I’m in Egypt, but am I in Denial?

It’s poignant to be far from home–having fun and enjoying the people I’m meeting–in a land regarded by some as a place where Christians are being killed and women being abused…and where the government tacitly approves of these atrocities. Christians and women may justifiably wonder whether it’s safe–or even moral–to go to Egypt. Clearly, the alarming plight of Christians and women in Egypt can’t be ignored. That’s one reason why I’m traveling here.

I’m doing my best to be open-minded. I want to learn firsthand and sort through this moral quagmire. I don’t want to be duped, and I know my guides are doing their best to keep me both safe and seeing the best of their country (and, therefore, not the worst). After a week here and talking to lots of people, here’s my take:

Recently, four Coptic Christians were killed in sectarian violence north of Cairo (one Muslim also died), and then a mob raided the funeral at Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral–killing one. This wouldn’t have happened under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But Muslim Brotherhood “control” of Egypt’s government seems to mean less government control of the people here. The once-feared Mubarak-era police force was essentially dissolved; today in Egypt there’s almost a celebratory ignoring of the law as one of the fruits of the revolution.

One day, I saw a cobbler doing his work in a cluttered shop. He was surrounded by shoe parts, scraps of leather, and Hindu-esque Christian posters. (Coptic Christianity, which goes back to ancient Roman times, has an exotic, Eastern flair here.) I asked him if the posters were good or bad for business, given the recent tension between Muslims and Christians. I mentioned that a Muslim serving Christians in the USA would find displaying similar Muslim-style posters bad for his business. He said it was no problem at all. Then, his customer turned to me and said, “I’m Muslim. In this community, Muslims and Christians are like one family; our roots are deep. We’ve lived together for centuries.” The cobbler said he calls his Muslim friends on Muslim holidays and his Muslim friends call him with warm wishes on Christian holidays.

This Christian cobbler fixes Muslim shoes under Christian posters. Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com)

This Christian cobbler fixes Muslim shoes under Christian posters. Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com)

But I asked another Christian, who worked at our hotel, for his take on the murder of the Christians. He said with no police power and with President Muhammad Morsi in control, perpetrators of such crimes are not brought to justice. “If we fight back they just kill us more. We pray…it’s all we can do. On Twitter Morsi says one thing in English and something entirely different in Arabic,” he said. “Many Christians are leaving.” Then he added that he, too, would leave, but it’s hard to get visa because host countries know that most Egyptians wouldn’t return.

If I was to relate this sectarian violence to the USA, its equivalent would be hate crimes. Thankfully America has an engaged police force, a populace that demands law and order, and a political landscape that wouldn’t put up with any group ignoring our hate-crime laws. In our society, if we had no police force enforcing the law, bigots, radical fundamentalists, and homophobes might be murdering doctors performing abortions or killing gay people (and, sadly, this has happened even with our legal protections). In my view, it’s not that Egypt is uniquely violent or hateful. It’s just that it’s in an interim period without an effective police force, and it has a government that can turn a blind eye to hateful and violent sentiment boiling up from their angry base (like we’ve seen some American politicians do in the past), and still remain in power.

On the women’s rights front, clearly Muslim women have not earned the same respect, freedom, and equality that their Western counterparts have. History teaches us that societies evolve on parallel tracks and in that in the horse race for equality and justice, the American horse is way ahead.

I’ve had three guides in the last week, all Muslim, Egyptian women. I’ve enjoyed talking about the women’s place in Muslim society with them. They are quick to acknowledge, “It’s a man’s world.” With the masses and mobs waving Egyptian flags and overcoming their repressive government, there have also been horrible atrocities directed at women. In fact during a Tahrir Square demonstration last January, there were at least 18 sexual assaults on women in one day.  Egyptian society is riddled with extremist leaders who are both political and religious. One TV preacher said not to sympathize with “naked women who go to Tahrir Square to get raped.”

Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com)

Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com)

Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com)

Photo by Trish Feaster (for her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com)

While this violence against women is inexcusable, locals I talked with blame the assaults on Muslim Brotherhood gangs who want to intimidate women into keeping out of the public arena. They say the move is backfiring. They feel that their society is supporting women, and women are speaking out more than ever. Of course, Morsi and his government are guilty of not condemning outlandish actions by their angry, frightened fringe followers. And Egyptians I met say he’s paying a steep political price.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s lack of political sophistication is the subject of widespread satire. It seems half the country looks forward eagerly to Friday evenings at 11 p.m. when the TV comedy star famous as “the Egyptian Jon Stewart” tells it like it is. My friends say, “Bassem Youssef is talking with our tongues.” The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to counter with comedy of their own, which is about as funny and effective as a Clint Eastwood monologue at a political convention.

When a sexually repressed society like Egypt almost does away with the police, and sexual assault can go on with impunity, that’s a very dangerous and disturbing trend. Still, while lots of Americans are too angry at Egypt to consider even traveling there, I think traveling here is constructive. While I am as against the society’s treatment of Christians and women as anyone, I believe that–even though Egypt’s baby democracy has been hijacked by religious conservatives for now and the police have scattered–little by little, respect and toleration will become the norm. As they would be quick to say here…inshallah.