Egypt - can I have a pizza and some democracy, please?

The corner of El Wosta Street in Zamalek is covered by a Pizza Hut franchise from where about fifty delivery boys on motorbikes come and go like bees around a giant hive. Two blocks away, another such pizza franchise is the operations centre for another fifty kamikaze pilots as they risk life and limb (and not just their own!) to deliver pizzas to the masses.

The corner of El Wosta Street in Zamalek is covered by a Pizza Hut franchise from where about fifty delivery boys on motorbikes come and go like bees around a giant hive. Two blocks away, another such pizza franchise is the operations centre for another fifty kamikaze pilots as they risk life and limb (and not just their own!) to deliver pizzas to the masses.

Whatever about coffee in Brazil, they eat an awful lotta pizza in Cairo – Egypt now ranks 10th in the world in the consumption of fast food, an incongruous fact in a country where half of the 85-million population exist on the equivalent of $2 per day.

Healthy dietary habits, or any diet, are obviously a problem which this vast country must address but it will come well down a long list of problems that all Egyptians now know have not gone away with the fall of the hugely corrupt Mubarak regime.

The iconic Tahrir Square looks like any other square on this baking September morning and not the fulcrum for Egyptian dreams of democracy or their simplistic view of that concept (“in a democracy we can do what we like”) and the aftermath of the revolution has resulted in disillusionment and further frustration.

Nothing has changed. The traffic, in a city which can accommodate up to 25 million people on a working day, is absolutely chaotic – the arteries pouring in and out of the city can often have up to seven “lanes” (no markings) while vehicles hurtle along with wing-mirrors almost touching. Almost every vehicle is scratched or dented in some way – there are no traffic lights and when opposing lanes of traffic meet at large intersections, drivers weave and wriggle their way towards their intended exit – windows are wound down to allow much arm-waving, cursing and shouting. Most drivers don’t bother with insurance – getting out to discuss a collision would be suicidal.

Hiring a taxi is an act of bravery and should not be attempted at night. One night, as we careered down a dimly-lit street, I politely enquired from the driver as to why he had no lights on. “No need, Allah will look after me”. I fell to thinking about the oncoming drivers (no lights, either) – was Allah minding them equally? What if the oncoming driver was a Coptic Christian? – would Jesus and Allah have a stand-off over their respective followers? Egypt really is a different world, where many young people carry two or three mobile phones as a norm while older, more deprived, people take refuge in religion, wearing gallabiyas and growing long beards. Religion, or what passes for religion such as is peddled by “clerics” in America’s Bible Belt, is cynically used in a country where half the population is illiterate and where poverty will drive them to seek comfort in TV channels, often financed by states such as Saudi Arabia, which spout out utter nonsense.

So one can easily appreciate how religion can be used as a weapon in a country such as Egypt. It’s not so long since we in Ireland, from Government to every level of society, displayed a craven attitude to the Catholic Church and allowed it to dominate the population through some ridiculous rule and gave it powers which it ultimately abused.

This focus on fundamentalism is, unfortunately, often used as a cover in the systematic repression of women. By the end of the 1970s the Wahhabi school of thought proliferated, often through satellite channels and through the millions of poor Egyptians who had to work in Saudi Arabia to eke out a living – the “niquab” (full face-veil) reappeared and is now widely worn. The simplistic argument for this is that it “protects men from the allure of women and promotes virtue” (!). This argument is scuttled by surveys in recent years which show that there is an alarming rate of sexual harassment and sexual abuse in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, several Egyptian scholars have now argued vehemently that Islam has never required women to cover their faces. They have written a book, “al-Niqab ‘ada wa-laysa ‘ibada” (the niquab is a custom, not a form of worship”)

This should now be seen for what it is – not a divine injunction but a concerted effort to prevent women from playing a full role, whether as a surgeon, engineer or TV producer, in Egyptian life. This has to be resisted at any cost. We have been very fortunate in this country to have had courageous, articulate leaders, from Constance Markievicz to Mary McAleese, who have made an essential contribution to the formation of our thinking and our state. How impoverished would we be if women such as these were debarred from reaching their full potential? Space prevents a fuller argument on this – perhaps we can return to this at a later time. In the meantime it is hoped that the people of Egypt, including its women, can find the leadership and unity of purpose to move them along the road to democracy.

jj@ignitebusiness.ie