Friday, April 11, 2008

And Nothing Much Changed

The talk last Thursday was of protests—major protests throughout Egypt. Angry over rising food prices, low wages, and political issues in Gaza, Egyptians called for widespread protests to increase awareness of these issues.

But there is a problem in Egypt: public protests are illegal (doesn’t seem very democratic now does it?).

There was a lot of speculation over what might happen. Tahrir Square was rumored to be a major site of activity. Egyptians were encouraged to skip work, wear black clothes, and hang Egyptian flags in support of the protestors. Public transportation was at risk of being shut down.

When I woke up Sunday morning, I was ready to catch some of the protests in Tahrir Square. As I took the shuttle to downtown, the first thing I noticed was how light the traffic was. It looked more like a Friday morning before Islamic prayer services than a busy work day. As I approached Tahrir Square, I kept my eyes peeled for signs of protest. I didn’t find any. Hundreds of riot police were stationed around the square in small block formations. Cars zipped around the traffic circles unaffected. The few protestors I did pick out were few and far between, and they were merely standing in a small line with no verbal or visual messages. They remained stiff and silent, and even the Egyptian authorities couldn’t find an excuse to arrest them or beat them with clubs.

I arrived on campus. Activity was light. A few students and staff sat in the library or outside in the courtyard going about there business as usual. Most of the professors had cancelled classes for the day, and many students had no reason to show up for school.

I was disappointed. Instead of large anti-government protests, I saw more of the status quo. The most visible sign of protest was that millions of people were skipping work, something that doesn’t put a lot of pressure on the government to change. The military and police presence remains a serious and potentially dangerous threat to civil society, so I can’t necessarily blame people for staying indoors.

But how will things ever change if people don’t fight, if they don’t struggle against the status quo, if they don’t find a way to make their voice heard?

There are signs of progress in some areas of Egypt. A huge strike took place at Cairo University as professors basically shut down campus. And in northern Egypt, several factories shut were forced to shut down as an angry mob battled police and ripped down pictures of President Mubarak. Dozens of people were arrested. I wish I could have seen this, but I don’t have access to these parts of Egypt. Instead, my only personal experience was what I saw in downtown Cairo.

As I left campus, a heavy dust storm picked up, covering the city in a surreal orange haze. As I passed through Tahrir Square, I took one last look at my surroundings. The riot police stood in stiff formation, the cars zipped around the traffic circles, and people stayed at home. And nothing much changed.

Friday, April 4, 2008

An Essay on Identity

I believe that the question of identity is fundamental to human life. If we as individuals and societies do not know who we are, then how can we look forward? I never thought of who I was until I came to Cairo, Egypt to study for a year. In a country with a radically different culture, religion, language, and society than mine, I know I do not belong. I enjoy living in Cairo for the most part, but deep down in my very roots, I am not part of this community, and I have come to realize that I never can be.

Halfway through the first semester, when the daily stress of Cairo wore me down, I looked for something to comfort me. I saw images of America: the rich colors of a New England autumn, the rustic farmhouses of the Midwestern plains, and the vastness of the Great West. I identified with these images, and they were comforting, but why? I needed something more, and I picked up John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, what I consider the greatest and most authentic American novel. In front of a backdrop of the Depression era, Steinbeck articulates the great American story: moving West. It is the quintessential image of America, but Steinbeck does not paint rosy pictures of the dream. Instead, he questions the values, assumptions, and sacrifices of the American dream by setting his story in one of our country’s darkest hours.

Reading a classic American novel in Cairo was a transformation of my identity; I came to realize who I was. I was an American, and more than that, I developed my concept of what an “American” is.

Every county, every people, has a struggle. Struggles can be wars: the Revolutionary War, when we asked ourselves if liberty and freedom could rule as the laws of men; the Civil War, when we were forced to decide between unity and division and answer existential questions of our nation; and World War II, when our men and women went overseas to fight a battle that was not about land or wealth but about principle. These were times when our nation looked deep into its soul and asked itself, “What are we doing?” and in doing so, asked, “Who are we?”

But struggles are more than wars. The Great Depression questioned the very concept of the American economic dream. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought a revolution with words and inspiration, and ultimately with his life. Free-spirited college students rioted on campuses against the Vietnam War and the cold, concrete establishment of American foreign policy. At times America was angry with itself, and we are angry now.

We are Americans because our challenge is that we can challenge ourselves. American citizens are not necessarily proud of their country, but there is a difference between patriotism and criticism. Criticism can be patriotic, but blind patriotism is never critical. How then can America move forward and go West towards its dreams if we do challenge ourselves to improve?

To me, being American means I have the right to challenge my country, criticize my leadership, and protest against my establishments. Our country is defined by the challenges we have faced and overcome, and I can relate with these events and movements. I never saw the anti-war riots at the University of Michigan, but my father did. I never experienced the struggles of the Great Depression, but my grandmother did. The grandparents of her generation bled on battlefields of the Civil War, and several generations before that, 56 men sat together in a hall during a hot Philadelphia summer and codified their beliefs for a nation.

On Sunday, massive protests will fill the streets of Cairo in what could be one of the largest demonstrations against the Egyptian government in history. It is unknown how big the protests will be, but regardless, this is an Egyptian struggle. I will observe these protests, and I will write about them in this blog, but I will not identify with the cause. This is not my struggle, and it will not shape my identity. But for Egyptians, they will struggle, they will fight, and they will come to realize that these protests are part of their identity. What form that will take is up to them. It may simply be another failure of a weak civil society, or it could be the beginnings of a legitimate revolution against the corrupt and unjust government apparatus.

As I finish up the last few months of my academic year in Cairo, I realize how this experience has changed me. While I expected to learn a great deal about Egypt, this country provided a lens for me to analyze myself in a relative way not otherwise possible in the United States. What I’ve come to realize is that I learned a lot more about America than I did about Egypt, and in learning about America, I learned about myself. And that is something I never expected.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Fixing Egypt's Economy

Egypt has a problem. Well it has a lot of problems. Coming up with solutions is a major challenge, and something that nobody is prepared to do. Unfortunately, between the corrupt government and the apathetic society, it doesn’t look like things are going to change anytime soon. Maybe I should step in and give some advice.

I have a proposal. The service sector in Egypt is massive, by far the largest sector in the economy. This includes both private and public services. The biggest problem I see with the Egyptian economy is the cyclical dilemma of government employment. Millions of people are unnecessarily employed in one of the largest government bureaucracies in the world. To improve the economy, the government needs massive downsizing in employment. But of course this would send millions of people into the streets without jobs and no means of supporting their families. Egypt is stuck.

So how can the government make use of its people? As I write this, thousands of Egyptian men are standing on street corners “providing security” and “directing traffic” (a.k.a. drinking tea). The doorman at my apartment is “making my life easier” with his kind and professional services (a.k.a. drinking tea that he paid for with my monthly “tip”).

This isn’t what I would call efficient use of labor. If we assume that economic value is held in labor and services, then what Egypt needs is an economy in which people provide real labor and real services. That isn’t happening right now.

This is my proposal. The Egyptian government should put its employees to work by adopting a series of public works projects similar to what the WPA did in the Great Depression. Cairo is a disgusting mess of a city, a great armpit of the world. Trash is everywhere. Buildings are dirty. Infrastructure is insufficient. The list could go on and on. So why doesn’t the government put its employees to work on these problems. Instead of paying people to stand around, pay them to clean up trash and manage a massive public clean-up campaign. This wouldn’t cost much more money than what the government is paying out now, and the economic benefit of having a cleaner city would be significant. Tourism would increase. Foreign investment would increase. People would live happier lives, and their productivity would increase.

It’s a simply plan for a complicated problem, and I’m no economist, but I guarantee that it’s better than the status quo.