- Comparative and Area Studies
Witnessing History in the Making
August 16, 2011
It’s strange to think I’ve witnessed history being made. History that my children and grandchildren will study in school.
This week, I saw the man who six months ago used to be the most powerful man in Egypt, and one of the most powerful men in the region, lying on a hospital bed in an iron cage in court. Humiliated in front of the entire world. An 84-year-old pharaoh who lifted his hand up and went “Yes sir, present,” to the judge, like a schoolchild to his teacher.
Two days before that I was in Tahrir square, just before it was forcefully cleared out by the military. Where Egyptians from all walks of life had gathered to express their demands peacefully.
So many events and so many emotions. The past six months have passed like a whirlwind.
Everyone keeps asking us where do we go from here. What it’s like to be here. What things on the ground are like. What Egyptians are feeling.
It’s easy to spout the clichés: “Well, a transition to a democratically elected government is hard”; “Our political sphere is growing and evolving and developing”; “The military is doing so and so and this is making people worry that such and such won’t happen.”
But the reality is, it’s almost impossible to foresee what Egypt will look like a year from now. Even a month from now. A week, even. As we say in Arabic— mesh ‘arfreen rasna men reglena —(literally, “We don’t know our heads from our legs,” equivalent to “We don’t know which way is up and which is down”).
Life goes on. Our malls are full, we’re all watching our favorite Ramadan series, and Cairo traffic is just as bad.
But underneath all that is rippling change. The foundations are shifting, and the goal posts are moving around.
A couple of weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of salafis —Muslims who follow a strict interpretation of Islam—showed up in Tahrir square. We had heard nary a peep from them before. Everyone is seeking to capitalize on the revolution—from training companies advertising a “January 25 English diploma” to new multimillion funded television channels with names like ‘Tahrir’ and ‘Jan 25.’ I can’t keep up with the number of political parties being founded that I keep being invited to. Everyone has become a political commentator. We have elections coming up.
The military is in control and some people are unhappy with their actions. Other people are unhappy with the people who are unhappy with the military. Others don’t believe Mubarak should be tried. Fissures and fragmentations along religious and political and economic ideologies coupled with no unified vision can potentially tear the country apart.
It’s like a giant that has been sleeping for years and years suddenly woke up. And no one yet knows if this giant is going to build or destroy everything around him. And not only that, the giant has woken up other giants sleeping in the surrounding countries. And they’re all looking at him to see what they should do. Everyone wants a piece of Egypt. Egypt is the leader, or role model if you will, to the Arab world.
Egyptians are confused. Around 22% of them are illiterate, and 40% live under the poverty line, unused to thinking about anything except how to eke out their existence. They don’t care about politics. They don’t look towards the long term. All they see is chaos and uncertainty and that their lives are perhaps even worse than they were before the revolution.
The road is long and bumpy. And it’s only going to get worse before—if—it gets better.
But it will get better. I know it will.