Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Letters from Egypt: Purgatory

I think the flops are a nice touch ;)
All the things that I previously complained about – “I don’t want to go there, it’s boring” or “I’m tired of going to the same places and seeing the same people” – just don’t seem that bad anymore.

The highlight of my day was eating sushi with a friend (now our dinner dates have to be pushed up as curfew just doesn’t give us enough time to catch up) with the restaurant playing Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi’s speech. If you haven’t seen it, you should definitely tune in; I think he’s a comedy act altogether. It doesn’t matter that I met up with some other friends at a café – we only had an hour to hurriedly drink our coffee and skedaddle because of curfew. Mind you I had other errands that need done before dinner and the café – so I was already under a tight time constraint.

Sure, curfew is at midnight. And sure during working days, I don’t like to stay out late. However, when you have to leave everywhere by 11 or 11:30 pm after only arriving at 10 pm – it gets a little old (even on the weekends). I can only watch so many re-runs of Niptuck on Fox Series (by the way, the same two seasons have been running for the past two years and oh yeah – out of order too).

On the weekends, people are getting to popular places like Cairo Jazz Club at 3:30-4pm because if you stay out past curfew – good luck getting home. Not only are cabs few and far in between, think about all the check points, searches, etc. that you must also go through.

I went to my favorite restaurant, Taboula, in Garden City last week (five minute walk from Tahrir Square). Our driver couldn’t take us directly to the restaurant, so we got out and walked. Not far so mesh mush killa (no problem). Ah hem, four security checkpoints later on a three minute walk took about 40 minutes. Everything had to be searched. Numerous times.

“Do you have a camera?”

“Where are you going?”

“Where are you from?”

“Where is your passport?”

There are three major embassies in that area: American, British and Canadian. Now there is also barbed wire blocking the streets to ensure cars go one way to be checked, tanks blocking other paths and tons of army personnel.

Welcome to life under a military junta.

Taboula was nice and as usual, I had tons of leftovers. I thought it would be a nice jester to give them to some of the army guys. Wrong. Rumors continue to run rampant and the military cannot accept food from civilians (particularly foreigners) because they’re fearful of poisoning.

Remember when we used to have fun? My Egyptian friend Basem used to take me grocery shopping in the middle of the night and he would always leave saying, “God I love this place – you can do everything you want at whatever time (mind you, not so much before 10:30 am). There’s always something to do in this country.”

How quickly times change.

Obviously this isn’t the biggest problem – this is just a normal day in my life now. The biggest problem continues to be the strikes and protests. Rome wasn’t built in a day people.

That being said, I’ve noticed that the kids in my neighborhood are now going out on the streets everyday cleaning and have started painting the sidewalks and trees red, white and black (the colors of the Egyptian flag).

It will be interesting in a month from now to see if people are still so anti-Mubarak and patriotic.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Letters from Egypt: New Demands

Now we’re officially in the post-revolution era, but hope is dwindling as far as a revival in Egypt’s economy.

I had dinner last night with two friends that are expats and work with factories in the region. The first demands that brought on the revolution were presidential term limits, job creation and food prices. And now new demands are surfacing for those already (or still) employed.

These two friends detailed how their factories’ productions are almost coming to a halt as workers are continuing their protests in the form of strikes. Employees are now demanding double their salary with the same luxuries offered to expats, but here’s the clincher: they want to decrease their working hours from eight hours each day to seven. However, the factory workers are only pawns, it is the managerial staff that is forcing the demands and encouraging employees to stop work altogether.

One executive went to the root of the problem and asked the demands of his workers (not including the managerial staff). The employees were uncertain of why they were striking. They mentioned taxes, but the leader echoed, “That was corrected in April, have you not been checking your pay stubs?”

So what is happening now?

The owners of the factories are simply trying to appease the workers in order to complete production, but this is only a temporary solution.

I get it. These workers are making only 500LE (around $85) per month and they want to increase this wage to 1,200LE (around $205). The problem is that the factories do not make that money, and instead of receiving 500LE – the workers are eventually going to be out of a job altogether.

Local content is important to any country’s manufacturing/production sector, as well as economically beneficial. It offers employment and generates revenue within the country. The people do not understand that while they may want a pay increase, you can’t have a salary increase without producing more – which also requires efficient work hours. Throughout the world even a regular working day consists of eight hours (echoing Dolly Parton’s “Workin’ 9 to 5”).

Furthermore, being granted the same rights as the expats that were brought onboard would mean an increase in the education level to drive healthy competition. This is not a company’s responsibility.

There is the case that some Egyptians do have the same amount of experience and/or education level as the expats brought in, but are given a lower wage simply by default. This is typically true for an Egyptian-owned company. And all of this reverts back to a point I made in a previous post: you can change a country’s leadership, but you’ll never change a country unless you change its people first.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Will He Stay or Will He Go?

Today more people than ever are in Tahrir. Infact, those whom had previously never taken part in the demonstrations kicked it up a notch. What was it like inside the heart of the protests?

Everyone was selling Egyptian flags, wigs, sweat bands and even food/drinks like thermos, tea, balady bread, etc. It was like a carnival.

For all the reports on the safety of foreigners, I encountered numerous smiles and tons of greetings. I also had an Egyptian flag and many people wanted to take pictures.

Before entering Tahrir Square from the Asr el Nil bridge (the lion bridge to Zamalak), there were two security check points. I had my expired passport in hand because I didn’t want my valid passport to be stolen. I was pulled aside and questioned by an official: What are you doing in Egypt? Are you a journalist? Why is your passport expired?

I’m studying Arabic. I didn’t want to bring my valid passport in case it was stolen.

Questions continued. Then I said, “Ana shobraweya” (I’m from Shobra). He laughed as did everyone else and I was given the okay.

I met back up with my colleague as he had to go through a different line (females must be patted down by other females). The army personnel were in high spirits shaking hands with everyone, laughing and joking.

Shoulder to shoulder I made my way to the other side of the square toward Hardees waiting for another friend. Phone reception was in and out. Speakers were set up all throughout the square, people were on light posts, railings, shoulders, etc. all chanting different cheers that meant the same: Leave Hosni. In yesterday’s blog post I begged people just standing around to pick up trash and what do you know – for the first time I saw Egyptians – not being told nor forced – picking up trash. 

I stayed approximately three hours before I headed off to locate friends for a ride. When I made my final exit, I saw an old man approach a soldier saying thank you.

Will Mubarak stay or go – that’s a good question. I think that the military is giving cues that perhaps they will take control soon. Just a reminder, military rule is harder to rise against. Just ask the rest of Africa.

Some other photos I took:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

How the So-Called “Revolution” has Changed

As Tuesdays and Fridays continue to be the main days for continued protests, the overall atmosphere has changed.

Egyptians are calling this a revolution, nevermind that the definition of a revolution is a fundamental change in leadership and/or policy. Government has seen a new Prime Minister, Vice President and Minister of Interior – none of which are different from the old regime (that continues to remain in power). Discussions are being held among different political factions, but to date, policy changes have yet to be implemented.

Instead of the original protests that had educated Egyptians across various levels of society and industries, Tahrir Square is considered a carnival or festival. My friend Ahmed was in Tahrir on Tuesday and he said, “This whole revolution is bullsh*t.” He continued, “Everybody here is just here to slack around.”

I want to stress the point that it wasn’t like this in the beginning. The days that I wrote on my blog about the protests are proud moments for me and should be proud moments for Egyptians. I am so glad that I was able to experience that and wouldn’t trade it for the world. Once again, I saw a completely different side of Egypt that in my nearly three years here, I had failed to ever witness.

And now I’m watching a country fall apart.

People are complaining about jobs, but how can you expect an economy to survive if you’re too busy gathering in Tahrir Square? And what protests are being done now? According to Ahmed on Tuesday, people were sitting idle.

So tomorrow is expected to be a big day in this so-called revolution.

Everyone keeps asking my thoughts and while it isn’t going to win any points in this country, here goes:

You say that you’ve never seen your country more loyal, but if that was true, you would realize that Mubarak isn’t going anywhere. When elections occur in a few months, remember that free and fair is still a long way off. If you were loyal, you’d go to work and try to keep your country afloat. You would wait until elections and then, if nothing changes, show the world the power of about 83 million Egyptians and their voice.

If you were loyal, you would stop burning and destroying your heritage – which is making you a spectacle in the international community. You pride yourself on your ancient civilization, but unfortunately, you’ve begun to destroy history instead of rewriting like many of you think you’re doing. Some say that they don’t care about tourism/foreigners. I could care less about your tourism either, but you should seeing as how it brings so many jobs and income to your fellow Egyptians.

If you were loyal, you would work TOGETHER – pro-Mubarak/anti-Mubarak – and begin to rebuild instead of camping out.

So for any of you reading this that are taking part in the demonstrations, if you find yourself sitting around doing nothing, grab a broom and start cleaning the streets. Spend a few pounds on paint and begin painting buildings, damaged railings, etc. But most of all, if you still have a job, get to work. This country can’t survive without you. The first rule of democracy: one person can make a difference. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Letters from Egypt: Long Road to Democracy

Three weeks ago, this corner had every flag other than that of Egypt
I’m back at the office, thankfully, because I can’t take another day feeling like a prisoner in my own home. And the talk among colleagues: a democratic Egypt with free and fair elections.


I could yell until I’m blue in the face, but it wouldn’t do any good. Many Egyptians just don’t seem to understand the long road to democracy. For most, democracy is represented by the US. Egyptians will be the first to make fun of the US’ “newness” saying that there isn’t much of a history. Compared to an ancient civilization, they’re right. However, they still fail to recognize the amount of time it took for America to reach the point it is now.

1776 – The 13 original colonies of the US declared independence, we are now comprised of 50 states with the District of Columbia (Washington DC) and seven US territories and outlying areas.

1789 – The Constitution became the basis of the US federal government, but power struggles continued.

1812 – Second war for independence.

1861 – The onset of the American Civil War, lasting until 1865, that had 11 southern states trying to secede from the North.

There are other things that I will add briefly to make my point. Even with the Declaration of Independence, the constitution is continuously amended in order to change and evolve with the time and modern needs.

So back to Egypt and office talk, everyone is getting geared for the elections scheduled to take place in a few months. Everyone is excited because after all, these 12-day demonstrations will surely equal free and fair, transparent elections, right? I could go over how voting has changed in the US over the years beginning with one of the first changes in 1812 (property qualifications) to the most recent (1986) allowing those of us located overseas to still participate in elections. I could also give examples of discrepancies in our voting proceedings (2008 Presidential Election, Florida anyone?). Not to mention all the fights for equality that took place over several years, and still remain a constant struggle.

Point: democracy doesn’t happen overnight. So Egypt, get ready to put in many years of long, hard work in order to make your dreams a reality. Prepare for more economic strife and political battlefields, but whatever you do, please don’t give up. That being said, please realize Egypt what you're doing by continuing the protests in Tahrir every Tuesday and Friday is hurting your economy and potential path to democracy even more. Change isn't all about protests. As my friend Elaine says, "Democracy must evolve, it cannot be granted or forced."

Monday, February 7, 2011

Letters from Egypt: Meet Hanna

This picture was taken the first time I met Fathy and his family back in October
Hanna Fathy, a 27-year old resident of Garbage City, previously spent his days volunteering with a group that built solar-powered water heating systems and biogas digesters made from trash in the Greater Cairo area. He volunteered in order to pay for his energy-saving products, but now his main concern is food.

His supplemental income: giving guided tours throughout Garbage City, the cave churches in Moqattam and the City of the Dead. He survived off of 150LE (about $26, rates prior to protests) per person for the tours. My family was privy to meeting Fathy in January and according to my sister, that was one of the highlights of their trip.

I called Fathy this morning to find out how he was doing and asked if he needed anything. His answer: food. My answer: to be delivered tomorrow. He added, “Do you know any open jobs? We’re all looking.” Unfortunately I don’t, but if any you do, please contact me so I may pass the information along.

While some rant away about foreign influence in their country, did they ever think about what we contribute to the Egyptian economy? And I’m not referring to the national average for Egypt’s tourism industry. I’m discussing small business owners and the like doing odds and ends in order to survive.

I don’t have a great deal of money, but I’ve purchased a few things like rice, flour, cooking oil and sugar. I will be sending someone to gather balady bread and vegetables from the street and will be making my first food delivery to Hanna and his family tomorrow.If there's more of an interest to help, I would like to deliver food to other homes in the area and beyond.

Attn. Expats in Cairo
If you are still located in Cairo and find that your fridge/cupboard is bursting with food items like mine and you wouldn’t mind departing with a few of these, please send me a message and I will personally come and pick them up. Furthermore, I want to encourage all of you that are still in Egypt that if you can, try to give your bowabs, street cleaners, garbage men, etc. some groceries. I don’t support giving money, but I do support helping those in need.

How to Help Elsewhere
If you want to help, but aren’t located in Cairo (alternately if you are located in Cairo, but this is a more suitable option) you can message me about giving money. Another Cairo expat will be stateside for rest of February and has offered to collect the money (should you be located in the US). I will create a spreadsheet of all the money collected and exactly how much food is bought. As many groups pretend to use money in circumstances like this, often times they’re unable to account for it and/or fail to properly allocate. I don’t anticipate this becoming a large and in-charge project, but I just want to assure those of you who have already contacted me about giving money that you will have proof that it went to the people that needed it the most. So if this is the option you'd like to choose, please send me a message with your email and I will give you the name and address of where you may send money.

While a few blogs ago I wrote about starting a community street clean, there are bigger concerns now. Fathy’s community aren’t the only ones that are suffering, this is just where I’ve chosen to start.

Fathy's son, Christiano