Fourth of July in Egypt

Fourteen years.  That’s how long it took for the United States to go from declaring independence from England, to adoption of the document known as the US Constitution.  The years between were filled with revolutionary zeal, political infighting, more battles, temporary policies, public name-calling and outright rejections of federal law.  One could argue that this cycle is still being experienced.

History books tend to condense those early experiences into a straight-line sequence: Boston Tea Party, Declaration of Independence, George Washington at Valley Forge, victory over England, and a new country is born!  However, even a cursory look at the events will demonstrate that the birth of the American nation was chaotic, confusing and far from guaranteed.

What form will democracy take in this country?

As Egypt moves forward and takes its awkward steps towards a new system of thinking and doing, comparisons with other democratic experiments are inevitable.  The Middle East region is currently filled with examples of nascent and active movements, each with their own definition of ‘freedom’.  The colonial experiences and cultural heritage of the early Americans forged their philosophies and framed their debates.  This is very much what is taking place in Egypt today.  Egypt’s colonial experiences and extensive cultural history are all influencing the present conversations. 

The timeline of Egypt’s revolution will not match exactly with that of the United States, or of France, or of Tunisia or Lybia.  They all share concepts and fervor, sometimes even terminology.  They also share a need for patience and persistence.  Yet every resulting new system will have its own flavor.  The whirl and swirl of the revolutionary process will settle uniquely in each country. 

Respect for the right to self-govern was the pillar of the American Revolution.  Sorting out what that actually meant has taken a very long time.  It’s been over 200 years and the current Presidential elections are highlighting that the discussion is far from over.  Egypt’s sorting process is just beginning.  Its right to self-govern is going to take time to frame.  The coming years will be filled with revolutionary zeal, political infighting, more battles, temporary policies, public name-calling and outright rejections of federal law.  As Americans, we are bound to both acknowledge and respect this often painful process. 

How can we support the Egyptian people as they participate in their own Grand Experiment?  Travel websites and tour companies would have you believe that its as easy as choosing Egypt as a vacation destination, that by shoring up the Egyptian economy the dominoes of democracy will neatly fall into place.   If only it was as simple as that.  Financial stability is certainly a core aspect of any community’s growth plan.  However, adding money to the mix is not enough. 

Providing historic perspective, offering positive encouragement, presenting accurate information, supplying examples of respectful citizenship are just as important.  When visiting Egypt follow Ghandi’s advice and “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”  Stand as a representative of our American version of democracy and respect the efforts that Egyptian people are making to figure their own version out.  Listen.   Know your own history.  Be patient. 

Traveling within Egypt during this fascinating transition does have added cautions for security, as well as cultural expectations.  The best advice for a visitor is to go with extra wide eyes and open ears.  Egyptians are an incredibly warm and welcoming people who are genuine in their appreciation of visitors.    They wear their passions and ideals on their sleeves.  They will not hesitate to engage in conversation about the current events and will wholeheartedly share their opinions on it all.

Being able to knowledgeably speak of the American experience, in all of its long and turbulent glory, will provide your hosts with great insights.  Considering cultural context and how the Egyptian community is unique, will provide you with great insights as well.  Ultimately, the best kinds of travel experiences are when both guests and hosts make inroads towards understanding each other better.

Egypt's 'Revolution' is Alive and Well

The elections have brought many things to Egypt.  Peace of mind is not one of them.   Regardless of the final ballot count, the winner has not received a clear mandate.  The margin of victory was not large.  And as is so often the case in elections, votes were not cast for candidates as much as they were used as strikes against another. 

The weeks leading up to the presidential vote were not at all calm.  Now that the election has taken place, the situation is not any more relaxed.   Tension is extremely high.  Statements such as “The revolution is dead!” are coming from all directions.  Nobody is happy. 

But the revolution is far from dead. The movement that began in January 2011 is actually in full bloom.  Revolutionary events do have beginnings and endings but the necessary transformation of mindsets is ongoing.  The majority of the citizens in this country have been experiencing the politics of choice for the first time.  In less than one year they have gone from passive acceptance of authoritarian governing to an active restructuring of the entire system. 

Chaos is to be expected.  Emotions are going to run high. Family and friends will argue about candidates.  People full of opinions will take to the streets to convince others.  Decisions will be made and changed.  This is all part of the process.

It is tempting to cookie-cutter the current situation and label the revolution in decline, but this current chaos is part-and-parcel of a major transformation.  Dramatic change cannot be accomplished quickly or easily.  Adding public choice to the process of government is a messy, emotionally charged, time-consuming procedure.  Important democratic concepts such as respectful debate and fair play are hard to come by even in societies much more experienced with the process. 

In my 12 years living in Egypt I’ve witnessed change here in all forms and at all paces. The building of highways, the opening of schools, the availability of products, access to technology, shifts in fashion and music, train schedules, employment opportunities, the price of bread, and so much more: evolution has never been a smooth process.  I’ve occasionally described it as being similar to driving a car with highly sensitive break and acceleration peddles: you’re pretty sure you’re going to end up getting t

o your destination, but the staggered ride is full of lurches and stalls. 

Egypt’s revolution is not just about who sits in parliament or where tanks are stationed.   It’s about thinking and considering and choosing and vocalizing and choosing again.  It’s about experiencing the power of voice.  It’s about learning how to live with the thinking and considering and choosing and vocalizing of neighbors and friends.  It’s about sorting out the balance between responsibilities and rights. 

Egypt’s revolution is alive and well.  It is lurching forward as its citizens sort out destination, itinerary and drivers.  The recent elections are necessary stops on the map, but they will not be the only aspect of the journey that defines the revolution’s success.