On Sunday, Jun. 24, Egypt announced its first democratically elected president: Muhammad Morsi. It’s a milestone for any nation. Egypt is no exception.
I ‘d like to say I was huddled in some austere bunker nibbling rations as a radio murmured Morsi’s name through static, or that I was near Tahrir, watching a sea of faces, cheers, and gun shots rattle in the air as people celebrated the pick.
They’d make good stories.
Instead, I was taking a nap. From my window, I heard someone shout Morsi’s name from the street, so I cracked my lids open to decipher the echoes. When no one else shouted, I closed my eyes again.
Still, I remember the event and I expect I will for the rest of my life—the same way my father, like many in his generation, remember when they heard about JFK’s assassination, or when I first saw a television with smoke billowing from the Twin Towers on 9/11.
Such moments indent our lives, separating one time from another with a burning clarity. They linger beyond other memories with a weight bound up with emotion and history, making milestones.
The past two-and-a-half weeks have sped by. I’ve been with a small squad of Americans in St. Leo’s Coptic Catholic Seminary in Cairo to help teach English to 16 seminarians, young men culled from various towns around Egypt. Most are from poor families, while a few are from Egypt’s fledgling middle class. They’re a mixed, active group, really more like high school students than seminarians.
Each day tumbles by in a flurry of papers, prayers, and classes—go to mass, teach a few hours, grade papers, help students during study hall, swallow down some mysterious mixture of rice, picking out the gizzard. Sometimes the other teachers and I wander the shady streets of our neighborhood, called Ma’adi, or visit Cairo’s wild souq‘s and the empty desert stretched beyond. Such day trips expose me to the many sides of Egypt, from the struggling tourism industry to the routines of store clerks.
Throughout our time, Egypt’s first democratic election has maintained a resilient voice, riding the tide of the past year’s January 25 Revolution.
In classes, students discuss the candidates. They make songs and jokes about the recent runoff. “Morsi will sit on the kursi,” sings one, “kursi” being the Arabic word for “chair.” Or, “When Morsi is president, no more pyramids,” they laugh at nervously.
Waiters and vendors chat along the roads. Campaign posters still hang, now faded by the weather. Everyone eyes the news. Mostly, we wait. I try to understand.
Last year, I read articles daily after protests erupted Jan. 25 across Egypt against Hosni Mubarak, the so-called “president” since 1981. High unemployment and widespread poverty hampered the economy, strident emergency laws and censorship repressed the people, corruption and fraud greased the government, and the people were tired.
When they took to the streets, revolution came in a flood.
Days, weeks, and months passed and protests continued. Early on, the military refused to use live ammunition, eventually siding with the revolutionaries. Muslims and Christians came together in a multi-faith mass Feb. 6. But Mubarak did not step down.
Finally, on Feb. 11, “Departure Day,” Vice President Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak’s resignation. The military assumed leadership until stability ensued and the government could reform.
The revolutionaries, it seemed, had won.
My attention lapsed as time went on, but turmoil continued in Egypt: further protests, then violence as Mubarak’s regime lingered in remnants. Change stalled, and the military expanded its power. In response, people took to the streets again, sometimes met by tear gas and riot police. The Revolution continued amid violence.
Finally, May 23 and 24, Egypt had its first round of presidential elections. June 2, the week I left for Cairo, a court convicted Mubarak and his interior minister to life in prison for failing to address the violence during the early days of protest. For most Egyptians, this was a justice long deferred—although for many, the punishment was not enough.
Then, about a week later, the 100-man committee parliament appointed to draft a new constitution floundered. Next, the Egyptian Constitutional Court dissolved the parliament because the laws that governed their elections were invalid according to the shifting grounds of this new state. The military filled the void again, opting to pick a 100-man assembly to draft a new constitution and assume legislative powers until the government stabilized.
A few days later, on June 16 and 17, former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq ran against Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in a runoff election. Only about half of Egypt’s 58 million people voted. And for most, it was a clothespin vote.
After a week of uncertainty—swelled by protests—Egypt’s electoral commission declared Morsi to be the winner with 51.73 percent of the vote to Shafiq’s 48.27 percent. Listing a series of reasons, the commission solidified its point, wanting to avoid Mubarak’s arbitrary elections.
Amid my nap, Egypt’s future fell into place.
Since then, I’ve been wading through news from the past year. Online, I read papers and networks from Europe, America, and the Middle East, finding a deluge. I have some vain hope that I can understand what’s happening. But my heart has no vocabulary to do so. I know terms like “justice” and “freedom,” but they are abstract. I mention Rousseau and Robespierre, Jefferson and Adams, or Gandhi and King—indeed, these are my heroes—but they feel far and flat. I can read dates and names from Egypt’s recent history, woven together like one of Shakespeare’s history plays, but still, it’s not enough.
My images and words are like playthings.
So I study my students as they see their world change around them. My students are all Copts. Copts fear Morsi for his Islamist bent, and although he resigned from the Brotherhood and pledged a path of moderation when the election results came through, he started the campaign as a vocal Islamist. Moreover, violence between Muslims and Christians remains a real threat. May 2011, Salafi Muslim extremists organized several church bombings against the Copts and small-scale violence has persisted since. Copts fear, along with many others here and abroad, that the Brotherhood will transform Egypt into another Islamic republic, like Iran.
Others fear that the military won’t diminish its power. During the second round of elections the military council issued an interim constitution granting themselves power over the prime minister, legislation, the national budget, and declarations of war, without any supervision or oversight.
Wedged between his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood and his opponents in the military, Morsi has a tough task and the people lose hope.
Many of the students and many of the papers echo, “the Revolution is dead.” They witness the past runoff as proof. On the one side, Shafiq represents a military man—and Mubarak’s prime minister. On the other, Morsi represents a conservative member of the 84-year-old Muslim Brotherhood. The liberal elements and young voices that spurred the revolution shout from the sidelines as the conservative elements inch toward power. The allegations of fraud leveled against both campaigns don’t help.
Others disagree. Fady, a seminarian here whose brother fought in Tahrir, still has hope. It’s Egypt’s choice, he told me once after class. We chose Morsi—and that in itself is progress.
In past elections, Mubarak had no de facto rivals, and before the revolution hit, he was inching his son to the seat as his successor.
Fady expressed his hope in his homily last week, comparing Christ’s crucifixion to the revolution. Christ died on Good Friday, pitching the apostles into darkness for two days. They were hard days steeped with doubt and persecution. But on the third day, Christ rose again and restored light.
Likewise, Egypt may be entering a time of darkness, but Fady hopes, the light will come again.
We are supposed to be priests, he tells me. How can we give other people hope, if we do not have hope? Christ’s catechism is not meant to be easy. Perhaps we will have to suffer or die for our faith, but we must keep our faith.
I find myself clutching another image, from Camus.
When I first came to Egypt, I left Camus at home. With a packed schedule, I didn’t expect to read much philosophy. But soon as I saw the desert stretching into the sky from the highway and walked through Ma’adi, assaulted by the stench of garbage and spices, the sound of boys selling melons from donkey carts, and the sight of flowers draped over decaying colonial mansions, I thought of Camus’ own descriptions of Algiers. So I found a French copy of Camus’ essays in a nearby bookstore, tinted beige.
In his essay, “The Almond Trees,” Camus discusses the conflict between the mind and the sword. Camus argues, in the first paragraph, “what a hundred years ago was true of the sword is no longer true today of the tank. Conquerors have made progress, and the dismal silence of places without intelligence has been established for years at a time in a lacerated Europe.”
This past Wednesday, I put a paragraph on the board with my advanced students. I want to look at the grammar, but I also want to look at the ideas, I said. In blue marker, I scrawled:
When I lived in Algiers, I would wait patiently all winter because I knew that in the course of one night, one cold, pure February night, the almond trees of Vallée des Consuls would be covered with white flowers. I would marvel then at the sight of this fragile snow resisting the rains and the wind from the sea. Yet every year it lasted just long enough to prepare the fruit.
As they wrote Camus’ quote in their notebooks, I tried to stress the words and explain the images: those tender petals flooded by wind and rain holding on, the fruit they leave behind, the chill night.
The fan rattled and a hot breeze tousled the papers on the conference table we use. Fady took a tissue from his pocket to wipe the beaded sweat from his brow. I leaned back in my chair.
Imagine those flowers, I said, pointing to a vase of fake lilies at the end of the table, those small, weak-looking petals surviving wind and rain. They’re something so small, but they keep fighting, keep holding on—just long enough to prepare for something greater: the fruit.
Rami, another student, adjusted his glasses and spoke.
Sometimes, when it gets cloudy, the sun is hidden behind the clouds, but I know it’s there, and the rays come out, and it’s beautiful.
We pieced together images of hardships broken by endurance, and as they left, the students smiled and paused while looking at the board. Camus, said one, sounding out the Frenchman’s name. That was very beautiful.
But paragraphs scrawled on dry-erase boards are not enough. Since my stint in Egypt, conditions have declined. Seesawing on the verge of tyranny and civil war, Egypt undergoes a constitutional crisis. Violent protests surge from Port Said to Cairo. Last February, the Egyptian Independent reported a scene in which police forced a man from the protestors, stripped him naked, and beat him with batons. Morsi blamed the police. Others challenged that the report was false testimony.
Troops have fired on students, and protestors have damaged public property. Many have died. On March 3, a protest resulted on 500 injured, three dead civilians, and two dead police officers. Many attack Morsi for studding the new constitution with Muslim elements and stalling the liberal agenda for a broader democracy, better education, and public order—all of which Morsi promised after taking office.
Poverty and political violence continues, and Egyptians grow desperate.
“There is no symbol here. We will not win our happiness with symbols. We’ll need something more solid,” Camus says after he describes the blossoms. “If we are to save the mind we must ignore its gloomy virtues and celebrate its strength and wonder.”
I did not know freedom or justice before Egypt—and indeed, they are still words—but the thirst is real, the hope is real—even amid this current violence. I remember one worker at the café I frequented in Ma’adi who, like many in Egypt, struggles to pay for a tutor to supplement the terrible public education his children get. He believed in a future. So did Fady. So do the many who cling to the January 25 Revolution’s ideals, even as the media shuffles the crisis off the front page of most Western papers and people in Egypt and abroad say, “The Revolution is dead.”
They still fight because they still starve for a future.
In Egypt, I learned what Camus meant when he wrote the following in the same essay:
We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks men take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.
Like the almond blossoms, I hold on. Perhaps the struggle for basic progress it is a “never-ending defeat” as Rieux describes his struggle against the plague in Camus’ novel. But it’s a defeat worth fighting for. Perhaps the current revolution is dead, but it set the seeds for further reform–the fruit of people tenaciously holding on.
I don’t simply believe in the image of the almond blossoms. I believe, like Camus, that there is more in people to admire than despise. Perhaps, one day, that will be easier to see.