In Egypt, the disillusionment sets in

A friend just returned from Cairo and reports that anger, frustration, and disappointment is running high about the revolution — both about what has changed and, just as much, what has not.  Though the revolution that saw Mubarak step down on 11 February was a beautiful moment to all of us who love the country, it was, objectively, more like half a revolution: Mubarak resigned but he left the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in control and since it has been a military regime for sixty years this could seem like no revolution at all.  But it had been a military regime that was gradually taken over the by the state security services — the Amn al-Dowla, who are ruthlessly competent, the shorta, who are police but often little more than thugs, and the mukhabarat, who are the intelligence services and make up for their lack of professionalism with their sheer ubiquity — so what the revolution achieved was a pushback against this element in the regime.

That is all to the good, except that these services, if run correctly, have a necessary role to play in providing security.  Their retreat has made Cairo more dangerous than it has ever been (and, it should be said, contrary to the impression of many outsiders, Cairo has long rivaled Tokyo as the safest large metropolis on earth) and opened up space for groups that had been suppressed.  One of these groups, loosely termed, is the Salafists, hardline Islamists who played no particular role in the revolution but are trying to assert themselves in this uncertain phase that has followed.  If you read the comment stream in American media attached to news stories about the Arab Spring a very large percentage of the views expressed are disdainful of Arab aspirations — I wrote about this here — and fearful that this is all going to end up like the Iranian revolution; the Salafists are the ones they fear.  Many Egyptians do too: Negar Azimi has an excellent article in this week’s New York Times magazine about a Coptic family that is considering emigrating.  It is a pity, in a way, that the family she chose to profile was Christian because this, too, is a parochial obsession for a certain segment of the American population and therefore risks obscuring the universal worry of this moment, which is whether, bad as things were under Mubarak, they could get worse.  For many, this is an economic question as much as a religious one: so many Egyptians lived on so little for so long that they do not have much surplus now to survive a long economic siege.  The secularists and the civil society groups have been trying to use their old methods — such as camping out in Tahrir Square — to rally new support to complete the revolution, but these now are seen by many Egyptians as more disruptive than persuasive.  What they really need to do is transition into political movements with policy answers to these kinds of economic and social questions; in the meantime, the Salafists are out to exploit social fissures like the Muslim-Copt divide and to intimidate their rivals.

After the American Revolution, it took 11 years to draft and pass the Constitution of which we are now so proud but many of us think of those events as one.  The Egyptian revolution that began on 25 January was a beautiful moment, but it is one part of a long and at times unbeautiful process.  But it must succeed.  Egypt, long the natural center of gravity in the region, had drifted to the margins during the stagnation of Mubarak’s three decade reign.  With the revolution, it put itself back at the center; if it fails, or ends badly, the consequences will be widespread and the dreams of 80 million will be deferred for another generation.


Click here to read about whether Mubarak should be prosecuted for his crimes.  Or here for my thoughts on the military’s role as stewards of this transitional period or the architectural symbolism of downtown Cairo and why it became the center of the protests.

Click here to read the article I wrote for Travel + Leisure about contemporary art in Cairo during the late-Mubarak years.

Click here for the sketch my grandfather did in 1956 of the Cairo villa he’d found for my mother’s family.  Or here for a clever Flickr mash-up map that shows where tourists and locals go in Cairo.

The full list of pieces I’ve written about Egypt is here.


2 Responses to “In Egypt, the disillusionment sets in”

  1. Peter J. Andros says:

    Your sentiment comes through loud and clear; but, really, comparing the mess in Egypt with the American Revolution is ridiculous.  Offensive. As are your reflections on the American public.  Americans are quite capable speaking for themselves.  You’ve conveniently ignored the fact that militant Islam, engaged in genocide and murdering its own, given safety and support by so-called moderate Muslims around the world, was absent from the political/social scenario in North America/Europe back in the day.  

    You made your bed now sleep in it.

    • Dina sabet says:

      Defining the Egyptian Revolution  as “The mess in Egypt” is what’s offensive. “So-called moderate Muslims” is even more so. 
      If the Americans were so wise and capable then why are they in debt and why did they cause that massive genocide in Iraq.Not tolerating  the ‘Egyptian Revolution’ to be compared to the American one clearly shows that you can not even stand for what your country was founded on; freedom of speech & opinion. Egypt is not to be compared with the rest of the muslim world or even America. Egypt has a much greater civilization than one man can even begin to comprehend. 
      I might not be the expert on political matters but your comment is extremely offensive to a Muslim Egyptian woman and I do not even have to justify whether I am moderate or not cause i’m sure you never really had to.

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