Monday, November 29, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Don’t Forget to Vote

Associated Press
Yesterday Egypt held its Parliamentary elections, but something for those of you from the West to remember is that just because you are given the right to vote, doesn’t mean a free and fair election process – or even that you will be allowed to partake in the process.

Across the newswires are stories of the protests coming from Egypt’s largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood. It claims that it didn’t win the majority vote for any seats in the first round, but a few candidates will stand in the run-offs to be held Dec. 5. The BBC reported that two people died in clashes when protests were conducted after the poll. "Only a few will stand in a run-off, but not a single Brotherhood candidate won in the first round," said Saad al-Katatni, the head of the Brotherhood's bloc of 88 seats in the outgoing parliament, equivalent to a fifth of the assembly (BBC).

Another note for those of you that are unaware, the Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned in Egypt and must run under the guise of independent. Therefore, it is baffling as to how proper figures are reported on the MB (88 seats in outgoing Parliament, much less the so-called leader al-Katatni). This is just another reminder for you when reading such reports.

Remember, there are three sides to every story: hers, his and the truth.

The BBC also reported that some 42 million people were eligible to cast their ballots. The CIA World Factbook says, with last update from July 2010, that the country’s total population is a little over 80 million people. While there might in fact be 42 million eligible, the article failed to put the overall population which might give readers more insight as to the supposed “transparent” electoral process in Egypt. And how many of those eligible actually receive their voter cards?

If you do live here, ask your Egyptian friends if they voted. When they say no, which they will, ask if they even have a voter registration card. When they say no, ask them why. Either you’ll hear: I just never got it, but it doesn’t matter anyway because things will never change. Or, you’ll hear: I have tried, but the government denied me.

This is what isn’t reported.

When we live in the comfort of our homes, myself included, perhaps we don’t consider this. I read news reports from the New York Times and the like discussing the first democratic elections being held in other countries. How exciting right? People are finally getting to have their say. We don’t realize that while we know the ballot boxes are going to be stuffed and election proceedings will be rigged, we still think that people have a chance. However, look at Egypt – supposedly one of the most democratic of the Arab states, but that doesn’t mean its people have a say.

A colleague of mine applied for a voter card once – denied. His brother, five times – denied. They go to the offices to register and each day they come back, the official tells them they’re missing paperwork. Everyday there’s new paperwork missing. This is from Coptic Christians, but Muslims are denied the same. I asked another Muslim colleague of mine if he had his voter card. Naturally he said no, so I inquired as to why. “I have dual nationality with the US, they don’t like us to vote.”

Don’t be jaded about the electoral process in Egypt. Some analysts say Egypt is a ticking time bomb and the Mubarak regime will continue at its own pace, only making the timer countdown quicker.

I don’t think that it’s in the best interest for Egypt to do a complete 180 in government leadership, but I do think there has to be change and soon. The Egyptian people aren’t going to continue to live this way.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Small Changes

I’ve been told that you don’t move to a country anticipating to change it; however, you should find one small thing that you can work on to give back to the place that houses you. After all, we are only guests and we should give back to the country that allows us to accrue experience whether it’s for your job or just life in general.

I thought my small thing was teaching the children around my office how to be nice to the stray dogs and now, they even take care of one of the puppies. This is a huge deal here as animal rights are just not on the priority list for Egyptians. Yet in addition to the poor treatment of animals, there’s another problem that faces this country: little to no environmental awareness.

First things first, I am NOT a greenie ranting through the streets about climate change or anything like the such. However, the past week or so, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated at the amount of trash I’m walking through on a regular basis, and it seems like its getting worse. I was so angry the other morning after walking through a heap of trash and finding bags thrown over a balcony near my apartment that I cleaned it up myself. This morning, I saw the same thing in the same place again. This is where I walk my dog and you know what, I’m sick of having to walk through this.

I’ve done blogs on the Zabaleen before, the largely Christian community that hand recycles and collects the trash throughout Cairo. Cleaning trash from the streets carries a social stigma, but I’m determined to help even if I’m only an army of one. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” which also translates into something similar in Arabic, “Elnazafa men aleman” (cleaning for faith).

There are hardly any trash bins throughout the city and the ones that you do find are overflowing.

So I utilized Cairo Scholars this morning to get feedback as to organizing a cleaning crew. Someone sent this article as a parallel (Young Pakistanis Take One Problem into Their Own Hands), and while the article is discussing Pakistan, there are so many similarities.

  • ·         “A group of young Pakistani friends, sick of hearing their families complain about the government, decided to spite them by taking matters into their own hands: every Sunday they would grab shovels, go out into their city, and pick up garbage.” Everyone here complains about the government, but no one does anything.
  • ·         “The youth of Pakistan wants to change things,” said Shahram Azhar. As well as the youth in Egypt.
  • ·         “The major problem people have here is that there are no bins,” said Murtaza Khwaja, a 21-year-old medical student. Same same
  • ·         “People say, ‘This is nice, but things will never change,’ ” Mr. Khwaja said.
  • ·         “The men in the mosque, on the other hand, were picky, wanting the young people to clean the mosque but not the surrounding area.”
  • ·         “They said, ‘We already have Christians doing that for us in the morning,’ ” Mr. Khwaja said. Christians are a minority in Pakistan, and those who have no education often work in the lowest-paid jobs, like collecting trash, sweeping streets or fixing sewers.

I am a firm believer in grass roots initiatives, so not only do I want to help clean, but I also want to create awareness. I am not naïve to think this will help anything for awhile, but I am hopeful (which could be considered an idealist) that if organized properly, we could help make Egypt better for everyone.

Volunteer to Help Make Cairo Clean
I just sent out an inquiry on Cairo Scholars and have had many people comment/want to help with a clean up. The first matter is organizing a group of volunteers, so if you’re interested, please email me at and I will add you to a list that I’m creating to send out notifications.

While this is all in the preliminary stages, I have proposed that we start off once a month to get support. I can make signs in English and Arabic that would explain what we’re doing in order to follow the concept ‘teach by doing.’ This will create awareness. The streets will be small because longer streets may cause people to feel frustrated or as though their efforts aren’t producing any results.

Participants will wear a green shirt to easily identify volunteers.

The trash collected will be taken to Garbage City for the Zabaleen to sort/recycle.

As I said, this is only preliminary thoughts so if you would like to participate or have other suggestions, comments and/or thoughts, please let me know.

So yalla Egypt, let’s get to cleaning!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Diminishing Hope

Before I moved to Egypt, I was so naïve and hopeful. Maybe naivety breeds hope, who knows, but what I can say now is that although I have a lot more to learn, my hope for Egypt and Africa in general is fading.

Sometimes I still wonder how certain things make national and international news. For instance, how does a certain murder like that of Natalee Holloway make international media outlets as opposed to the other murders that happened around that time frame? What makes her story so special?

And then you think that because you don’t hear such stories come out of Egypt, that everything is easy breezy. Well, I do understand that aspect: the government keeps such a lid on the bad things that happen so as not to tarnish its reputation.

Previously, I wrote a blog about the book Princess: The True Story of Life behind the Veil which detailed a young Egyptian girl being sold to a Saudi prince and repeatedly raped and then just thrown out on the street. I’ve heard this is common even in current times, but never have I heard of a story personally involving someone I knew – that was, until now.

Raymond* owns a factory in the middle of nowhere that employees people from a lower class. While weddings occur all the time, one of his younger staff members makes this one particularly special. News of the wedding spread and the next thing you know, the factory foreman gets a phone call from the girl crying. She said that her father was selling her for 10,000LE (approximately $1,739) to someone from the Gulf that only planned on marrying her for a week – in order to take her virginity – and then would leave her in Egypt while he went back to the Gulf. The girl begged for Raymond and his father to help her and contact the police.

What did Raymond do? He told the foreman to ignore her pleas and not to mention it to his father because he didn’t want his father involved. I wonder how Raymond sleeps at night. I know after hearing this, I didn’t sleep.

It brings me to my hopeless thoughts for this country and society. Raymond would, of course, be up in arms had this happened to his sister. Others have said, “Well, this happens all the time.” It’s that complacent attitude that hinders this society from progressing. Complacency is never a positive term, and you should always strive for better. With elections coming up, many young Egyptians want change. Change doesn’t start with the government, change starts with you. Oprah Winfrey didn’t wait around for the US government to approve her aid work. She worked hard and gave back, and not necessarily for public attribution.

So what if this happens all the time? When someone begs for your help and has nowhere else to go, I find it unfathomable that you can turn your back to her. Everyone wants change, but they negate that change doesn’t happen over night. Change starts with one person. So even if these things happen all the time, helping that one person could have in turn led to her helping two people and so on and so forth. Yet, this society doesn’t think like that and it’s heartbreaking.

I can’t stress enough how enchanting of a place Egypt can be, but I also don’t think I can properly convey how much I want to see Egypt – a place that I hold close to my heart – grow and be the leader that I know it has the potential to be. Although I don’t want to sound too much like an after-school special (“The More You Know…”), something has to change here. It has to start on the ground and move up. I’m not saying that you should get involved in matters that aren’t your concern, but if someone asks for your help – hey Egypt, why don’t you do it out of the goodness of your heart and not to gain more points or so others will see you? Or even because it’s not someone close to you – do it because it’s the right thing to do.

You shouldn’t do things just to get a pat on your back, but you should want to build up your country. You should want to change this mentality that selling off YOUR young girls to disrespectful, trashy people like the one that paid 10,000LE (which is nothing to a Gulfie). You should want to protect your women, children, and even the man who sweeps your street religiously. You should take pride in your country because as it stands now, there’s very little to be proud of when you dig beneath the face-value surface that the government allows in the media.

*Name changed  

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Letters from Cairo: HarassMap

Mapping harassment so you don’t have to.

A new tool is being introduced to Egypt that’s very similar to the US’ Hollaback site which has branches in major cities across the country. Now Egypt is introducing HarassMap in which women can report incidents via texts/SMS.

Credit should be given to the creators of HarassMap because the more tools available for women to combat these actions, the higher probability that change can be implemented.

And listen up women, many men will tell you to be careful for fighting back because you never know if the aggressor has a blade or worse. This is a case of the famed “Egyptian Turnaround” that I’ve mentioned on my blog several times. They will continue to say that they’re just worried for us, etc. Just another feeble attempt at keeping us quiet.

I say fight until you can’t fight anymore. Knock them to the ground, kick them in their groin, punch their nose off their face, scream and attract as much attention as possible. God did not create us to be a tool of convenience for a man contrary to popular male belief. Stay safe but be strong. Change takes time.

Before I left for vacation, I had an incident occur. I used to be one of those girls that said harassment happens when you’re not being aware of your surroundings, wearing inappropriate attire, etc. Yes it’s true, you can take certain measures to keep at bay unwanted harassment (isn’t that an oxymoron because let’s be honest, who ever really wants to be harassed? And if you do, seek help...immediately), but things seem to be getting worse. You must cross the streets when possible if a man is walking in your direction or safe guard yourself from a grab if unable to cross. You could wear the niqab, but even niqabbis incur harassment on a daily basis so it isn't so simple.

I happened to come back to my apartment after souvenir shopping on the last day of Ramadan. I was in the best mood possible. I’d gotten good deals on all the items I wanted to give to family and friends and I was chatting with a friend on the phone while holding a coffee. I had my back turned to my apartment building and two boys, ages approximately 13/14, came out and grabbed me.

Immediately yelling and hanging up on my friend, I chased them (never once dropping my bags or phone which I think is rather impressive). I cornered one of the boys at a car while the guys from a nearby café ran out. Do you know what upset me the most? There was a grown man standing nearby that watched everything and never once came to help me.

While I didn’t get to punch the guy in the nose like I wanted (because although he would never have told his parents the real reason he had a bloody nose, he would’ve had to have explained something), it’s highly improbable that the same boys will dare touch me again.

Now it’s also worth noting that in the two years that I’ve lived here, I have only had two grab incidents (although I’ve had a slew of chest hits). I know sometimes you may be shocked that someone would do it, but even when I’m walking down the street, I go ahead and mentally prepare to knock the *&^% out of someone. It’s sad that you always have to think like this, but you MUST be prepared. The last thing you want on top of feeling violated is having a delayed reaction and thinking, “I should’ve done something.”