Sean Tierney ’05 spent his Christmas Break with Fr. William Fulco, S.J., PhD, head of the Archeology department at Loyola Marymount University, exploring the political, moral, and theological aspects of the Revolution in Egypt. He reflects on his time in Cairo.
The energy in Cairo is palpable. The traffic is constant and chaotic: Outside my window is an ever-present cacophony of car horns, near crashes, and pedestrian dodging. There is a wide menu of smells available at any moment, ranging from putrid to flowery. Cats are everywhere and believe that they run the place. The people here appear to be quite happy — smiles are abundant and cordiality has been extended at every turn. Our hosts — the Jesuit primary/high school in Cairo — have been gracious and warm. Meals are cooked for us and I inhabit a room that looks out onto central Cairo and is yards away from a gorgeous balcony overlooking the same. Our goal was to stand in solidarity with Egypt’s beautiful people; this has proven to be a perfect venue.
After two days in downtown Cairo — spent mostly speaking with people from Tahrir Square — we left for Giza, home of the Egyptian pyramids. World History textbooks left me rather unprepared. Sublime in both their design and temporal permanence, I was blown away from the minute we arrived. Camels pace and vendors hassle, but there is one boss in this place; the pyramids dominate the scene. I could do my best to describe what they look like and how they make you feel, but I'm not that talented. They’re really cool. It's something you've just got to see.
What I can tell you about was the conversation I had that day. The Pyramids provided a beautiful entrée into a discussion of the significance of Revolution. Gaze up at the tip of the pyramid and you think about how long these things have been around. Turn 180 degrees and you see a movement which threatens the way of life that these structures memorialize. Our tour guide, whose trust we earned after making sure we didn't interrupt his smoke breaks, was both willing and able to talk about his experience in the Revolution. As a Mubarak supporter, his perspective was unique to our experience in Tahrir Square where we spoke with (and sympathized with) pro-Revolutionaries. Our tour guide’s take was quite different.
He explained that the Revolution has been an unwelcome disruption. Stability that existed for centuries is no longer there. It has had a devastating effect on tourism here and the chain-reaction has affected many people's everyday life (and may explain why the Muslim Brotherhood has had election success — people think they are the only ones capable of fixing the economy). Simply, the Revolution here has taken food out of people's mouths and disrupted a lifestyle the Egyptians have enjoyed since the Pharaonic times.
On the other hand, it's also easy to be swept up by the revolutionary spirit here. Tahrir has a magnetic pull. In fact, yesterday, I sat with a young activist for an hour or so. She's an activist for women's rights (certainly, a challenge here) and a revolutionary at heart. Her goals are noble, her means just, and her vision clear. She spoke brilliantly of Egypt's history, its current concerns and the possibilities of its future. Optimism abounds and she's a very proud Egyptian. Egypt, she explained, was both ready and able to transition into a democracy. I sat there wanting her to succeed.
Certainly, there is a tension between these two conversations, a tension that has been confirmed by my nightly walks through downtown Cairo. Just after the evening prayers finish, the alleyways fill with smiling, happy people. The men bring out plastic chairs, smoke sheesha and chat; women attempt to corral both their husbands and their offspring; and, the children's eyes dilate trying to take it all in. Vendors' calloused hands pull corn-on-the-cob off fires that they fan with pigeon feathers. Women in the niqab (the full veil) slide ice cream cones under their headscarves to get a taste of the sweet life. Children clutch to their fathers as they dodge cars and appear to be playing a game of real-life "frogger" in the streets. Neighbors meet and swap stories. Each night is a communal activity. Talk to them and you quickly realize that this experience is their national treasure. And, many of them wonder (out loud) if the Revolution might threaten this stability.
Post Revolution, the calculation that many are making is whether the right to vote is worth more than a threat to their beautiful lifestyle. The young and educated — like the woman activist I met with — know that the two are not mutually exclusive; the Egyptian people can have (and deserve) both. But, the dividends of self-governance have been slow to pay. The Revolution has caused much pain for the average Egyptian and the dreams of the Revolution are not fully realized. Thus, to make this Revolution work, the people will need to make a leap of faith, one that has been only an abstract idea since the time of the Pyramids. Let us hope that American foreign policy can support a peaceful transition to democracy, not inhibit it.
-Sean Tierney '05 is in his third year at the University of Michigan Law School.
-Father William Fulco, SJ, PhD - LMU curriculum vitae