonso’s (not his real name) shoulder at his Facebook page, I notice that quite a few of his friends have changed their profile pictures to an image of Bashar al-Assad. “This is a reaction to what is happening in Egypt,” he tells me. “They want to show that they are with the president, not like the Egyptians.” Eventually, Alfonso will change his Facebook picture to an image of Bashar as well. I ask him why. “Because everyone else is doing it!”

During prayers at Mass last Sunday, which I usually understand very little of, I hear the Arabic names for Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan and Palestine spoken in a list. I infer the priests are praying for the church in these countries.

Most of the Syrians I talk to don’t have any sympathy for Mubarak. Over beers at a local cafe, Malcolm tells me about an occasion when Mubarak accused Syria of assassinating Lebanon’s ex-Prime Minister. According to Malcolm, Bashar replied, “We don’t respond to accusations from half-men.” “It was so great!” Malcolm exults, giddy with national pride.

At night, Alfonso and I watch the news. Sometimes he translates for me, but mostly I just take in the images. We switch to a channel that Alfonso tells me is sponsored by the Iranian government. The guest of the news show is yelling at the top of his lungs about how the Egyptian people do NOT believe Mubarak, and WILL throw him out. Wonder where Iran stands on this issue…

My favorite quote from a Syrian friend about the Egyptian uprising: “The moment the first Mubarak poster was torn down, it was all over.”

While I haven’t met a Syrian (or an Iraqi – or anyone, really) yet who supported Mubarak, not all of my Christian Syrian friends were so enthused about the Egyptian uprising. The vicious attack on a church in Alexandria over the Christmas season really rattled the church here in Syria. Christians in this region have good reason to fear majority rule.

And the icing on the cake – on February 10, without explanation, the Syrian government lifted its ban on Facebook and YouTube. One day you couldn’t access those sites through a Syrian IP address, the next you could. The ban was always something of a joke, easily bypassable with international proxy numbers that internet cafĂ© owners here distributed freely and openly. Why it’s been lifted now, I cannot say. But feel free to contact me on Facebook now!


  1. glad to hear from you dude! I'm not even in the Middle East but I'm very happy about it all too!

    I hear that tens of thousands of people are protesting in Iran...

    by the way, any idea when you'll be back home? We can't wait to hang out!

  2. Joel! I just read that the two Iranian warships that are trying to get through the Suez canal are headed for a Syrian port... Maybe you'll get to see them! : )