By Maria Golia
I used to live in Bab El Louq and loved every dilapidated inch of it. Birds filled the mango tree outside my window, chattering like mad and occasionally, astonishingly, perforating their chatter with a second or two of perfect silence before starting up again. I used to fantasize about how downtown would be with more trees and open space, some basic repairs, a coat of paint, less garbage. I pictured it ‘before’ and after’; a cosmetic makeover was all I wanted back then. Sadat had just been assassinated, Mubarak had inherited the presidency, was building a metro and an Opera House. Things might have gone well, or so we hoped, setting aside an unarticulated unease while getting on with the business of life.
On January 25, 2012 I toured my neighborhood, asking myself what it all meant: these decades, this ‘revolution’, the endless throngs of young people with whom I shared the pitted streets. Rain had left pond-sized puddles. Barbed wire coils trapped free-blowing garbage; the shattered windows of smoke-blackened buildings reflected a cloudy sky. My neighborhood had never looked more scarred and neglected.
The cafes were crowded. The mood complacently festive, the midan predictably packed, mostly with day-trippers making noise and bumping into one another, content to occupy a public space, stop traffic, take pictures of themselves in a sea of others like them, as if to say: see how many — if nothing else — we are!
One of a dozen men bellowing into microphones shouted hoarsely: We are now a million and a half! People cheered. An Egyptian idiosyncrasy: inflating the numbers, bending facts to suit the occasion. I fervently wished that like those birds in my old mango tree, everyone would suddenly, by some foreordained signal, just collectively shut up. A moment of shared silence to reflect on how we got here, indeed, to determine where, on the map of human possibilities, we actually stood.
That, however, would have required a degree of discipline and introspection towards which Egyptians seem increasingly disinclined, so busy are they congratulating themselves, crying vengeance, berating the authorities or else just watching and hoping for better days. Viva la revolution! The truth is this: political repositioning, religious rumblings and publicly voiced dissent are surface phenomena. What lies beneath has not changed one iota, nor can it, until it is stared in the eye and wrestled to the ground. The change we’ve seen is superficial yet heralded as deep only because we wish it was.
Generations of disinformation, shoddy education and underemployment, of bad air and poor health, have done little to sharpen intellects, as evidenced in the level of much public discourse, the uninspired leadership, ‘hidden hands’ paranoia, organizational lassitude and divisiveness that characterized this year. Swept from one outrage to another, the opposition’s lack of focus is understandable, but the incidents of state-instigated violence have yet to be seen for what they are: the tactical distractions of a power elite that knows how to manipulate its audience.
The stultifying paternalism iterated in every social system from families and businesses to the military, bureaucracy, politics and religion has barely been acknowledged, much less contested. Yet it accounts for the centrist, top-down, control-obsessed thinking that limits public engagement, excludes women from decision-making, monopolizes national projects and awards itself the right to punish recalcitrance where and how it sees fit.
Paternalism is behind the reluctance to delegate responsibility and the corresponding lack of initiative and creative, participatory problem-solving that undermines every aspect of Egypt’s civic life. It is the hallmark of the new parliament and consequently of the next constitution. The red stickers distributed in the midan reading ‘president wanted’ said it all: the desire to surrender to the will of a powerful man, same as it ever was.
As for Egypt’s inner life, public displays of religiosity now trump genuine spirituality producing a moral schizophrenia that manifests in insidious ways: the loss of cosmopolitanism and tolerance of differences, the erosion of help networks outside the church or mosque, the virtual absence of inventive community-based philanthropy. The issue of sexual repression remains taboo, although it fuels the vicious harassment of women and the incendiary behavior of mostly-male mobs (in and out of uniform).
Egyptians have always admired grandiloquence even though they know that talk is cheap. Lots more are talking now, but so long as they skirt the core issue of who we really are versus want to be, it’s empty talk. Here as elsewhere in our world, the time for superficial adjustments has long since passed. We have a choice: to dig deeper or else be buried alive in contradictions.
Here’s a good one: that what is most remarkable about this year is how ordinary it has all become and how repetitive, the mass chaotic gatherings, the earsplitting noise and mountains of trash they leave behind, the handful of righteous ones who stay on and tempt fate, the guns and blood, the walls and barbed wire. The traffic may pause, but soon enough it starts moving as people return to the business of their lives, that old unease pushed yet again to the back of their minds.
Maria Golia is a Cairo-based commentator and is the author of “Cairo: City of Sand” and “Photography and Egypt.”