Generous Hearts and Uncertainty*
This is the fourth of four essays reflecting on Egypt. Please also read the introduction to see how they are all linked. Enjoy!
During our dahabiya (sailboat) tour on the Nile River, our travel companions commented one day that they felt guilty about the amount of food at each meal because we (the eight of us tourists, plus our two guides) couldn’t possibly eat it all. They wanted to give the left-over breakfast pastries to the family who had hosted us for a tour of their farm that morning. Their guide, Ayman, told them not to worry, as each family that we interacted with was nicely compensated. My partner and I had been having an ongoing conversation about such guilty feelings; people of our status (who are wealthy enough to fly around the world and tour other countries) have been rationalizing this guilt for generations. He and I struggle sometimes to put these experiences into perspective and try not to let the guilt cloud our ability to observe the circumstances we encounter. We ask ourselves, how can we help? We try to work with local guides who support local businesses. We bring tourism money into local economies, but does that offset inequalities that may be present; and what impacts do we as tourists have on the local natural environment?
The living standards for the average Egyptian are much lower than most people in America. I imagine many Egyptians would be astounded, and maybe even outraged, at the excessive consumer society we live in, especially given the amount of disposable waste Americans produce every day; it outrages me when I stop to look at it. But it seemed heart-breaking to try to assuage our guilt by handing out trinkets like candy or ball-point-pens to children (as many of the tourist guidebooks suggested). A couple of our travel companions handed out cash to the families we met. Although these were kind and well-intentioned gestures, they reminded me of all the uncertainty involved in strategies aimed at trying to alleviate poverty. It seemed more appropriate to thank the family for the tour than to hand them trinkets. There is a deep, many-layered context of cultural differences between the global north countries (industrial economies with many middle-class and rich people) and the global south countries (developing economies with many people still in poverty) that I also find hard to express in a brief discussion. But I keep hearing and reading about how our global capitalist system is failing; too many people are unhealthy, unhappy, losing their jobs and their homes, living in poverty, and seeing the natural environment around them polluted and overused, in rich countries like the United States and in poor countries like Egypt. We are living in an unsustainable economy.
“Since [former President] Mubarak was overthrown, struggles over energy and the environment have been a perpetual feature of [Egypt’s ongoing resistance]. Be it against nuclear reactors, chemical plants, power stations or pipelines, popular campaigns have thrown some of Egypt’s deep faultiness into focus: the infringement of community rights, the lack of state transparency, the need to shift sovereignty out of the realm of foreign corporations and markets and bring resources under democratic control.” (Shenker p. 344)
After a week of sailing the Nile, we left off in Aswan, where a new guide, a young man on summer break from university (he was studying to be a tourist guide), transported us to the final-leg of our adventure. The edge of a sandstorm created a hazy view around us, while our young guide hired a ferry taxi, a small power-boat, from the army of them waiting at the docks. The taxi would take us across the river for our first stop, to tour the temple of Phillae. As cool droplets of Nile water spritzed my cheek, we laughed at the sight of our taxi driver. He was like any modern teenager in the world today; he was multitasking (smoking a cigarette with one hand, mobile phone in his other hand, and steering the boat with his foot). My partner commented that people are pretty much the same everywhere: “people want their boss to nag them a little less; they want to make a little more money; have a little more time to laugh and relax; they hope for good health and a better future for their kids; and they want a safe, healthy place to live.” When people recognize that these seemingly simple desires are not within their reach, they become dissatisfied with life and if circumstances do not improve, they begin to demand change. If changes do not go far enough, people will eventually take actions to create the changes they seek; this is how revolutions are born. This is how Egyptians continue to struggle with their gaps between rich and poor, between powerful and powerless.
What role do we (American citizens) play in this game of jenga? In some ways we don’t know very well. For example, I believe it is good for the US government to spend some of my tax dollars on foreign aid for health and social services. But I am not as supportive of the military aid our government sends out; I was surprised to learn that Egypt is among the top three recipients, only behind Afghanistan and Israel. But it appears we don’t really know how the money is spent, other than on American-made weapons.
“Opposition protests are focused on far more than the issue of the country’s energy mix, or its pollutant level, crucial though those concerns may be. At stake is the fundamental process of decision-making in post-Mubarak Egypt, and thus the nature of the [government] itself: in an age of revolution, are Egyptian citizens willing to have choices about their environment made for them? The answer, so far, has been no. The reality is that communities across Egypt have been refusing to allow the state to make decisions for them on virtually every issue of importance since the day the revolution began. [For example,] Egyptians with homes have been fighting off forced evictions; Egyptians without homes…have been breaking into the empty properties of financial speculators and squatting, seizing from the state both land and housing for themselves.” (Shenker p. 345)
Examples of how Egyptians continue to fight for their rights to make their own decisions and to choose their government leaders can be seen from the level of school children and up through media and entertainment. After the revolution, children became fascinated with all the details; at one school, the children (mostly 9-10 years old) would even re-create the fighting they had seen and heard about between the police and activists. In their schoolyard they were the marchers, rising up against their corrupt headmaster/principal because among other accused injustices, he refused to allow the children to organize a soccer tournament. One teacher, who had taken part in the marches in Tahrir Square explained: “the students wanted to know everything, they wanted to know how it felt to have a voice at last. We changed, and they changed with us” (Shenker p. 20).
In 2012 and again in 2013, the American comedian, Jon Stewart, then-host of the Daily Show, interviewed Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s famous surgeon turned political comedian. They discussed the serious role that humor and comedy can play in protesting against unethical government decisions and authoritarian governments. The story of how Bassem left his successful career as a doctor and became a political activist using humor is told in the entertaining, remarkable documentary Tickling Giants. Bassem and his family are now political refugees; if they returned to Egypt, he would very likely be arrested and tortured for his satirical comedy that pokes fun at the Egyptian government. This is a very difficult idea for most Americans to comprehend. But it is a stark reminder that democratic freedoms should not be taken for granted. Bassem now provides speeches around the world about his experience and how important democracy is to protect.
November 2017. I recently met an Egyptian Fulbright student who is studying for a Masters degree here in the US. We talked about the 2011 Egyptian revolution. He traveled three hours from his hometown to participate in some of the Cairo demonstrations. He confirmed much of what we had read and heard in news reports; at first, nobody took the protestors seriously but when they refused to leave Tahrir Square and the police actions became violent, everything shifted, the revolution became real. Many people sacrificed their lives to protest the unfair economy, the corrupt police force and government, and how these injustices have fueled growing gaps between rich and poor in Egyptian society over the past several decades. When talking about it, he seemed so American- proud to be part of the resistance, his support for changes unswayed by the set-backs of failed politics thus far, and confident that positive changes will be made because the people will continue to demand them. I asked if tourism has rebounded. “No,” he shook his head and his eyes looked troubled (tourism had been a significant part of Egypt’s economy and helped create a modest middle-class, especially for college-educated young people like himself), but then he smiled and asked if I would consider going back to visit Egypt again. Even before the 2011 revolution, we thought ourselves lucky to have enjoyed our tour of Egypt when we did (given the constant news of terrorism world-wide) and left with a feeling that we had seen all we had hoped to see, so I told him we would not likely go back. I asked him if life in Egypt has improved after the revolution- “no, not enough”. With gallows humor, he said that when people challenged the government before the revolution, they would just disappear one day; now they are arrested as terrorists and jailed as examples of bad behavior.
The gaps between rich and poor remain wide.
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.