Making Peace with Egypt
ICWA Letter May 2006
CAIRO, Egypt – A trip to Egypt should be something to look forward to. After all,
millions flock every year to get a first hand look at the Pyramids, the Sphinx and
the Valley of the Kings — ruins of perhaps antiquity’s greatest civilization.
When I think of visiting Egypt, my shoulders get tense and I get a funny feeling
in my stomach. Why? Because Egypt and I abruptly parted ways nearly five
years ago. For seven years, first as a student at the American University in Cairo
and later a journalist, Egypt was my home and my education in currents running
through the Arab World.
Two prominent trends — Western-oriented economic development and increasingly
violent Islamic fundamentalism — battled it out on a daily basis. In the early
1990s, IMF-prescribed economic-reform plans began as Islamic militants launched
attacks on tourists in Upper Egypt. Imported goods then flooded the country as attacks
moved to Cairo. Later, mobile phones and internet appeared as security forces
rounded up and imprisoned Islamists. Reigning supreme over all was President
Hosni Mubarak, who came to power following the assassination of Anwar Sadat
by Islamic militants in October 1981. The primary instrument Mubarak used to
maintain order was the Emergency Law, which gives the state broad powers to
arrest and detain civilians without charge and prosecute cases in military courts
that allow no appeal.
Interactions with everyday Egyptians followed a similar pattern. When Iarrived in 1994, I was overwhelmed by the friendliness
and generosity of Cairenes. As the battle between the state
and Islamists made national headlines, and my Arabic
improved, Egyptians often gave me an earful on “unfair”
American foreign policy in the Middle East. They always
quickly pointed out that they had nothing against the
American people. When the state rounded up militants
en masse a few years later, I found myself increasingly
quizzed by Egyptians about intimate details of my personal
life, including why I had not converted to Islam.
Then came the attacks of September 11, 2001. As I
watched planes plow into buildings in New York and
Washington, and one mysteriously crashing to the earth in
my home state of Pennsylvania, the reactions of Egyptians
surprised me. Some celebrated in the streets, while many
more said smugly it was a natural outcome of American
foreign policy. Sitting at my desk the next day at the
American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, an Americanfunded
organization staffed by Egyptians, I was shocked
when not a single staff member expressed any sorrow
about the attacks. So much for separating governments
from people, I thought.
The following morning I flew on assignment to Syria,
a country on Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
To my surprise, almost every Syrian I met over the
following days and weeks expressed heartfelt sympathy.
Three months later I cleaned out my Cairo apartment and
moved to the more secular Levant. I have held a grudge
against Egypt, and political Islam, ever since.
Two U.S. invasions and an ongoing bloody Iraqi occupation
later, the Islamic tide that swept Egypt in the
1990s is hitting my current home, Syria. Under intense
international pressure over its implication in the assassination
of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, the
secularism of Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime is giving
way to Islam. And be it the Hariri investigation, or the
indirect pressure of seeing scores of Iraqis die on Arabic
TV news channels every day, more Syrians now seem to
support a greater role for Islam in political life.
It remains to be seen what real impact such sentiments
will have on Syrian politics. So an invitation to a wedding
in Cairo last month seemed a good reason to revisit my
old stomping grounds and put my Egyptian experience
in perspective. During a weeklong stay, I found a country
still struggling between modernity and religious fundamentalism,
as well as over terrorism and presidential
succession. While the Mubarak regime can be just as
authoritarian as Assad’s, it is implementing economic
reforms faster than Damascus. I also discovered how
the shock of the September 11 attacks caused me (as
well as many other Americans) to fail to differentiate
between rising religious sentiments among Muslims
and growing Islamic extremism. Making this distinction,
and then finding ways to reach out to Arabs and
Muslims on a more human level, could be one way to
stem the tide of Islamic militancy sweeping the region
and to promote democracy in the long term.....
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