I left Egypt by plane two weeks ago, though just barely. The taxi driver ran out of gas about a mile from the airport and hailed another cab while still hurtling at 70 miles an hour. Pulled over on the side of the highway, the two men hoisted our bags from one cab to the other for the last stretch in the heat, past signs reading, “Keep Heliopolis clean. It’s the first place the tourists see!”
At the airport, we were waved to the terminal and anonymous helpers emerged to maneuver our little luggage cart over the chipped curbs. We walked past women waiting in the sun because they could not afford the five pounds it costs to enter the airport to greet incoming family.
At check-in, nobody charged us for our comically overweight bags, nor did anyone seem to be paying attention as we set off the metal detector’s three short beeps. A wiry male attendant stretched out his hand to guide us to the check-in counter while holding back men in gallabiyas. The sign above read ‘first class.’ We weren’t flying first class but it didn’t seem to matter. Then I noticed: we had bypassed about ten other people, mostly Egyptians, who had been standing there far longer. The fewness of their number made the guilt more intimate.
I’ve spent the last nine months in Egypt trying to understand and come to terms with this dynamic, in which Westerners are treated as special, almost fragile, and Egyptians trample each other in order to serve them. Even on the ‘winning’ end of this situation, it’s exhausting and makes it hard to muster the energy to visit hubs of tourism: the airport, the pyramids, Khan al-Khalili, Luxor, and Abu Simbel. Drink sellers and camel guides ruthlessly steal each other’s business while shouting and corralling you towards their offerings. When I picked up my mother at the airport several months ago, two taxi drivers nearly got into a fistfight over which would take us home. At certain Red Sea resorts, Egyptians are not allowed entrance unless they work there.
The first cause for all this is fairly obvious. The uprisings eighteen months ago crashed the tourism sector and those most directly affected by it are desperate and willing to grovel for the few tourists who show up to extract as much business from them as possible.
The second cause is much harder to lay a finger on. I think Alaa Al Aswany has come closest to making sense of it because issues of dignity and human interaction are the realm of the creative, not the political writer, and he attempts to be both. Last week in a newspaper column, he attacked what he calls the “tame citizens” of Egypt. These Egyptians got used to the daily indignities demanded by Mubarak’s corruption, he argues, and are too self-serving or afraid to support the real political changes demanded by the ‘revolution.’ They voted for Shafik, he believes, and traded their dignity for false security.
Al Aswany’s anger leads him to lump together and excoriate a large group of people who don’t necessarily deserve disgust. I don’t believe that every Shafik voter is a bad person.
But he does capture and isolate a distinct moment in Egyptian social life since the revolution. Under the Mubarak regime, he writes, “ideas about the world became distorted -- courage was stupidity and sycophancy was a form of shrewdness.”
Al Aswany in uniquely able to explain how the revolution failed to dismantle the systems of shame, the networks of humiliation, that began before Mubarak and festered to a point of explosion under his rule. He concludes sourly, “Would we expect such people to support the revolution?”
Again, I don’t completely agree. I don’t think it’s one distinct group of Egyptians that are to blame, but a pervasive and invisible social force that is hard to diagnose and even harder to cure. “The revolution forced Egyptian society to look in the mirror,” Al Aswany writes perceptively, “revealing the gross deformities left by the Mubarak regime.”
Those deformities are difficult for foreigners living in Egypt—and nearly impossible for tourists—to see. They guide the way that even Egyptians outside of the tourism industry respond to foreigners, and yet it is easily to interpret it as friendliness and hospitality. But the guilt slowly takes over as you realize how desperate everyone is. The number of young men who asked me to help them find an American wife represented more than exceptions or daydreamers.
The revolution, whatever its faults or illusions, opened up a space for those deformities to be challenged. The celebrations accompanying Morsi’s victory in the election last week felt like more than a political victory over the remnants of the former regime and Shafik’s promise of return to a security state. They also felt like a reassertion of dignity. It must have been a beautiful moment to be Egyptian.
There will inevitably be excesses, mistakes, and scapegoats. In the 1950’s, Nasser kicked out Jews and Greeks as he attempted to take back national pride after decades of British occupation. Now, foreign women get assaulted in the street as police retreat from the streets and the limits of what is permissible lose their precision. I think both are a regrettable and tragic but ultimately unavoidable part of rising above national exploitation, whether under the British or a native and corrupt ruling class.
After seeing the excitement in the streets that accompanied Morsi’s win, I was jarred by the way I was treated at the airport. I was reminded of the old, persistent dynamic in which as a foreigner you feel like you’re exploiting people over and over again. I hope when I return I won’t feel like a little king, though I imagine that the Cairo airport (“the first place the tourists see!”) will be one of the last places to change. After all, it was built by Shafik.