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.


13 Replies to “I’m in Egypt, but am I in Denial?”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful and nuanced piece. I traveled to Japan years ago, at age 18, and had my own experience of being mistaken for a less than respectable female. I have also traveled in Morocco (as well as a number of countries in Europe). Because of these experiences I agree completely with the points you are making. We must not be naive nor let ourselves be drawn into unsafe situations because we don’t realize that men in cultures we visit may have a much different view of women than we are used to here in the USA. In spite of the things that still happen here, we ARE quite a bit farther along in the process of gaining freedom and respect…and in feeling comfortable demanding that freedom and respect. I can’t help but believe that travel is the ideal way to model the beliefs we have to others. When I really connected with people and engaged in deeper conversation I was always sure that I had conveyed my beliefs about the dignity and value of being a woman who had her own life and career, and made her own choices, to people who had not had the chance to encounter a feminist before. I hope it gave them a broader view of the world at the same time that they broadened my own world view.

  2. I believe these are very very complicated issues. It is not hard to get wrapped up in these issues when traveling to other countries. I have found the same thing when we travel, suddenly you are a traveling local and really want to be a part of it. But just as your last blog showed that you cannot even read a sign language or numbers how do you completely understand their government, religion or plight. Just like the two Boston bombers, what happened to them, they were given every dream a foreigner could have about America. Exhile from a horrible country. Citizenship, education and then they turn on what we thought was their country. We may never fully understand others. I do agree about laws and rules. Where would Boston be if we just lived this Tea Party life of no taxes, no services. These men and women are there and being paid for a reason. And their hard work and training is something not everyone can do. We certainly don’t want to be ruled by our government, but there is a reason to have laws and concequences.

  3. These are comments which prevent people like me, who once wanted to visit Egypt, from visiting Egypt and especially Cairo. You want my money, you protect me: Morsi, Mubarek etc.

  4. Judy, I’m not affiliated with any Tea Party, but even I know that they don’t want “no taxes, no services” as you put it. They prefer low taxes, less spending and less government involvement in their lives. They do want services that we can afford and of course, they are very grateful to all our armed forces, including the police departments in every city and town.

  5. I find this, “We certainly don’t want to be ruled by our government, but there is a reason to have laws and consequences.” a very odd statement. Life is not perfect in the US, but we strive for a government, of the people, for the people and by the people.

  6. You may understand what I said if you go back and read Ricks blog on the lack of law in Egypt.

  7. Thanks so much for your terrific posts from Egypt. I’m reading every one and watching all your videos. Fascinating to learn and to see how “open for business” Egypt is. All of us who are considering a trip to Egypt need to consider doing it as soon as possible to support this growing democracy and its people!

  8. Every image I’ve ever seen of a meal in a private Arab home shows a huge spread of what appears to be delicious food. Looks amazing. Guess I need some Arab friends.

  9. I have been reading your posts about your trip to Egypt with interest. But after each one, I find myself thinking, “Great times, Rick, but as a Jew, I sure have no intention to go there”. Now I see this post about your thoughts of possibly being in denial about political issues there, which is refreshing at last. Christians and women are things most people consider in this regard, but the intense and virulent antisemitism there is some of the worst of the middle east, and this is from a country that has a successful peace treaty with Israel!

    Jews are so often the scapegoats of government officials and imams of every community that it seems that even though Nassar expelled most of them in 1956 and confiscated all their property, and no one has even met a Jewish person in years, that doesn’t stop the hatred. Hatred of Jews is completely and utterly acceptable in all aspects. (I even remember not long ago a popular mini-series based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion–it’s accuracy was never questioned in the least.) Countries who have no voices within their communities to stop this kind of dangerous hate do not deserve a visit from me–I believe it is a tacit support of their bigoted views.

  10. I’m a American Jewish woman living in Germany and considering traveling to Germany. Perhaps partially because I have (non-Jewish) female friends who live here who travel there somewhat frequently – as recently as this December for 2 weeks. To be fair, that most recent trip was a combination group tour and resort trip, not remotely close to living like a local, but they love Egypt and are already planning another visit.

    Despite the very high levels of antisemitism, misogyny, ethnic/religious infighting and the like, I still think it’s worthwhile to travel to Egypt or other countries with similar problems if you’re willing to take the risk. The people of a country are not their government – it’s pretty easy to remember many of us wanted the rest of the world to remember that when our government were waging war in two different countries and we continue to bomb other countries very often wounding or killing innocent people.

    One of the reasons I think this travel is worthwhile is because a lot of the antisemitism in particularly in many places in the world is borne out of ignorance. Germany has a relatively high population of Muslim people, immigrants or first generation Turks, Lebanese, Egyptians, etc. I met a guy recently at a shisha bar who said I was the first Jewish person he ever met. He was really interested in talking to me, learning more about Jewish Americans, what I think about the situation in Israel, my customs, etc. I could tell that to some degree I was countering a stereotype he had in his head, in the same way that meeting young Muslim men like this counters the kind of stereotypes and biases I grew up with in the U.S.

    Sorry for the long post but I think what Rick is doing is great as long as he doesn’t have blinders on to the more unsavory aspects. Traveling to a country is not an endorsement of it’s government or the worst aspects of it. I love Serbia and I certainly do not support their government policies towards Kosovo, y’know?

  11. Sorry my first sentence was supposed to read “considering traveling to Egypt” – obviously I travel in Germany all the time!

  12. Thank you for your response, Sarah, but I see a difference in this case with your example of how many of us felt about the US image represented by wars we fought. In any country that allows free expression, the state does not sponsor bigotry and disallow dissent. Of course you are correct in saying that a “people of a country are not their government” and I am certain there are wonderful people in every country of the world. However, I would not have chosen to visit apartheid South Africa to enjoy going on safari, just as I would not go on a “group tour” or “resort trip” to Egypt as a Jewish person at the present time. I feel that I would be supporting the economy of a regime that publicly supports hate for me and my beliefs (While I am sailing down the Nile, I would be unlikely to interact with locals who would like to learn about me as a representative of the Jewish people!).

    When there is a legitimate opposition group there who is allowed the freedom to stand up to government bigotry, say the unpopular truth and not be silenced, I will be buying my ticket to see the pyramids.

    and…re Serbia/Kosovo—I know noting about the government policies you mention, but that would not stop me from visiting Serbia either. I would visit any democratic country where dissent is tolerated. The Israeli government makes policies I don’t care for but there are many in that country who oppose some of these policies and can write about it in a free press. For instance, certainly I am missing out by having no interest in going to China, but…there are so many other countries in the world to see!

  13. Dear Friends,

    What Rick and Trish are doing is what our American media would not touch with a ten-foot pole.

    Thanks so much for your sensitive reporting of the issues facing the people of Egypt.

    Rick’s Doppelganger
    JLRMGP at gmail
    WEDU Tampa

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