JJ Killian writes from Egypt on what life is like in the North African country - and is not too optimistic about its future despite the Arab Spring and the overthrow of Mubarak.
Noha bounces into our project office in Qena, distributes chocolates and announces her impending marriage to Khaled. I congratulate her and enquire if she has known him for long. “Of course, he’s my cousin”. After she departs I’m told that Noha’s father and Khaled’s mother are brother and sister. Keeping marriage within the “better” families in Upper Egypt (the plateau stretching from Luxor to Aswan) is a strong tradition here. It’s obvious that this will have adverse genetic effects. There is now a law requiring such couples to get a medical certificate prior to marriage. In typical Egyptian fashion, this has been turned on its head and getting such a certificate is taken as approval of such marriages and of course getting a certificate for anything in this wayward, corrupt country is just a matter of passing a few pounds.
If one is pulled over by a police officer for a driving offence (all driving in Egypt is an offence!) one calls to his house later and passes him as little as 20 Egyptian Pounds (€2.50) and all is forgotten. This has to be taken in context – the police officer’s monthly cheque is about 400 Egyptian Pounds (€80).
It doesn’t take long to understand when one lands in a totally different culture. I’m talking to Ahmed in the office at midday when he excuse himself, takes a mat out of the filing cabinet and is kneeling, head on floor, while he obeys the Muslim five-times-a-day call to prayer. I maintain a respectful silence and then we resume our conversation.
Of course the cynics describe those phoneys who mark their foreheads deliberately to give the impression that they spend a lot of time praying in the mosque. I assure them that we have a fair share of craw-thumpers in Ireland as well. George, a Coptic Christian, remarks drily “that’s the problem with Egypt, too much praying and not enough working”. One avoids expanding on such conversations – it’s fine for him to say it...... But he’s correct to a degree – there’s a lethargy and a lack of direction which is almost palpable in this vast country of 80 million people.
There’s also a seething resentment under the surface here. Mohamed Ali (not the Louisville Lip, it’s a common name here) is an electrical engineer on this project who earns 1000 Egyptian (€125) per month. His wife, a doctor in the local hospital, earns 800 Egyptian per month. There is deep frustration felt by these well educated people who see little future in a country where the health budget is about 4% of the annual budget while the military complex receives 34%.
There are about forty million illiterate people here, in a country where the education system is going backwards and millions more trying to exist below the poverty line on the equivalent of two euro a day while the cabal of privileged people who had the inside track flew around in private planes. And it was all about the inside track during the thirty years of rule by the utterly corrupt former president, Hosni Mubarack. During recent years Mubarack had been trying very hard to have his son, Gamal, take over as president after him – as if Egypt was a corner shop to be handed over to a son. The former Minister for Manpower, Aisha Abdel Hady, is a typical case of one who becomes a minister, not because of her competence or because she was freely elected, but because she had the favour of the president. The fact that she didn’t finish even her primary education was of no consequence. One can imagine the strategic capability of a “government” of this calibre.
Every morning for the month of May I was driven from Luxor to Qena, a journey which took one hour but which I’m sure took large slices off my life. A dreadful road, punctuated by villages, meanders through the desert. At 7 a.m. it’s already 33 degrees and will hit 45 degrees by mid-afternoon. It’s sheer bedlam as speeding motorbikes with drivers as young as 10 years and carrying up to four people mix at high speed with reckless taxis, ancient buses, vintage cars, the odd camel and, of course, hundreds of donkeys. There are no signs, no seatbelts, no crash helmets and no police. There is a ceaseless cacophony of car-horns and flashing headlights mean “I’m coming through, you do what you like”. This complete indiscipline and lawlessness which seem to have worsened since last year’s revolution, is symptomatic of a country which has lost its way.
But on 25th January 2011 the Egyptian people had enough, tens of thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand that Mubarack and his clique stand down and despite the deaths of many people who were shot through the head by army snipers, the president was forced to stand down after 18 days of protests. The revolution had won out. I drive through Tahrir Square every morning now. It’s quiet and the “revolution” is now being seen by locals as an “event” rather than a sea-change. Disillusionment and despair have returned and the run-off for the election of the next president has given the people what I consider to be Hobson’s Choice. The race is between Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood (banned under Mubarak’s regime) and Ahmed Shafiq, former prime minister under Mubarack. If this was in an Irish context, it would be akin to saying to us “you can go back to the Bertie Ahern era or take Gerry Adams” – not much of a choice.
It gets more complicated – the “job description” for the president has not been written so what powers will he have. Furthermore, if the army, which has had total power here for over 50 years, is pushed into the background, there’s a chance of another coup d’etat. If the army is allowed to stay in the foreground, “there will be another revolution” according to any person I’ve spoken to. It looks like a lose-lose situation regardless of who becomes president. A lot of Egyptians have a simplistic notion of “democracy” and also have a ridiculously optimistic outlook that all will come right the moment a new president is elected. Not so: even with a super-president it will take 15 years to get this country moving in the right direction. As a college professor said to me recently “we have a glorious past and no future”. He could be right but I hope he’s wrong. The people here are warm and welcoming – they deserve better. But if they think that the Arab Spring will be followed immediately by the Arab Summer, they’re going to be disappointed.