Saturday, March 12, 2011

What's a Million in the Face of 18? - Contextualizing from the Ground

A camera lens takes in but a scene, a sound bite records just a moment or two. When only these are transmitted, an unreal sense of what it's like to be in an area experiencing dramatic change is relayed - especially when the view and bites are of intense action.

When the million people packed Tahrir on Feb 11th as Mubarak resigned, imagine that across the vast sprawl of Cairo, 17 other million people were disbursed, going about their lives. No doubt most of them were glued to TV sets - or more likely other media given the controlled official coverage - but only a small segment of the city was electrified like little Tahrir. Or so I imagine, not having arrived until a full week later.

For the 3 weeks I've been here since, life is far more ordinary than one would expect from only viewing the sensational and fleeting snippets of media coverage. That was precisely my reaction when driving in from the airport, literally wondering "what all the fuss was about" - all seemed so unremarkable. It was only when approaching the big T that the action began to swell, culminating in the intense excitement of the hundreds of thousands in the square that night marking the one week anniversary of the unexpected success of the revolution.

Some days later, I got off the bus too early - WAY TOO early it turned out - on the way back to Cairo from the new campus of the American University in (New) Cairo, a good 45 minutes outside Cairo. The weather was nice, and I like to walk cities, so off I set. That ended up to be an hour and a half sojourn through various parts of ordinary Cairo. One would not have known anything special was happening. By then, even the TSquare rallys had subsided in size and frequency. Sure enough, though, as if it was so timed, as I approached the main bridge crossing the Nile to Tahrir, there was a phalanx of youth, carrying flags and banners and making their way to the square.

Very ordinary also was the return a couple of days ago from Alexandria. Even though I did indeed need a driver, I decided to avoid the harangue of oversolictous taxi drivers and pretended that I didn't need one. Instead, I wallked on, taking the moment to view yet another part of the massive city. Here it was the same - unimaginably dense traffic, constantly chirping and all too often downright blaring car horns, and loads of people going about their lives.

Many have asked if I've felt safe. Yes, always; so much so that the question has seemed unnecessary, and certainly so if it is in reference to the revolution. I wasn't here for the string of days of reported chaos, with citizen militias guarding homes and neighborhoods. I don't know how widespread that was, but it is no longer the case. Life seems as ordinary as in any metropolis. Is there crime in Cairo? - hah!, sure - but likely no more so than any mega-city.

This recognition of the unremarkableness of life in a country in revolt - that is, that daily experience is not consumed with the drama of protest and demonstration - forces attention to - precisely that - the ordinary. And, just what is ordinary here? Ordinary in much of Cairo is dense overcrowding, crippling poverty, insufficient and inadequate housing, etc., None are surprising conditions, but it should also be no surprise that such entrenched conditions are not magically erased, even by what may turn out to be one of history's grandest and most sweeping revolutions.

Indeed, as posted earlier here, successful revolution paradoxically exacerbates some of the very conditions it seeks to redress. Things are worse here economically than before the revolution. Some understand that as a natural and temporary side effect; others are growing very impatient - especially as they have learned just how much of their nation's treasure was hoarded away by their former leaders.

All would agree, though, that the real solution to Egypt's downward economic turn, at least in the immediate term, would be a return of the tourists. So, let me keep the pledge I've given to many and plead:

"Tourists, come back to Egypt. Please!!!"

So, for all of us unfamiliar with revolutions, the lesson is that they are not played out in pervasive, all-consuming, daily drama. Neither is their magic seen in the immediate erasure of plaguing conditions or deep social divides and inequities. The magic of this revolution was the swelling of popular confidence to jointly say no more to the leadership that has oppressed them so fiercely. That they, lead by their youth with heir high tech devices, toppled a powerful autocracy is an astonishing achievement, and in just 18 days, And, the civility of the accomplishment will serve as a model for time to come.

What has changed in Egypt is a heightened sense of dignity and pride and an assertiveness to avoid further manipulation. These are utterly grand transformations. And . . . their effects can only be realized over time. The removal of a regime does not automatically provide a suitable replacement. That is the task to come: to re-birth their nation in a manner that suits their freshly acknowledged goodness.

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