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Last month my best friend overheard an old Coptic monk, sporting an untamed, Walt Whitman-esque beard tell a group of children, “When we forget God, He sends the Salafis.”  Since Egypt’s revolution, the government’s reins on these zealous Islamists, the Salafis, have been released. Emboldened with Petrol dollars from the Gulf, the Salafis have sought to turn Egypt into an Islamic theocracy starting with the Middle East’s largest Christian sect: the Copts.

The Copts trace their lineage through St. Mark the Evangelist who founded the Coptic Church in the 1st century C.E.  However, by the 5th century,  geography, egos and differences in Christology severed the ties between the Coptic Church and the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.  After the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 7th century, the Copts were rendered second-class citizens, and commonly persecuted for their beliefs, which hastened their decline into becoming Egypt’s lonely minority.

Given their history, it is hard for the Copts not to be pessimistic when facing the reemergence of religious ideology in the political sphere.  In fact, many of Egypt’s Christians prefer the tyranny of Mubarak, who at least kept the Islamists at bay, than to the Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood who dominate Egypt’s recently elected parliament.  There is much debate on whether an Islamist-led government will indeed be detrimental to the sociopolitical status of Egypt’s Christian populace.  In fact, Islamists often cite passages from the Qur’an that suggest Christians should be treated fairly under Islamic rule.  However, the Copts are not mollified by these assurances due to statements made by clerics that use Qur’anic passages to provide a much less tolerant outlook on the treatment of non-Muslims.

The rise in sectarian violence directed towards the Copts in post-revolution Egypt legitimizes the Copts’ concern towards their future in Egypt.  Since January 2011, the Copts have had churches and monasteries destroyed in Alexandria, Qena, Cairo, Aswan, Giza, Sinai, Helwan, and Wadi Natrun.  Christian women have been abducted in Upper Egypt and forced to convert to Islam.  Perhaps most distressingly was the army’s massacre of 27 Christians, in front of Cairo’s state television station on the 9th of October.  These events make it difficult to avoid drawing a correlation between sectarian violence and the rise of religious ideology in the political sphere.

I acknowledge I do not have the spiritual insights of an Egyptian monk.  Nonetheless, I do not believe God sent the Salafis.  Nor do I believe that God has forgotten the land and people who once gave his Son refuge, and this may be why the Virgin Mary continues to appear above churches throughout Egypt: to stand by and mourn with the people that once protected her and her Son.  A Catholic priest once told me that the Coptic Church would one day reunite the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church.  His rationale being that the Coptic Church is the poorest and most oppressed Church in the world, and the Holy Spirit always starts at the bottom and works His way up.

In commemoration of Egypt’s uprising, I looked through the pictures I shot at the very first protest on the 25th of January 2011 in Tahrir Square. The pictures are of clouds of tear gas and water-cannon trucks plowing through crowds of Egyptians, but surprisingly absent in these pictures are men with untamed beards. These pictures reflect a revolution that was utopian, pure and, alas, naive, which made it susceptible to being hijacked. Today, it is debatable whether anything has changed in Egypt.  The coercive system that tramples on human rights is alive and well, as is particularly evident from this last week’s massacre in Port Said, undoubtedly instigated by Egypt’s notorious security forces.  I often wonder if the martyrs of the revolution aren’t calling out from the next world, “Is this what my blood was shed for?”

Perhaps a better question is:  Why did the majority of the Egyptian populace vote for Islamist parliamentary candidates rather than the liberal activists who brought about the revolution?  The answer is partially rooted in how the United States spends our tax dollars.  The Egyptian military has been one of the highest paid recipients of U.S. military aid for over three decades; this past year the U.S. provided the Egyptian military with 1.3 billion dollars in military aid.  This may seemingly be a small price to pay for advancing America’s security and economic interests abroad, but other costs must be considered that are not found on the balance sheet.

Egypt is not required to improve its dismal state of human rights while acquiring tear gas, tanks and fighter planes from the United States. This policy allows the Egyptian government to jail, exile, or cow into submission liberals, religious minorities, women, or anybody else who desperately tries to improve Egyptian economic and political life.  Further, the government’s silencing of Egypt’s liberals has been a boon to the Islamists, who have used the opportunity to dominate the political sphere via their networks of Mosques, underhanded deals with the government, and petro-dollars pumped in from the Gulf.  Given these conditions, it should be no surprise that the Islamists now dominate Egypt’s post-revolution parliament.  Perhaps, it could have been different if America stuck to its ideals and made the healthy functioning of Egyptian society a condition for the army receiving 1.3 billion dollars annually in military aid.

America is quickly running out of friends in Egypt.  The Egyptian government, dominated by the military, cannot be trusted.  They have stormed U.S. funded NGOs, prevented their American employees from leaving Egypt, and will soon be putting these Americans on trial.  Further, as a welcoming gesture to the new US ambassador to Egypt, the front page of the military-controlled news magazine depicted her attempting to set Egypt’s Tahrir Square ablaze using U.S. Cash to light a bundle of dynamite, wrapped in an American flag.  The caption read:  “Ambassador of Hell Is Setting Tahrir on Fire.” The Egyptian Islamists, demanding the release of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman from a United States prison, are of course a lost cause.  This leaves Egypt’s moderates and its youth, which the army is currently bludgeoning into submission via tear-gas that comes in canisters boldly marked “made in the USA.”

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These pics are from last week’s Coptic protest at Cairo’s television building.  Egypt’s Christians were protesting against a recent attack on a Christian neighborhood that left 13 Christians dead and many of their houses and businesses destroyed, among them were some of our friends.  The attack was led by Islamists and the Egyptian security forces.

Within some of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East I have seen street art stealthily creeping out of its cityscapes, like grass emerging from the concrete, softly threatening to tear down the whole system.  From Palestine to Tehran this phenomenon continually repeats itself… except in Egypt.  In fact, the only semblance of art scattered throughout Egypt’s cities tended to be some cheap pharonic imitation that acts as an irritating reminder of an ancient past that has little relevance to the lives and plights of its modern inhabitants.  This is not to say that Egyptians are not artistic, but the contrary.  Their cities have greatly failed to reflect the rich culture and passion of the proud and enduring Egyptians.  It is my belief that Egyptian cities were devoid of art due to the geopolitical aspirations and domestic politics of the Egyptian regime and the ability and aesthetics of ancient pharonic art to support these goals.

Each region in the world has a nation-state that dominates its neighbors and the region.  East Asia has China, North America has the U.S., South America has Brazil, South Asia has India, but the race is still on in the Middle East for a regional hegemon.   Like most regimes in the region, Egypt’s ruling elites have been vying to obtain regional dominance since President Nasser’s pan-Arab aspirations.

A corresponding history that defends and supports a state’s claims to hegemony is the obvious weapon of choice in which to base hegemonic claims.  Since the Middle East is primarily united by its Islamic faith and heritage, the protectorship of Islam is historically seen as the ideal mechanism a Middle Eastern state can use to justify their hegemonic claims.  However, Saudi Arabia’s possession of both Mecca and Medina has provided the Saudi with a firm basis for claiming the leadership and guardianship of Islam.   Therefore, Middle-Eastern states must look elsewhere in order to justify and defend their hegemonic claims.

Similar to the Shah’s emphasis on ancient Persia and Sadam’s emphasis on Mesopotamia, Egypt has turned to its pharonic past in order to historically legitimatize and justify its contemporary claims for regional dominance.   Hence, Egypt’s over indulgence of its pharonic past, evident in the countless pharonic replicas that clutter and dominate its cityscapes seems to ultimately serve as a subversive reminder of its domestic justifications for regional domination.

Secondly, there is subtle relationship between the aesthetics and theology of pharonic art and Egypt’s ruling regime’s traditional iron grip on the domestic political sphere.   Change appalled the ancient Egyptians.  They believed that their rigid maintenance of ritual and tradition was crucial to maintain the order that sustained all of life.  Thus, innovation and artistic development was discouraged because it threatened the entire ancient Egyptian cosmology.  This explains why ancient Egyptian art was almost unchanged during its 3,000 year existence (except during the reign of my personal hero, Akhenaten).

Although ancient Egyptian religion died out nearly two millennia ago, its theological disdain for change and innovation seems to have still influenced the modern rulers of Egypt.   Throughout Egypt’s modern history its rulers have demonstrated a robust affinity for maintaining order, and their own regal positions, by embracing the rigid maintenance of structure that was so highly prized by their ancient ancestors.

Perhaps the ancient Egyptian (and modern Egyptian rulers) rejection of artistic innovation in favor of rigid order was not so much theologically based as it was a shrewd political decision.  This is because, as the ancient Greeks believed, effective art causes disorder to society.   Goethe and Baudelaire, like the Greeks, believed that art disturbs those who experience it because it acts as a primal emotional force that is able to enthrall the masses and stir then into frenzies.   Plato believed that art not only produces disorder but can fundamentally alter and transform those who experience it.   This is why in Plato’s Republic (a work in which he attempts to create the ideal state), Plato argues that art must be censored so it would not unhinge order.  Despite Plato’s brilliance, history has shown that censorship of the arts, like all forms of censorship is doomed to fail.  Censorship either unintentionally encourages what it constrains or, as Edgar Wind asserts, censorship is completely powerless against the most potent art, that which according to Plato produced “a sacred fear” in its viewers and was the most potent element capable of destroying the state.

Since the revolution Cairo’s artists have turned their cityscape into a living, breathing museum of art.  Concrete slabs are turned into pastel murals emphasizing religious tolerance, oak trees are transformed into sprawling Egyptian flags and brick walls are endless slates of Egyptian poetry.  However, unlike Cairo’s pharonic replicas that stare vacantly into the past, the transforming cityscape relentlessly peer into the future as it sows Plato’s “sacred fear” in all of its viewers.  Cairo’s transformation is evidence that Plato was correct: that effective art causes disorder and chaos in society.  However, it is not the chaos and disorder of destruction but the chaos and disorder that brings forth life.  The Egyptian rulers were wise to fear the artistic creations of their citizens.  For once the Egyptian artist’s “sacred fear” has seized its onlookers, there is no going back.

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On Monday several thousand Christians gathered in front of Cairo’s television station to protest the attack, burning and looting of Christian homes and Churches by a mob of Muslims in a town outside of Cairo.  On Tuesday several large street fights broke out between the Copts and the Salafi Muslims leaving 13 dead.  From an outsiders perspective it appears that sectarian violence is returning to Egypt.  However, most Egyptians I have spoken to insist that the old security apparatus is behind the attacks.  It is interesting that the majority of Christians I have spoken to in Egypt do not blame the violence on their Muslim brothers, it is only the Egyptian Christians living outside of Egypt that claim this.  Instead the majority of Egypt’s Muslims and Christians tend to be united in their belief that it is their old foe, the security forces.  The Muslim Brotherhood released a statement today condemning the violence and claimed it was the old regime trying to stage a counter revolution.   The future looks bleak for the Security Forces, the revolutionaries have been calling for their dissolution since the revolution and Tunisia just dissolved their old security apparatus.  It looks like the only thing that might save Egypt’s Security Forces is mass chaos…. and from my perspective they aim to do just that.

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Divide and Rule

By Matt

June 10th, 1967 was the day Arab Nationalism died.  In the preceding six days the Arab world lost East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights to the Israelis.  It was a horrendous defeat and embarrassment to the Arabs and it quickly spawned a frantic search for an ideology that could fill the vacancy left behind.   Political Islam and its enticing slogan, “Islam is the Solution” soon emerged as the ideology of choice that promised to restore the dignity and prestige that permeated the Arab world during the Golden Age of Islam.

Egypt’s President Sadat was the first Arab leader to embrace and manipulate this new ideology in the hopes of developing a new base of support that would provide him the freedom to break away from the old guard that put him in power.  Sadat’s support for the Islamists and their rise in power and influence seemed to correspond directly to a sharp rise in sectarian violence the Islamists exerted upon their Coptic Christian brothers and sisters.  The Coptic Pope, Pope Shenouda, was promptly exiled to the Western Desert when he openly protested the  Church’s deteriorating situation before the president.   Sadat’s decision to exert authority where he had none, and exile the Pope, was likely triggered from his realization that sectarian violence, although terrible for the country, was good for his presidency.   That is, sectarian strife and the persecution of Christians pulled attention away from Sadat’s controversial economic reforms, peace settlement with Israel and most importantly: it divided and weakened his opposition.   The political strategy of dividing and ruling one’s subjects worked wonders for the British in India, so why shouldn’t it produce the same results for Sadat in Egypt?

Unfortunately, Sadat made one mistake.    When he embraced the Islamists and their catchy slogan, “Islam is the Solution,” he failed to ask, “What type of Islam?” and “Solution to what?” However, his failure to ask these crucial questions was not in vain, for the answer quickly came in a hail of bullets and grenades proclaiming that Islam was the solution to his apostate regime.

After Sadat’s death, vice-president Mubarak took over and declared war on the Islamists.  The turbulent and bloody war was punctuated by cycles of ghastly terrorist acts followed by equally ghastly retaliation and repression by the regime. During the Mubarak era, the Copts usually looked to him as their redeemer, for he kept the Islamists at bay, released Pope Shenouda from his exile and refrained from instituting Islamic Law as other neighboring autocrats had done.

Since Mubarak’s recent fall, Copts, secularists and westerners, including myself, have become increasingly concerned that Mubarak’s dismissal may have dissolved the barrier that prevented the Islamists from ruling Egypt.  This past week’s brutal murder of a Coptic priest, stabbed to death in his apartment, by assailants shouting “Allah Akbar” (God is Great) seems to indicate that sectarian violence is returning like clockwork.

Personally, as I fear for the safety of my Christian friends and family, I can’t help but wonder if Mubarak’s removal was such a good thing?   After all, Mubarak has only been out of office for two weeks and the Islamists are already murdering priests.  Did Egypt’s revolution open up Pandora’s box?

However, one only needs to reflect on the drive-by Christmas eve shooting leaving six dead, the Alexandria Church bombing leaving 23 dead, the continual abduction of Coptic women by Islamists, the shootings of Christians on trains, and the government’s attack on Churches, all within the last year to recall that Mubarak was no protector or even friend to the Christians.  In light of all of this sectarian violence, one must wonder if Mubarak inherited his predecessor’s penchant for sectarian violence and preference for the “divide and rule” tactic.

Perhaps this past week’s headlines provide the best evidence that the former government heavily relied upon sectarianism to maintain political power.  For instance, the region’s news networks are reporting that Egypt’s former Interior Minister, Habib el-Adly, likely masterminded the bombing of the al-Qiddissin Church in Alexandria that left 24 people dead and tens of dozens injured.    The motivation for el-Adly support of the attack is unclear, but likely relates three factors: 1)  An expected increase in western support for the regime. 2) An increase in domestic support for its controversial wall separating Egypt from Gaza (the bombing was originally blamed on assailants from Gaza).  3) “To discipline the Copts.”

Rewind only a few months and the situation repeats itself.  Last November Mubarak’s corrupt, repressive and omnipresent National Democratic Party somehow won 90% of the vote despite their widespread hatred.   It is quite likely that the Interior Ministry desperately sought an excuse to stoke sectarian tensions so as to relieve pressure from the recent fraudulent campaign.  A golden opportunity presented itself when the Ministry became aware that the Omraneya Coptic Church in Giza was lacking a simple building permit.  Instead of fining the Church, the Ministry fired live ammunition and tear gas at the church personnel and their humble construction workers.  The brutal response by the government stoked a bloody conflict between Egypt’s Christians and security forces that put the country on edge for an entire week.  Although several Christians died and dozens were injured, the clash was a huge success for the regime as all talk regarding the corrupt elections had been drowned out by the civil unrest.  The proximity of the bombing of al-Qiddissin Church and the attack on the Omraneya Church is alarming and strongly suggests an underlying tactic to maintain power: Divide and Rule.

And the trend continues.  This week the Egyptian military attacked the Saint Bishoy Monastery with live bullets that has resulted in the hospitalization of several monks.  The reason for the attack is murky but relates to the monks creating a wall, which they were apparently instructed to do by the military, to protect the monastery from convicts that had escaped/released by the security forces several weeks ago.

The attack on the monastery and the murder of the priest, stabbed to death in his apartment, is disturbingly reminiscent of the old regime’s preference for sectarian violence.  One must wonder if the old regime is really gone?  My best guess is not by a long shot.

Perhaps the most evident connection between the sectarian violence exerted by the old regime and new regime relates to the fearsome Interior Ministry.   The security forces of the Interior Ministry, like Native American shape shifters are known for trading their skin for another’s when the situation is suitable.  Last month, in hopes of producing fear and panic, they dressed as Bedouins and broke into prisons releasing several thousand inmates.   During the protests I encountered them dressed as peasants enigmatically informing me that they were recording my conversation (see blog entry “Feb 1st The Million Man March).

If the security forces could dress as peasants and Bedouins in hopes of spreading fear and unrest then it is equally possible that they donned the garb of knife wielding Islamists who murdered the Coptic priest last week.  It is also quite possible that they donned the garb of soldiers and attacked St. Bishoy’s monastery.  Both of these events featured the Interior Ministry’s trademark persecution of religious minorities and have resulted in the heightening of sectarian tensions as seen in this weeks protests of Copts at Tahrir.

Another event that transpired this past week, seemingly aimed at fomenting sectarian division, was the appointment of Tarek al-Beshry, an Islamist Judge, to head Egypt’s constitutional reform panel.   The appointment of al-Beshry appears suspicious because of his pronounced Islamist leanings.   Al-Beshry’s appointment has threatened to split the reformers between the Islamists and the secularists over the ancient fear that an Islamic state may be imposed upon Egypt.   Based upon the enormous amount of concern directed towards this issue one might question if this fear is justified.

Political Islam is no longer as new or fresh as it was several decades ago.   The lofty dreams promoted by the Islamists were significantly sullied by the disastrous examples of Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan and other states that have imposed an Islamic political mandate.  Further, Islamist entities, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have long since realized that if they want to acquire more than just 20% of the vote then they must broaden their appeal and this means compromise.   The struggle toward reform within the Brotherhood is evident in the fact that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is internally dividened on whether Copts and women should run for president.  It seems likely that the Brotherhood realizes that if they wish to be something more than a minor political player then they must widen their appeal beyond the dictates of Political Islam.   This means compromising and liberalizing their political agenda.

It seems naïve to believe that with the removal of a few fat-cat scapegoats the military-intelligence-security apparatus that has been ruling this country since the 1952 coup will simply hand the country over to the young revolutionaries.  This past week’s headlines have demonstrated the unlikelihood of this possibility.   From my vantage point the economic, political and sectarian tension within Egypt are building towards a powder keg that the old guard is constantly flicking matches at.  Cairo’s intellectuals, revolutionaries, and political thinkers are all in agreement that it only takes one direct hit to set the whole country ablaze.  Egypt’s unfolding situation reminds me of a quote from Herodotus, the 6th century B.C.E. father of history, he wrote: “The Egyptians believed that fire was an animal, that consumed all that it came across, until it died with the food that it had fed on.” It would seem that the hopes of Egyptians are dependent upon the prevention of the type of fire their ancient ancestors had warned them of.


Interior Minister masterminding Church bombing:

Attack at St. Bishoy Monastery:

Murder of Coptic Priest:

Resulting Protest of Copts:

Division of the Muslim Brotherhood:

Islamist to head Constitution Reform:

Egypt’s Recent Corrupt Elections:

Attack and Protest on Egyptian Church:

Ashes, Ashes, they all fall down!



Or do they?


The air reeks with conspiracy theories! Did the old system fall? Will it? The Egyptians have a saying “the head of the serpent,” meaning that although you’ve cut the head of the serpent the body is still there.


Notes are circulating about an impending “Opposing revolution,” or “revolution reaction,” in keeping with the ancient physics concept “to every action there is a reaction equal in strength and opposing in direction.” Long elaborate explanations of how the deposed president is in communication with the existing cabinet, providing him with daily reports on how the country is being run, how food is being prepared for him in the presidential palace in Cairo and flown to Sharm and how he is depressed etc. All these are, in my opinion, admissible as the attempts of some loyalists to ease the humiliation of what Mubarak is facing.


Or so it seems. Until Mohamed Hassanein Hekal once again speaks up in an hour-long interview about the “opposing revolution,” and warns everyone to stay on guard.  It ain’t over till its over!


Hours could be spent in just reviewing all the material on Facebook and Youtube alone.  Don’t bother with the newspapers, not much there anyways.


Another theory, is coming from a supposedly X-presidential staff labeled “important, important, important and very dangerous.” In this theory the author proceeds to explain how this whole country is in bed with Israel, starting with the deposed president who was trained up as an ally, to the deposed vice president who was trained by the Israeli intelligence, and ending with a alleged crime against Christians that was scheduled to take place in March, followed by a fake resignation of the president, followed by his newly appointed VP as the president.


Whether it is true or not remains to be seen – and proven.  Everything is possible, as the Egyptian saying goes, but does it really matter?
What matters now is to move forward in a legislative fashion, to understand the basic rights of citizens and to watch very closely all the law being modified and all the people being prosecuted, and those newly appointed. So much time and energy being wasted, so our attention is diverted from what really matters: constitutional and legislative reform, freedom of those who were unjustly arrested, retribution, judgment, equal rights and opportunities to all. But instead, we are spending literally hours reading these elaborate conspiracies…


Another professor opens a conversation about the current state of events. He solemnly tells us that we don’t know what tomorrow holds, or whether at any point our lives will disrupted again, because the uprising, as he refuses to refer to it as a revolution, is not finished yet. Until all the “dirt” is cleaned, it ain’t over.


My dad’s words ring in my ears…  “Keep your collective eyes peeled.”

By Matt

To celebrate Mubarak’s resignation we pulled the car out from our apartment’s dingy underground garage/improvised junkyard and cautiously ventured away from our headquarters in Zamalek.  Zamalek, a large island in the Nile,  has been our safe haven since the start of the revolution.  Although Zamalek has sheltered us from much of the looting and violence, it has failed to protect us from the monotony of living in a fishbowl.

Familiar sites began to rush past us as we pulled onto Cairo’s sprawling 6th of October bridge and a vague sense of normalcy and routine seemed to be returning.  We eagerly, but cautiously welcomed it.  Just as we had nearly seduced ourselves into believing things were normal we passed Cairo’s still smoldering administrative building for the Court.  The sight of the smoking governmental building was a stern reminder that, for better or worse, the old Egypt had been burnt down….whether or not a phoenix will rise from the ashes remains to be seen.

Evidence of Egypt’s transformation was slowly beginning to appear.  For instance, all of the important buildings within Cairo no longer were guarded by just the police but were also protected by the army.  Cairo’s lackluster police never had much legitimacy.  They were notorious for their corruption, torture and the chaos that plagued the past three weeks.    Their credibility was shot, and both the police and the civilians knew it.  Perhaps as a halfhearted attempt to wash over their dark history, all of Cairo’s top-ranking Police officers were at each major intersection.   As they direct traffic they’d flash an apologetic smile toward each pedestrian and motorist that zoomed by.  If acknowledged, the officer’s superficial gesture was generally met with suspicion and the infamous Mediterranean evil eye.

One might argue that the best thermometer to measure the heights of despotism would be the cruelty and impunity of a country’s police force.  Egypt is a perfect example.  For instance,  the motto of the Egyptian police once read, “the police in the service of the people.” However, as the forces of dictatorship grew more entrenched the motto mutated into “the people and the police in service of the country.” This past week, Egypt’s top general, General Tantawi, changed the motto back to the original wording.  The gesture was much appreciated by all.

Although the Egyptian military and last week’s coup may be viewed with suspicion by CNN, I do not believe that the average Egyptian shares this concern.  This is because there is not one tank, out of the hundreds scattered throughout the city, that does not have some flag-waving toddler sitting atop posing for a cell phone picture taken by parents wishing to immortalize the child’s quaint role in the revolution.   Even without their photogenic tanks, the Egyptian military quickly won the heart of the Egyptians via General Tantawi’s second statement following Mubarak’s removal.   In this statement Tantawi offered a half-minute salute to the Martyrs of the revolution.  I have not met an Egyptian yet who was not greatly touched by this gesture.

After spending the last three weeks frequenting Tahrir we wanted nothing more to do with the place.  However, history is a demanding mistress and we could not resist the fear that something “historical” might be happening in which we might not witness.   So sick as we were of the place we apathetically meandered towards downtown in the hopes of watching something unfold.   But instead of finding men and women with liberation and freedom written on their hearts we encountered hustlers, gawkers and peddlers trying to cash in on the revolution.  As we crossed the Nile a teenage girl saw me and screamed, “Welcome to Egypt!”  Generally I find it incredibly irritating when some kid, trying to show off for their friends, screams some greeting at me in English, but today I welcomed it.  Ever since Omar Soliman, Egypt’s Vice President and Director of Intelligence, suggested that foreigners were behind Egypt’s recent problems, I have been eyed with suspicion.  But after Mubarak’s fall and Soliman’s subsequent removal, Egyptians are beginning to once again warmly embrace foreigners.  Thus, the dull ringing in my ears is a small price to pay for having the stigma removed from my forehead.

It became clear as we entered Tahrir that the protest movement or what was left of it had been hijacked by Cairo’s sprawling impoverished and uneducated masses.  The intellectuals and idealists promoting hope and idealism and been replaced by beggars and hawkers pushing Egyptian flags, headbands, badges, cotton candy and popcorn.  There was something very nauseating about it.  The few genuine revolutionaries that were still left were in the background sweeping, painting and repairing what had been damaged in the preceding weeks.  If noticed at all, the young revolutionaries were perceived with skepticism and confusion by the masses attending the protest turned carnival.

This brings up a delicate point when considering democracy in Egypt and the developing world.  One of the greatest diseases to plague the third world is that the majority of its citizens suffer from a profound lack of education.   As an American I have always believed that ones opinion is no better or worse than another’s regardless of ones educational level.  However in the developing world  I do not feel that this is the case because the consequences of a lack of education are much more dire than they would be in the developed world.  In Egypt this translates to the inability to think critically or comprehend complicated political, economic and social nuances.  Further, the tendency and temptation to embrace political and religious ideologies that promote a simplistic, black and white position is quite attractive and likely to be embraced among the majority of its uneducated population.   Thus, there is some fear among Egypt’s educated populace that those ideologues promoting a simplistic political ideology may easily be able to capture the votes of Egypt’s sprawling uneducated and impoverished masses.

Brooding over these thoughts we left Tahrir and returned back to Zamalek. On the way back a minivan slowly pulled up, a hand shot out the window waving the Egyptian flag, the driver started hitting the horn and a female voice directed toward me yelled, “Don’t leave Egypt!” I felt like an inmate that just had his sentence dropped.

Back at the apartment Janine received a call from her friend, Sarah.  Sarah lives across from a European hotel that has been burned down several times by religious fanatics (most recently two weeks ago).  Janine explained that  Sarah “recently noticed a big gathering outside the mosque across the street from the hotel.  People were sitting down in the streets near by, blocking off the roads for several hours.  They hung banners that read “Islam is a religion and a government system” (Al islam deen wa dawla). Posters such as these that claimed Islam was a governmental system had not been hung in public before. While Sarah was raised in a community of moderate Christians and Muslims and had many close Muslim friends, she was quite alarmed by this new phenomenon. When Sarah asked what was going on, people simply said that they were having a lecture. Sarah thought it looked more like a convention.”

On reflection I am unsure that the request, “Don’t Leave Egypt!” was directed toward me.  In light of Sarah’s account it seems more likely that the request was directed to my Egyptian wife.  For decades liberal minded Egyptians have found life in Egypt intolerable and have left their homeland for a better life in the west.   In one sense, the driver of the minivan may be seen as pleading with liberal minded Egyptians to stay in Egypt.   Her reason being that the country is at its most fragile point in the post-revolutionary stage and it is crucial for liberal minded Egyptians not to be seduced by better jobs and quality of life in the west.  Instead they should stay in their country and fight for a better Egypt before the revolution is hijacked by ideologues pushing intolerant political ideologies.

The Iranian scholar, Said Amir Arjomand, once wrote, “All revolutions, are supported by many who would not have supported them had they had a clear understanding of what the revolutions were in fact to bring about. Such undoubtedly was the case with many in Iranian society who withheld their support from a compromise with the Shah and suicidally supported Khomeini.”

On Feb 11, 1979 the commander of the Iranian Air Force announced that the armed forces would no longer back the Shah.   Thirty-two years later, to the exact day, the same announcement was made by the Egyptian armed forces.   Iran’s revolution was followed by much bloodshed, war and repression.   If Egypt is to avoid a similar fate then its liberal, idealistic, and educated youth must prevent the Khomeinis of our era from hijacking the revolution like they did in 1979.   The hope of the country is with its youth: Don’t leave Egypt!

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Day 4, Feb 15th, National Holiday for the Birthday of the Prophet (equivalent of Christmas)

It has been 4 days since the president stepped down. We walk towards downtown for the first time since the president stepped down. It is surreal seeing it again after the protests are over. Three tanks narrow the access to a single lane. A strange breed of Egyptians walks around the circle with flags, popcorn bags and random sweets. Yes, it is still the same popcorn cart that catered to the protesters; I guess he’s claiming a spot now… All kinds of random street vendors that would otherwise not be in the square had their merchandise on the floor. Badges, flags, flag ribbons, children taking pictures with the tanks, a whole gang of teenagers just out for fun. “25th of January memorabilia, come see it, come see it.”

Somehow I feel less safe with this crowd than I did with the protesters.

We walk past downtown coffee shops where normally only single men would sit, at least twice I see a whole family – complete with the grandparents – sitting there…Are they from out of town, and innocently stopped for tea and coffee while they are visiting the holy land of Tahrir Square?

It is a sad sight to walk past the old AUC drag…We are initially welcomed with Freedom graphite and walls repainted by the youth and the artists post the revolution. a 200 meter wall continues with more and more slogans and paintings and a wonderful spirit. We pass Am Sayed, the owner of a dinky underground photcopying business since I was an undergraduate student, his son smiled at me knowingly… Some faces you never forget.The lady from the equally old kiosk greets me as well. She complains about AUC’s old campus across from us was also looted. We look up and we see the windows to what used to be the engineering department broken, probably by tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.

But as we approach the McDonalds, we are shocked to find it completely demolished, everything shattered and everything stolen. The whole place covered with water. There isn’t even shattered glass left behind, everything was utterly destroyed. Somehow an LCD screen was still bolted into the wall. I ask a man who was walking inside it what happened to it, he responded bitterly “this was turned into a public bathroom.” I try to clarify if he meant that people used the bathrooms of the place. “The whole restaurant was turned into a public bathroom ma’am.”  I comment sadly that this must have cost the owner a lot of money. The man retorted bitterly, “this is not the only branch that looks like this.”

We walk on sad and silent.  The same sight repeated at KFC, Pizza Hut, and finally Hardees, where the writing on the wall reads “Men’ s and women’ s bathrooms here.” (You can actually see the Hardees sign in many of the pictures of the news agencies)

We walk past the square and into the heart of downtown.  As we approach our historical Talaat Harb Square and the old Groppi, we were deafened by loud music coming from the center.  Big speakers are playing from someone’s balcony, none other than the proponents of Ayman Nour. Ayman Nour ran for the presidential elections last time, and was soon arrested and thrown in jail for a few years. He eventually escaped and was recently in the demonstrations.  They had a big poster of a close up of Ayman Nour, and below it the banner that honors the martyrs. Such does not happen in Talaat Harb Square.

We continue on through Kasr ElNile street, down to the many shopping stores. We were able to pick up some items that we had left at various shops before the revolution for repairs. Although we were more nervous because it was very crowded in some parts, on that side of downtown it was business as usual.

Turning around the corner, heading back towards Hoda Sharawy street, we were surprised by an increased presence of street beggars, almost the same presence they have in the summer when the streets are full of tourists and Arabs. I am able to walk past a couple without giving in, but as soon as we turn the corner, this teenager comes up to Matt trying to sell him the usual napkin packet and asking for “anything for the face of God.” Matt seems not sure if this kid is one of the many street hustlers or a genuinely needy child. “No thank you,” I said. He wont look at me, but continues to try to get anything from Matt. I kept after him “I can’t give you money, but I can get you a sandwich,” his eyes light up. I point at a local food place across the street, “would you come with me? I’ll get a sandwich.” His whole face lights up like a kid opening gifts on Christmas eve. We cross over. I ask him what he’d like, “anything, I’ll eat anything.” So I make the order with the little cash I have, and wait in line. Another girl standing by seemingly knows the kid “Gamal, how are you?” perhaps she works with street children. Anyways, Gamal stands by my side, very patiently waiting for his XL Shawerma sandwich. His eyes fixed on the chef, but as soon as I’d turn towards him, a beautiful big smile would emerge.  We eventually give him the sandwich and walk on. He seems so grateful.

I am not sure why this one kid I felt drawn to…something about him was broken, real, and safe.

Moving on to our favorite juice bar, where we get 3 drinks (Matt has seconds 😉 and the Egyptian Belila desert…we sit on the old plastic chairs on the sidewalk by the store and enjoy our feast.

A gentle breeze, some girls stop by for juice and not a tank in sight.

We suddenly realize how long it has been since we’ve felt so relaxed and “normal.”

But the truth is, there is no going back to “normal.” Getting back to normal life does not equal going back to the past. Things will never be the same again. There is no agreed upon version of what today’s normal is going to look like. But enough for us that we are able to walk down the street, to get our merchandise and to enjoy a good old Egyptian juice drink on the sidewalk of Bab El Look.

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