A good friend of mine is a prominent Egyptian business man. As the board member of a national charity, he travels frequently to what he calls “real Egypt.” Last week in rural Asyut, his NGO distributed three hundred cows. Each time the head of a local family walked away with a cow, the women burst into howls of ululation. Their joy, he said, was visibly equal to that of guests at an Arab wedding.
“That’s the aspiration of an Egyptian villager today,” my friend told me. “The ownership of a cow is what gives them milk to drink, cheese to sell, and then money with which to buy subsidized government bread. Former president Mubarak’s reign reduced Egyptian ambitions to owning a cow.”
I have been in Egypt all week, absorbing the anxieties of a people faced with deep uncertainties as they experiment with democracy and vote for a presidential candidate from a slate of below-average choices. Whoever wins the presidential race after the run-off in June will not only have to address the pressing problems of poor housing, low-paid jobs, mismanaged healthcare, a decline in tourism, and the desperate need to boost Egypt’s GDP, but they will also be fighting battles on two other fronts.
The victory of an Islamist candidate would create deep angst in the military top brass that is only too keen to maintain control of the Egyptian economy and independence from civilian rule. And while there are secular liberals who would rightly take Islamists to task, revolutionary elements within their ranks would likely commit not to building a movement to win the next election, but to focus on removing Islamists from power by any means necessary. The personal, emotional, class, and other forms of hatred for Islamists in Egypt (among many of the liberal elite) are difficult to overestimate.
While disorganized liberals, the military, and varied Islamists contend for control of the state, foster greater uncertainty, and scare away investors and tourism, the “real Egypt” continues to struggle for survival.
My taxi driver took a wrong turn in downtown Cairo, heading down a one-way street. At the end of the street a police officer stopped us.
“By Allah, I did not know this was a one-way street,” my driver pleaded in Arabic. “Thanks for teaching me. I won’t repeat it again. By Allah, believe me.”
The officer was not impressed. He asked the driver to get out of the car and produce the necessary documents. Within moments, the driver was back, and the officer turned to me.
“Didn’t you know this was a one-way street?” he asked me in Arabic. I responded with the bookish Arabic I know, Modern Standard Arabic, and the officer walked away knowing I was not Egyptian and therefore not picking up on his intended meaning.
Meanwhile, the taxi driver had prepared a fistful of cash for the officer. Invoking God again and uttering prayers for the officer and his family, the driver shook hands with the officer. The shaking of hands was the passing over of cash.
“What do you take me for?” protested the policeman. “I am a respectable person!” That was supposed to be code for “you cannot bribe me.” The money did not come back, though. The officer’s right hand stored the cash in his pocket. The driver shook his hand again, with more cash, and said more prayers.
“Go, go,” said the policeman. “Be careful next time.” The driver then told me he had just avoided a fine of 1,200 Egyptian pounds (two hundred U.S. dollars), more than the driver would make in a month.
One year after the Egyptian revolution, the police, representatives of the Egyptian state, are seen by many to be as corrupt as ever. At the same time, police wages are pityingly low.
Corruption, a difficult economic situation, and political uncertainty in Egypt are enveloped in a broader disregard for the rule of law and democratic culture. Hardline Salafis have threatened violence and all-out rejection of the electoral results if Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, wins the presidential office. Less radical Islamists have promised another revolution, with some liberals supporting that sentiment. If an Islamist such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi wins then secular revolutionaries will not accept the results and the military may take to playing political games to undermine the Brotherhood’s control of the state.
As political high drama plays out, “real Egypt” suffers from poverty and corruption. Make no mistake about it: the stakes are high in Egypt. If the experiment with democracy fails here, then prospects for freedom, democratic culture, human rights, instituting the rule of law, and creating a model for other nations in the region and beyond fail with it. We cannot stand by and watch that happen. Soon, Washington, DC, and European capitals will be forced to choose between different factions in Egyptian politics. Who will we support and why?