Egyptian Reflections: An Introduction

Touring the gaps between rich and poor*

Rebecca J. Romsdahl

On January 25, 2011 the Arab Spring Revolution erupted in Egypt. My partner and I were transfixed by the news reports as demonstrators and police clashed in cities across the country with tear-gas and water canons being used against people in Tahrir Square, the main square in central Cairo. Seven months earlier we had walked across that square and ate lunch in a small shop after touring the Egyptian Museum. We were stunned. Were our guides, Mamdouh and Robert, and others we had met, safe; were they taking part in the demonstrations; what would happen now as their lives were turned upside down?

My reflections on Egypt have been inspired by our travels in country, but also by following the events and aftermath of the revolution. In my essays, I include several brief excerpts from a book by the British journalist, Jack Shenker. He was living and working in Cairo during the 2011 revolution. In his book, The Egyptians: A radical story, he writes about his incredible first-hand experiences observing and being swept-up in the protests, and his perspective on how portrayals of the revolution have been simplified and sanitized to limit the discussion and potential for success, especially in regard to how the global economic system is harming people (everyone who is not super-rich and powerful). He argues that this revolution is not just about who is president of Egypt or about elections; it is not just a civil war about religion or about the seeming backwardness of developing countries versus the modernity of Western liberal democracies.

In reality, the revolution is about marginalized citizens muscling their way on to the political stage and practicing collective sovereignty over domains that were previously closed to them. The national presidency is one such domain, but there are many others: factories, fields and urban streets, the mineral resources that lie under the desert sand and beneath the seabed, the houses people live in, the food they eat and the water they drink. (Shenker p. 3)

He writes about the struggles of Egyptians in their revolution but he helps lift the fog of tear-gas to illuminate how this is bigger than one event in one country. The domains he highlights are relevant to all of us. This connects deeply with my observations in touring Egypt, and other countries, and with my research and teaching. In studying the environment for twenty-some years now, I have learned an age-old lesson that seems cliche. We as humans tend to believe we are special and clever and that these traits separate us from the rest of nature. But what we tend to ignore is that we live on this planet with all the rest of nature. Thereby everything we do, and everything we need is part of nature; it is our home. If we damage our home, we damage ourselves. We cannot understand the environment without understanding humans. This also means that in order to protect the quality of the environment, we must protect the quality of human lives. In this time of growing gaps between rich and poor people around the world, we neglect our human interconnections with the environment at our own peril. But to those people who have all the money and all the power, this all seems more like a game.

My experiences and perspective on this Egyptian revolution remind me of the game Jenga with its layers of blocks stacked in neatly arranged, opposing rows that form a small tower at the beginning of the game. With each player’s turn, a single block is removed from the center of the tower and placed on the top level. The goal is to see how high can you build the tower, while maintaining its balance as you weaken the core structure, before it collapses. When we visited Egypt in May 2010, we did not realize the government leadership had been playing a huge game of Jenga with the country’s economy, social justice, environment, and governance. What we witnessed as tourists were the physical representations of the gaps between the Jenga blocks, but these were real gaps between rich and poor. Every country has these gaps. In Egypt we saw them preserved in ancient artwork, pyramids, and temples; we also saw the gaps in its modern cities, rural towns, and tourist economy. I have tried to capture a few of these examples in four essays. The titles below link to each essay (I will post one each week over the next month).

  1. Democracy in Traffic
  2. Culture of Bribes
  3. Water- The Nile is Life
  4. Generous Hearts and Uncertainty

Reference:  Shenker, J. (2016) The Egyptians: A radical story. Allen Lane of Penguin Books. United Kingdom.


* This series is being reposted here from Rebecca Romsdahl’s blog, Blue Marble Notes, with her generous permission.

Rebecca J. Romsdahl is Associate Professor in the Department of Earth System Science & Policy at the University of North Dakota where she teaches courses on environmental science in policy and communication. Her research examines the human dimensions of global environmental change. Romsdahl earned her PhD in environmental science and public policy from George Mason University, her MS from Michigan State University, and BA from Gustavus Adolphus College. She enjoys global travel adventures, hiking and camping, gardening, and visiting her family farm in Minnesota.

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