July 10, 2013

About Egypt

I've been asked more than once in the last several days about why I haven't made some sort of official statement about current events in Egypt, where the first elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was removed from office by the military.

Was it a coup? Is it bad for democracy? Will things get better? Will El Baradei end up being President? Will Mubarak-style Egypt somehow come back? What happens to Egyptian tourism? What about the Copts? Is the Muslim Brotherhood going to turn into (or go back to being, depending on who you ask) a terrorist organization?

Don't you care what's going on in Egypt? Aren't you going to say something?

I care very, very much about what happens in Egypt. I am not ignoring current events; I have in fact been watching them very closely. I am worried about my friends in Egypt, native and foreign. I am worried about Egyptian friends and colleagues who have become family over the years: Mido, Ali, Hesham and Mona and their children, Tarek, Usama, and the rest of their coworkers and their families. I worry, along with Egyptians from all walks of life, inside and outside the country, about what happens now.

I worry about the tourist trade, one of Egypt's most successful economic movements, in the face of yet more countries urging their citizens to avoid traveling to Egypt. I worry about the process of rebuilding a government, when so many have lost faith and trust in the process. I worry about thieves and vandals and fires in sacred sites, and killings on the streets. I worry about the ongoing safety of Egypt's women and children. I worry that removing an elected official will lead to more difficult problems down the road.

I worry about a spiral of violence, and yet, at the same time, I know that this is the beginning of Ramadan, a holy month of reflection and stepping back from the world in Egypt's majority faith.

While my worries are legitimate, I've spent enough time in Egypt, and gotten to know enough of her people, that I think that ultimately she will be all right. The friends from Alexandria and Jordan that I shared lunch with on the day Morsi was put out were all hopeful and excited. "Things will be much better now," one said. "You will see. Everyone will see. This [Morsi's removal] needed to happen. Now we can get on with things."

When Mubarak was removed two years ago, I knew that things would take time to right themselves. Someone doesn't leave office, willingly or unwillingly, after thirty years, and have everything just smoothly transition to the next thing. Democracy is messy. Those of us recently celebrating the birthday of our own nation, ought not to forget how messy its own rise to democracy once was.

Freedom is not created with smiles and flowers and waving flags, or even solely with voting rights. It is, unfortunately, borne on the shoulders of people who must work hard, people who will sometimes end up laying down their lives for those freedoms. Even under Mubarak, Egypt was not a democracy, and never has been. One cannot expect Egypt's transition to whatever it chooses for itself to happen quickly, or in a vacuum, or without some resistance from millennia of cultural forces that have never prepared that country for such a thing as a Westerner might think would be a democracy.

Remember: even successful democracy in Egypt is unlikely to look like democracy everywhere - or even anywhere - else. After all, the past few days of op-ed columns alone demonstrate that one person's democratic removal is another person's coup against legitimacy.

I hope for Egypt's sake that the rest of the world will be patient, but actively so. We should permit the people of Egypt to make their own decisions, to bring themselves to whatever place they choose to be, to trust them to know, like this little boy seems to say so well, what they want for their own present and future.

At the same time, we must not turn our backs if help is requested or desired. Once upon a time not very long ago, another postcolonial country liberated itself, but because the liberators were all the "wrong" skin color, the world turned its back on them. (And take a long, hard look at how that turned out.)

I am one person, far away. There is nothing at all I can do for Egypt's government, for its people, to stop violence in the streets or confusion at the polls. I am not a head of state who can command armies or billions of dollars in aid. No one in Egypt will hear my voice, or even care about it, nor should they. I cannot do more than speak against bigotry and ignorance, to continue to speak the truth that Egypt is full of good people and that they deserve the same chances anybody else does.

There is not much at all that I can do, besides that. It is nowhere near enough, and it might not even be what Egypt needs. But I will watch, and wait, and hope, just the same, because I have been to Egypt. I love it as much as I do my own country, and I cannot turn my back upon that love.

More will have to be done, by those who can do more than love Egypt. United in love, however, the rest of us can certainly not hurt that effort, and I hope that Egypt knows that people like myself are out here, waiting and hoping for a day when things are not quite as difficult as they have been.

I will pray: to the gods of Egypt, the divine creators of the land, Who lived there long before later deities came in, the Ones Who still live there and still love Their people. I will pray to the God of the Copts and the Muslims as well. In a time like this, there are never enough prayers. Maybe remembering that all those gods love Their own is a good message to send.

It certainly cannot hurt. But it is not enough.

And that is why I have not said much: not because I had nothing to say, but because I had everything to say, and ultimately, everything does not matter more than the people living through the situation: the Egyptians themselves.

So, I will quiet myself and get out of their way.

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