It was early Friday morning and I was walking down Cairo’s Kasr El-Nil Street through Tahrir Square, on my way back to the Nile Hilton Hotel from where, looking westward, I could see the Pyramids from my balcony. It was 1969. Things were pretty grim in Egypt. Still licking its wounds from the 1967 Six-Day War, nights were dark, resources were scarce and everywhere security was hyper-vigilant. Joy was hard to find, but I had just encountered beauty. I had been in the presence of Umm Kulthum. I was intoxicated with beauty.
Singer Umm Kulthum’s concerts took place on the first Thursday of every month and were broadcast live throughout the Arab world. Arab streets from Casablanca to Baghdad were deserted those nights, and in nearly every taxi, cafe and home, Umm Kulthum was the welcome guest. Think Beatles. Think Frank Sinatra. She sang of longing and loss. She sang of beauty and love. She sang of hope. An Umm Kulthum concert consisted of two or three songs over a period of about three hours. My Arabic was weak in those days and I barely understood her lyrics, but intuitively knew what she meant. I sat amidst strangers and became a member of the family. Men wept. Men and women danced in the aisles.
A night of beauty.
Today, the desirable Nile Hilton rooms face east toward the Moqattam Hills and overlook the Egyptian National Museum and Tahrir (Liberation) Square, where the revolution against 60 years of dictatorship and corruption began on Jan. 25, 2011.
In November, I wrote, “… to Occupy Tahrir … to risk life and loss to confront authority, to confront injustice and corruption, is an act of love for one’s nation.”
Most recently, 18 months after Egyptian President Mubarak stepped down, thousands of Egyptians, still in love with Egypt, gathered in Tahrir Square to await election results.
My heart was in Tahrir Square: I waited with them.
Then I cheered, along with millions of Egyptians, when Egypt’s first democratically elected president was announced to be Muhammad Morsi, Ph.D, from the University of Southern California, chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party and member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
There is no question: This is a remarkable outcome for a revolutionary movement that is still less than two years into a struggle to overcome 60 years of military rule — a struggle that will probably take a generation to resolve.
Post-World War II, when Arab countries were struggling with issues of independence and identity after years of colonial exploitation, dictators and oligarchs brutally cleared the public square of nationalists and intellectuals. The mosque became the place of refuge for activists, and within that environment the Muslim Brotherhood, with its “model of political activism combined with Islamic charity work,” gained strength.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 as a pan-Islamic, religious, political, and social movement by Hassan al-Banna, took hold throughout the Arab world in places where people were struggling against repressive regimes built on corrupt privilege.
As Westerners, we cannot imagine what it is like to live under the authority of such autocratic regimes. We cannot imagine the attraction to the poor and disenfranchised of “Islam is the solution,” when it’s accompanied by offers of health care, protection and education.
A new day in the Arab world. The days of Egypt being an unquestioning guarantor of American policy vis-à-vis Israel are over. The days of Egyptians supporting America’s program of extraordinary renditions and enhanced interrogations are over. Morsi says he wants Egypt to “reconsider” its peace deal with Israel and build ties with Iran in order to “create a strategic balance” in the Middle East. He has reestablished the importance of the Palestinian issue on the Egyptian agenda, declaring that the issue of the return of Palestinian refugees from both the 1948 war for Israel’s independence and the 1967 Six-Day War “is very important.”
“All these issues will be carried out through Cabinet and governmental bodies because I will not take any decision on my own,” Morsi added.
One of his first orders was to forbid the hanging of presidential portraits in government buildings, a big difference from the personality-driven regimes of his predecessors, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, whose visages were ubiquitous during their years of rule. He has resigned his leadership role in the Muslim Brotherhood and has resolved to appoint both a woman and Coptic Christian to vice-presidential status.
The democratic process hasn’t been pretty. Beyond the spontaneity of the protestors, beyond Facebook, tweets and YouTube, it has been ugly at times. Scenes of sexual assaults on women, massacres of pro-democracy protestors, and the dissolution of parliament have often cast doubt upon Egypt’s ability to sustain its revolution.
A recent Tom Friedman column in the New York Times was titled “The Fear Factor.” Friedman at his best: pandering punditry primarily based on the political ruminations of Georgetown’s Daniel Brumberg, it was filled with smug self-serving Orientalist prejudices; speaking of “primordial” peoples, sects and tribes and concern about a people who believe that “the Quran is our constitution.”
Fear the Other. Fear Islam, Beware the Muslim. How different is that from Christianist politicians who are scriptural literalists? Who believe that Natural Law supersedes the Constitution? Who believe that President Obama is a Muslim, who make pilgrimages to Liberty University and who deny evolution?
Too much fear. Too little knowledge.
Again we are stumbling along Luke’s road to Emmaus, where our “eyes are kept from recognizing” truth. To reach destinations of mutual security, equity and social justice, we all must be mindful and have the courage and strength to invite strangers to break bread with us.
As an American in Tahrir Square in 1969, I had no fear.
As an American watching Egypt today, I have no fear. Change is messy, but an irreversible process has begun. If the Brotherhood can’t deliver then there will be another election and Egypt will try again.
As we, as Americans, have for more than 200 years.