Nearly two years ago, when I first moved to Cairo, I made sure to get a place with a second bedroom for all my friends who vowed to visit and explore Egypt’s ancient ruins with me, to check seeing the Pyramids and the Sphinx off their bucket lists. But with each passing month, as the country’s post-2011 instability continued, that second room largely sat empty.
My American friend Ben was up for adventure, however, and so he came to visit. But rather than learn about the birth of civilization, he inadvertently was schooled on why the events of the past year seemed to undo the democratic promise that everyone thought would follow the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak nearly three years ago.
By 2013, Egyptians who’d once demanded better treatment from their government accepted the undoing of a fair presidential election, the killing of at least 1,100 people by government forces, the destruction of nearly 100 churches, false accusations of terrorism leveled against political groups and the arrests of thousands on spurious charges – including children, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, journalists and three revolutionary figures who’d led the 2011 uprising.
Where the public once appeared to demand a fair election process, it now seems overwhelmingly to want Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi – the general who engineered the toppling of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi – to become the next president and the military to formally reclaim control of the country.
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What happened to the revolution, and why were so many people willing to accept the reimposition of police-state tactics? As I experienced Egypt with Ben, I began to believe that revolutions do not come about when the head of government is decapitated but when there are reforms in the hearts of members of society. And in Egypt, that has yet to happen.
Decades of dictatorial rule had led to a society in which social norms were built on fear of the state. But once that fear ended, the resulting feeling of freedom didn’t lead to revolutionary change but to a kind of anarchy, with society not knowing how to conduct itself in the absence of state-instilled fear.
The developments of the past year among everyday Egyptians, for me, posed the question: Does a government reflect its people or are people a product of their governments?
With each trip we made together, Ben was astonished at how Egyptians treated one another. In the first days, he encouraged me to speak Arabic; by the trip’s end, he asked me to speak English so that we wouldn’t be harassed. If I tried to check in to a hotel as an Egyptian, I would be refused service. If I said I was American, despite my Egyptian name, I would be welcomed with open arms. I wondered, How can a society that treats outsiders better than citizens demand better treatment from its government?
The revolutionaries who inspired hope and promise are no longer in a position to lead. Post-Mubarak Egypt has taken them on a path of euphoria, followed by protests, a crackdown by the re-emerged security state and now self-examination of how to move next. The top leaders are posing that question from jail.
It’s a strange irony that the police state has cracked down on dissidents but has allowed criminality to flourish. Ben couldn’t enjoy small adventures like riding Cairo’s subway without worrying that I’d be sexually assaulted. “I kept watching the men,” he told me. Meanwhile, I kept worrying that someone would try to rob him.
There was once reason to be hopeful. During the 18 days of protests in 2011 that led to Mubarak’s fall, many Egyptians were heartened by the suspension of sexual harassment and social degradation of those of different religious or economic backgrounds. The period was described as utopian, the start of a new state. This was the Egypt that Ben knew of from the United States, where the news of Morsi’s overthrow hadn’t yet punctured the eternal American optimism that all people want to live in a democratic state. But once Mubarak fell, and the shared goal of removing him was gone, so too was the promising change in social norms.
Ben was keen to get a photo with the Egyptian soldiers stationed throughout the capital in American-made Bradley tanks, often with the Egyptian flag and pictures of el-Sissi. One soldier acquiesced to a photo, but not with his gun. As he explained to Ben in a joke that was imbued with some truth: “I can shoot a member of the Brotherhood, but not a foreigner.” Where the revolution suggested a unified people fighting for a just society, these days Egyptians are turning on one another in a zero-sum game for the nation’s identity.
Graffiti that once showed Coptic Christians and Muslims united has been replaced with sayings that curse Morsi, el-Sissi and other fellow Egyptians. Ben’s insatiable curiosity demanded that he ask what Egyptians thought of the current state. At the Pyramids, a struggling tour guide tried to tell him that things were improving but eventually conceded: “We all must depend on ourselves now.”
En route to the stands where President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 sits Rabaa, the section of the city where thousands staged a sit-in last summer on behalf of Morsi. On Aug. 14, security forces stormed the site and others like it throughout Egypt, and 1,100 people died.
“That is the base the troops came out of to attack,” I explained to Ben. “At those apartment buildings, Brotherhood members sought shelter but the residents would not let them in because they were Morsi supporters.”
At the Egyptian Museum, my dear friend and top Egyptologist Yasmin pointed out artifacts that sat in cases that hadn’t been replaced or modified since the museum’s 1902 opening. Some of the world’s treasures were locked with twisted wires. Yasmin’s tours included artifacts that had been destroyed or stolen during the uprising as protesters stormed the museum, looking for riches. The most valued retrieved piece was found in a trashcan not far from the museum. Her tour was a reminder that social reforms cannot come if a society doesn’t respect its past.
Ben kept expecting to see mass protests, but they never came. During his stay, three revolutionary leaders were sentenced to three years for violating a new law that requires protests to be approved by the government in advance. The reaction was a whimper. As one taxi driver explained to Ben, “We are sick of protests. Protests have brought us nothing.”
Of course, the reality is more nuanced. On Ben’s last night, we went to dinner with friends, young people who’d once stood in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square. As the cloud of shisha smoke rose, they lamented the decline in social norms and the increasingly desperate situation of those living in Egypt. They no longer talked about the promise of tomorrow but the decades of work ahead for any real change to happen.
As one explained, “We are not ready.”