I've Moved!

My new blog is called Reflections from a Global Nomad, in order to acknowledge that we no longer live in Maadi and that we are, in fact, global nomads, not staying in one place longer than two or three years. Please join me at http://DeborahReflections.blogspot.com

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The New Normal

It seems like all the expats here in Egypt have a new system of indicating time. Events now are labeled as "pre-Revolution" or "post-Revolution." Yes, the Revolution of 25 January changed things that much, at least according to some. According to others, little has changed. I think it depends on where exactly you live and how much you pay attention.

In my neighborhood, not too much has changed, at least on the surface. The streets may be marginally cleaner. You're likely to see things like this:

Patriotism and pride in being Egyptian seems to be up. I haven't taken pictures yet, but it's very common now to see poles, trees, gates, and walls painted in red, white, and black, the colors of the Egyptian flag.
You're also likely to see scenes like these:

These pictures, and many others like them, appeared during or shortly after the revolution. They reflect the national unity that was present during the revolution (also captured by the now-famous photo of Coptic Christians holding hands while encircling a group of praying Muslims in Tahrir Square, making sure that they were not disturbed or harmed during their prayers). This unity has persisted among some, but unfortunately not all, Egyptians.

However, not all the changes in Egypt are positive. In my experience, most of the negative changes are under the surface. Unfortunately, they can rise to the top suddenly and turn minor annoyances into dangerous situations. I have not experienced these situations myself, but no one is immune, and wise people will not forget that today's Egypt is not as safe for foreigners (or for Egyptians) as pre-revolution Egypt was.

One surface indicator of the dangerous undercurrent is a rise in crime. Crimes that are commonplace in big cities in the United States used to be unheard of within the expat community here; now they're much more common, though still less common than in America's largest cities. Purse snatchings and pickpocketing are things to be concerned about now, whereas in the past, they were remote possibilities in most of Maadi. There also are rumors floating around of murders and sexual assaults, though it looks like all of the rumors stem from one event that happened within a few days of the revolution--the rumors make it sound like it happens at least once a week, but in reality, it seems to have been a one-time occurrence.

The rise in crime is a problem, but it isn't one that I've been too concerned about. Like I said, the frequency of these events still is not as great as you would expect in most cities the size of Cairo. You can't guarantee that you never will become a victim, but you can reduce your chances by taking common-sense precautions, just as you would in New York City, Los Angeles, or Washington, DC. When I look at this situation, I see a choice: I can stress out about the difference between now and before, or I can see that Maadi still is safer than Washington, DC, where I went every day for two years with nary a problem, even though I spent a little time in some of the rougher neighborhoods as part of my job. I choose to take reasonable precautions and not worry overmuch.

I tend to be more concerned about two other recent phenomena. The first is the distinct possibility that minor incidents will grow suddenly into terrifying and potentially violent ordeals. It used to be that fender benders, for example, were no big deal; the drivers would yell at each other a little, and then someone would shrug and say "Allah aayez keda" (Allah wanted that), and the drivers would get in their cars and drive away. Now, if the fender bender involved one vehicle driven by a westerner, it is a real possibility that other drivers will band together with the non-western driver to blame the westerner and demand restitution, even if the westerner really wasn't to blame. Angry mobs recently have coalesced around minor traffic accidents and around tourists at the pyramids who resisted a camel handler's demands for more money than had been agreed upon. (It's always been a common trick to say "That was the price to get on the camel; it's another 100 pounds to get off!" But it used to be that the tourist who resisted for a while was able to get off the camel without handing over any extra money; now that may happen, or the other camel handlers may form an angry mob and scare the tourist into handing over all the money he has on him.) An angry mob can be a frightening thing, and I honestly do not know what I would--or even should--do if I ever became the target of one.

Even the possibility of angry mobs, though, would be less scary if it weren't for the other recent phenomenon: the police more often than not won't intervene anymore. The Egyptian police never have been respected by the Egyptian people; instead, they have been feared. When the police abandoned their posts during the revolution, the people's fear disappeared. The police still aren't working at full capacity because many police haven't gone back to work. The people no longer fear them, and that makes it dangerous for the police. The police spent years abusing their power; now, many of them rightly fear retaliation. If a policeman intervenes, he may just become the target of the angry mob rather than the one who scares them into dispersing. So purse snatchings have occurred within feet of  policemen, with no intervention. The mob at the pyramids gathered under the eyes of the tourist police and terrified a tourist into tossing a wad of cash in one direction and running with his family in another direction. It used to be that if we were afraid for any reason, we were instructed to go to a police station. As westerners, we would be protected, especially once we showed our diplomatic IDs. That protection may or may not be forthcoming anymore. Now the only safe places to go are to our embassy or to one of our other compounds. It's a little scary to think of what could happen if we became the target of an angry mob when we were not near one of those places.

Again, though, I see a choice here: I can take reasonable precautions and go about my life, or I can be so afraid that I don't ever leave my home. I want to enjoy my remaining time in Egypt, so I take precautions and live my life. I'm aware of my surroundings more than I was before, I'm more cautious in general, and I don't drive anymore (I think I still would choose to drive here, though more cautiously than before, but our car already has been picked up for export since we're rotating out soon). There is a potential threat here, but it isn't such a high-probability threat that it should unduly affect my life.

The way I see Egypt today--the new normal, if you will--the people have made one choice: They chose to oust Mubarak. Now they have a series of other choices to make. They will make political choices at the polls, and those choices will determine whether Egypt is free or not, a democracy or not, a nation united or a nation divided along sectarian lines. But they also will make other choices as they go about their daily lives, and these choices will have great impact as well. Each and every Egyptian will decide whether he or she prefers to live in a country of laws, where the police are allowed, encouraged, and even forced at first, if necessary, to function as police do in free societies, to protect the entire population and to enforce laws that affect all people equally. The other option is for the population to fragment into "us" against "them" groups and band together to promote "our own" over all others, even if "our own" is in the wrong; to prevent the police from functioning as police do in free societies; to trap Egypt in the past rather than moving it forward into a modern and future reality of freedom and equality.

The people of Egypt have made one choice, which has resulted in the new normal we see around us today. But now, and every day from now going forward, they must choose what the new normal will become. I wish them well as they examine their hearts, their minds, and their society in order to make the choice with which they and their children will live.


  1. Judging by your blog, I think you must have been an excellent diplomat. Thanks for effectivly putting our thoughts into words.
    I am an American teacher who was lucky enough to marry a famous writer from Egypt (Google: Amina Zaydan). We live in Maadi and argue all the time! But, through her, I have met some of the most intelligent and carring people in the world. Sadly, they had to go to Europe to get a good education. She is really up tight about what will happen, but I think Egypt is in good hands.

  2. I just googled Amina Zaydan and then took a look at Red Wine's Amazon page. It looks interesting!

    My hopes and fears for Egypt swing back and forth like a pendulum. One day I'm hopeful. The next something tragic happens. But Egypt is in my thoughts and prayers. It's a beautiful country (underneath the dirt ;) ), with beautiful people, and I miss it.

    Actually, my husband is the diplomat. When he first broached the subject of becoming a diplomat, my immediate response was "I don't have to be diplomatic, do I? No parties, no parroting whoever the current President happens to be?" I much prefer to speak my own mind! But thank you for the compliment; it's good to know that my conflicted feelings are shared!

    Good luck to you and to your wife as you help to determine Egypt's future ... a little scary to think, isn't it, that part of it is in your hands?


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