I worked in Egypt for 4 years as a technical expert with the Egyptian Customs Authority. We worked in Alexandria (Customs HQ) but spent a lot of time in Cairo. My wife and I lived in an apartment and between work and daily life made a lot of Egyptian friends and acquaintances. These people ranged from very senior government officials, young professionals, our landord's family (which practically adopted us), university staff and working people at the vegetable market, barbers, shop owners, a baker on our street to name just a few. Egyptians, nol matter what strata of society, are friendly, welcoming and hospitable people. We keep in touch with many of our friends, particularly those from work through facebook and email. Here's what I know and what I've been hearing from them.
Egyptians are proud of their role in human civilization and of the fact that so much civll pogress dates from ancient Egypt. In the modern era, they have had a troubled history including a long succession of absolute rulers, two wars with Israel and assassinations of national leaders. With the assassation of Sadat in the early 80's, Egypt began an approximate 30 year history of being governed under emergency decree or martial law. Many opposition parties were outlawed and while there was limited democracy in terms of parliamentary elections, the electoral process had been corrupted leaving the average Egyptian cynical and distrustful of their government and elections in general. It might have been a livable situation had the Mubarek government effectively managed the economy, and created jobs and opportunity. It didn't. Everyone was aware of the presence of the secret police and the fate of those who openly and persistently criticized the government. Anger and the sense of being oppressed grew so that by 2005, the beginning of my work there, there was a very discernible disatisfaction with the government, the lack of a credible democracy and a feeling of pessimism with respect to one's future. This malaise was not confined to those in the lower echelons of society. It cut across all economic and class lines. Our landlord or senior government officials with whom I worked were just as likely to express anti Mubarek sentiments as was the guy who sold me vegetables on the street or cut my hair. There was a sense of living in a pressure cooker and a certainty that this was about to spin out of control. Of course it did.
There was also a very deeply felt anger at the United States some of which was the normal stuff related to support for the State of Israel. But much of it related to American support for Mubarek which gave rise to a contention that the US was a hypocritical nation supporting freedom and democracy for Americans but propping up oppressive dictators to rule over others. This was multiplied a hundredfold with the Iraq war which Egyptians saw as an attack on Arabs in general notwithstanding their own understanding that Saddam Hussein was a homicidal tyrant. Arabs have a strong sense of what's called in Arabic Ummah (various spellings) which refers to the village, the family or the people and the invasion of Iraq was an attack on the people. Of course this was excacerbated by the Bush administration's attitude and demeanour throughout this sad affair. Egyptians and many Arabs saw the Iraq war as another crusade and pictures of US troups praying en masse received wide circulation in Egypt.
The events in Tahir Square, which I crossed many times en route to our hotel, were no surprise to me and I sensed from my friends' FB postings a sense of optimism that had not been present when I was working there. Mubarek fell and there were elections. They proudly posted pictures of themselves with ink stained fingers showing the world that they had voted. I saw a lot of those pictures during those days. There was also a more positive view of the US not just because Bush was gone, although that helped, but also because they truly liked Obama. They still do only not as much
The problem was that after 30 years of dictatorship, there was not much in the way of a viable opposition and little in the way of parliamentary tradition to fall back on. The Brotherhood won narrowly mainly because they promised not to govern as an Islamist party and Egyptians with few options decided to give them a chance. Most Egyptians, while devout Muslims, are not fundamentalist and for many, the introduction of Sharia Law as interpreted by fundamentalists would be a nightmare for people who have attained a certain level of sophistication, education and worldview. Of course, the MB failed to keep that promise which lead to the events of the past few months and the past few days.
I think that throughout this, Obama has been in a difficult postion given the history and the longstanding American support of Mubarek. He came out ultimately pressuring Mubarek to leave and I think that there was a reluctant acceptance informed by the lack of any other choice in supporting the MB. When the Egyptian people turned on that government, the US was caught short. Saddled with the history of supporting Mubarek and the resultant loss of credibility that that brought, the range of decisions options were limited. Of course now, the US and Obama is being criticized for supporting the MB who my Egyptian friends are now referring to as terrorists. One of them, a very sophisticated and educated woman in her thirties posted today that "if the US is against us, we must be on the right track" There it is. The chickens usually do come home to roost even though they might not all have been Obama's chickens.
Today, another friend posted what appears to be an official statement by the government in response to Obama's remarks of yesterday on Egypt.
URGENT | full text of the presidential statement - in response to Obama's speech:
"The Egyptian presidency followed the statement issued by U.S. President Barack Obama on the situation in Egypt,
Cairo Appreciating the attention of the U.S. side to developments in the situation in Egypt, but they would have liked to put things right, and realize the full facts of what is happening on earth in this regard, the Egyptian Presidency would like to confirm the following:
First: Egypt is facing terrorist acts, aimed at government institutions and vital installations, including dozens of churches, courts and police stations, and many public facilities and private property.
Second: groups of armed thugs in violence targeted innocent civilians causing the loss of life, also targeted cultural features of the Egyptian state of libraries, museums and public gardens and educational buildings.
Third: the Egyptian presidency sincerely regrets the casualties and loss of Egyptians lives and working hard to establish security and peace in the community, we emphasize it's full responsibility towards the protection of the country and the lives of its citizens.
Fourth: the Egyptian Presidency fears that statements that are not based on the realities of things would lead to strengthen the groups of armed violence and to encourage them in their approach against stability and democratization, including the completion of the map of the future, which insist on the completion on schedule ... Of the Constitution to the parliamentary and presidential elections.
Fifth: Egypt appreciates the sincere attitudes to the world, but it just emphasizes the full sovereignty and independent decision, and to enable the will of the people which was launched in the twenty-fifth of January 2011 and the thirtieth of June 2013 for a better future for a great country."
Lastly, a note about the Egyptian military. Most Egyptians I know see the military as their allies. Ultimately they were in the overthrow of Mubarek and once it became clear that the MB had lost the bulk of popular support they supported the popular will in ousting the Morsi and his government. Again, without strong democratic institutions, the military has become the most stable force in this whole sad affair. It is difficult to see how, over the short to medium term, this can evolve to a healthy democratic system given the fact that the Brotherhood seems to be willing to embark on civil war over their loss of power and the military is willing to use the brutal tactics that we saw this week.
I am deeply saddened by these events and by the plight of our friends in Egypt who only want what the rest of us want--a stable country, freedom to speak and to choose their own government, economic opportunty and a chance to see their children thrive in a strong and healthy country. I hope that this is where this road leads although optimism is in short supply lately.