Boys will be boys. During the coffee break, Fady is subjected to a bit of banter from his colleagues – “how’s the love-life?” etc. He’s a bit touchy so they ease off. Fady is an electrical engineer and better of than millions of other Egyptians. Last year he was engaged to be married – until tradition kicked in. His fiance’s parents arrived to inspect his apartment and decided it was too small. His fiancé professed her love but insisted he needed a larger apartment. He told her to take a hike.
Courtship (if it could be described thus) and marriage are complex issues here. Boy meets girl – at a distance. Whether Muslim or Christian, any physical contact is completely off limits. Marriage is a contract, where the prospective husband must prove he has a house or apartment, a good job and can hand over the cash demanded by the (possible) father-in-law. If he doesn’t tick the boxes, he doesn’t get married. Rebelling against parents is culturally impossible here. Because millions, literally, of young men do not have a job, a property or any resources, they have no prospect of ever getting married. This is a huge social problem in Egypt, as is suppressed sexuality and gratuitous abuse of women. Gay relationships are widespread but homosexuality is a totally taboo subject.
I’m losing patience with the many Egyptians I talk to – they bemoan the lost “revolution”, the lack of democracy and a mediocre president who has polarised the country. I’m quick to remind them that they had a chance to vote, both when there were multiple candidates in the field and when the presidential contest was reduced to a two-horse (certainly no beef here!) race. The turnout over two rounds of the presidential election was 33% - the other 67% couldn’t be bothered to exercise their franchise in the most important election in their history: “we hadn’t time to vote” – they have endless time to protest, demonstrate, rally and complain. There is much talk, but no understanding, of democracy.
The Muslim Brotherhood, on the basis of taking advantage of a low turnout and mobilising their vote, have given the impression that they have widespread support here when in fact they captured about 20% of the 33%. The Brotherhood (“The Koran is our constitution. The Prophet is our Leader. Jihad is our way. Death for the sake of God is our highest aspiration”) is feared by most Egyptians who are moderate by nature and fear extreme Islam as much as we do.
But the Brotherhood are highly organised and can target the uneducated and desperate vote (a bit like the old Fiannna Fail machine promising to drain the Shannon prior to elections – people actually believed that stuff!). They are also masters of weasel words (“we believe in equality between men and women”) – espousing women’s rights while barring them constitutionally from becoming president because of their “duties to the family”(!) Most Egyptians want rid of President Morsi (or Mursi). Hey, folks, you got what you voted for. Well, what some of you voted for. The Egyptian people simply have to learn how valuable a vote is – don’t get mad, get even.
As a former soldier, I’m fascinated by the military complex here. The army owns hotels, retail outlets, holiday resorts and construction companies! They are everywhere and have huge barracks, colleges, clubs and sports facilities all over Cairo and other major cities. The military budget remains a secret under the constitution but is estimated to be around 45% of total budget! By contrast, the “health” budget amounts to €1.5bn for 80 million people (we spend €19bn on 4.5 million people). The education budget is a similar joke, where teachers who are paid less than waiters in local coffee shops, “teach” classes of 60 – 65 children. In one company where I work, not one of the twenty women there has a child in an Egyptian school – they work to send their kids to the British, German or American-run schools. The army has an iron grip on this country and will surely step back on stage if and when it suits them. Last year, when the Egyptian economy was under pressure (again!), the army gave a loan of €80m to the country – a state within a state! We haven’t gone away, you know.
The Egyptians are warm, friendly people – they would cross the street to shake hands and welcome you to their country. But I fear for them. Two years after the “revolution”, nothing has changed and all talk centres on Islam and other religious problems – there are no major discussions on the economy, infrastructure or job creation.
But you never know – it takes very little to start a revolution – only 1.5% of the population supported the Russian revolution while only 2% supported the French revolution – did anybody even know that this guy, Pearse, was going to start a revolution back in 1916? Look at the former Yugoslavia, Libya and what’s about to happen in Syria – storming the barricades requires a particular talent – it takes an entirely different skill-set to govern the aftermath.