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Egypt: waiting for a Superman!

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“We have to move from the revolution stage to the reform mode; from the willingness to die for Egypt, to the eagerness to live for Egypt.” Emad Karim gives a view into post-Mubarak life in Egypt, from underlying injustices to moments of selflessness and resilience, concluding that there is still great hope for his country’s future.

Man protesting on lamp post

On 25 January 2011, and for the first time in 7,000 years, Egyptians were no longer waiting for a saviour or superhero to topple the staggering injustices they had experienced throughout history. But just two years after ousting President Mubarak, we found ourselves once again sleeping under a curfew and waking under an Emergency Law.

Violence, injustice and poverty in post-Mubarak Egypt

The recent violence has created a cruel division within Egyptian society that will take years to heal; between people and police, between Brotherhood and army, between those who died and those who watched. And as in any emergency in Egypt, Coptic Christians, refugees, foreigners, businesses, banks and museums have become targets.

More than 1,600 people were killed between 14 and 19 August in the dispersing of protests, terrorists’ attacks on soldiers, or randomly in riots. With the exception of a few, they will end up a number in a morgue, or worse, consigned to the ranks of the uncounted. My illiterate grandmother, who still lives in the village, said that the poor do not go to protests; they hardly can survive taking a sick day. The very poor don’t riot or participate in politics – but they are the underlying factor of Egypt’s perpetual crisis. When politicians wage war, it's the poor and the youth who die.

Behind the scenes of turmoil in Egypt lies a great deal of despair. It’s something that few in power or in politics want to talk about or have the courage to work on. A sluggish economy, widespread corruption, a massive youth bulge and declining public health. Grinding poverty has risen significantly over the last three years, with nearly half of the population being in a state of poverty. The poorest families spend more than half of their average household income on food.

Last week also saw Mubarak’s release from prison after the court dropped charges of embezzlement against him. Mubarak and many from his regime are being freed not because they are not guilty or because the judges are corrupt, but simply because they are not being tried for the crimes they are guilty of. As long as the perpetrators themselves are the ones responsible for providing the evidence that can crucify them, there will be no fair transitional justice – and we will still sit in our shisha cafes reading the future in our Arabian coffee cups.

A polarised population

A few weeks ago I visited my family in a small village close to Luxor, and took the train back. As usual over the Eid holidays, the train was packed. Next to my seat stood five men with no tickets. A few minutes after the train left the station they started a conversation, which resulted in the identification of common friends, extended families, or familiar villages.

Soon enough, the conversation drifted to politics and sides were taken. Ironically, the stereotypes were true: the oldest of them with a beard was pro-Morsi; a man wearing a galabaya in his early forties proudly identified himself as a feloul – someone connected with Mubarak’s regime. The three younger men – an unemployed student, an unemployed graduate, and an engineer working for a private company – failed to escape the binary of either being pro-Morsi or pro-military, and their voices were lost between the echo of the elders and the interventions from the comfortably seated neighbors.

Eight hours of the trip passed and the conversation did not stop. The only thing they all had in common, other than entering the train with no booking, is that they were each talking in a vacuum of their own. They were listening to prepare their attack, not to understand, and their arguments were mostly based on rumours, generalisations, irrelevant evidence, or personal attacks. Thanks to Egypt’s biased media, unprofessional politicians and poor education, this is what has shaped generations lacking the critical minds to seek the truth. The problem is not just the rhetoric, it's the fact that now we're so polarised that there is a barricade in every Egyptian house and movement. State media and even private media have stopped reporting the truth, but rather opinions and perspectives.

It was 4am and I was desperately trying to sleep. But when I asked the debating club on the train to please be quiet, the pro-Morsi supporter was shocked. He resented the fact that one person, me, tried to impose his will over the majority – and suggested that the conversation must have touched upon something I did not like and that was the reason for asking them to stop. I tried to explain that it was the train’s universal rule and courtesy to stay quiet and had nothing to do with politics, but alas, everything in Egypt now is connected to politics.

Time for Egyptians to start afresh

So where is my hope coming from? Every time I visit my village and see such readiness for development, aspiration for a quality life and peace for everyone in the world, it restores my faith in Egypt. Every time I see my hopeful grandmother and mother, who both got married when they were 11 years old, deprived of an education yet managing to raise a doctor, lawyer, teachers, accountant, artist, and a technician. Every time I see the farmers squat to shovel their land with a big smile as big as the hot sun. Every time I see the poor bread seller on his bike making his way through the anarchy of Cairo traffic and handing a loaf to a street kid. Every time, in the mist of tear gas and bullets, more hands stretch to help someone, to raise the Egyptian flag.

Egyptian protesters

Egypt does not need superheroes. It needs committed, law-abiding public servants and innovation to improve the livelihood of citizens. It needs support from the international community too, to protect civilians and their basic rights. Friends of Egypt have to see Egypt as a model, as an opportunity to create sustainable development plans where people are in the centre – plans that not only reduce poverty but ensure that the poor will not fall back under again.

Now that everyone has drunk from the bitter glass of injustice, everyone has a victim in their family or a scar on their body. Only now can we freshly start over. Only now have we realised we have to stop reinventing the revolution over and over again whenever we are stuck in a political limbo. With Egyptians, movements have been schooled by decades of repression, and it is difficult for us to distinguish the opportunity from the trap. But we have to move from the revolution stage to the reform mode; from the willingness to die for Egypt, to the eagerness to live for Egypt.

My train arrived into Cairo late as usual. The heated debate continued for 8 hours, thanks to the Egyptian sense of humour jumping in whenever the debate was offensive. The five debaters generously took turns over the one seat and hugged when the train arrived. More ironically, as they all insisted on helping each other with their bags, they ended up exchanging their bags and didn’t carry their own.

It is said that those who have drunk from the Nile will always return. I believe, too, that those who have tasted the joy, the sweet struggle, the company and the spirit of Tahrir Square – like my five travelling companions – will not easily give it up.

Photos by Emad Karim.

Emad Karim is Senior Technical Coordinator for Youth Policy & Participation at the League of Arab States. In October 2012, he took part in a debate with fellow Egyptians and the Elders to discuss the future of Egypt.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

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