It feels like yesterday when my father came home and told us we were leaving New York and going back to Egypt where he was just named as a Minister in Anwar Sadat’s cabinet. I was only 15 then having left Egypt at the age of 7 when my father was effectively banished for writing an article that was deemed to be critical of Egypt’s former President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
I didn’t know what to make of all this, except the reassurance my father gave me that Egypt was paradise, and that I would leave New York and never look back. When we finally arrived in Egypt, arrived back home, my written and spoken Arabic were still somewhat rusty, and the country was still at war with Israel. But, even during war time, you would never know it. Nothing was out of the ordinary, everyone seemed so happy even though the country was far from prosperous, and there was no crime; none. Yes, there was petty theft, but that was just about it. My mother was angered once because our nanny stole her bra, and felt terrible afterwards when she found that she in fact had misplaced it. That was it; that was the level of crime in the 1970s. You could go anywhere, walk anywhere, do anything, except maybe criticize the President and those in his entourage, but that was it.
You could walk the streets until four in the morning and never worry about being mugged like you would have in the New York of the 1970s. There were no murders that I could ever remember, except for those crimes of passion when someone came home when they weren’t supposed to, and infidelity seemed the only reason that justified murder. Egypt had no Jeffrey Dalmers, no Charles Mansons, no real crazies, just little murders killing out of a perverse sense of honor.
The first time many from our generation saw a real murder committed was when President Sadat was assassinated, his killers justifying it mostly around Sadat’s desire to make peace with Israel. And, make no mistake, the people that killed him weren’t little murders, they were much more than that, ideologues on a mission that very few people understood at the time.
Hosni Mubarak, President Sadat’s Vice President, became President of Egypt after the assassination and remained President for 30 years. For thirty years, every four or five years, a mock election would take place, and President Mubarak would be reelected to another term receiving 99 percent of the popular vote. But, I never saw anyone vote, never knew anyone who voted, it was just a sham election, and we learned to live with this lie every half decade or so.
This lie wasn’t too much of a bother to anyone because for a long time under President Mubarak’s tenure, times were good. People weren’t rich by any means, but a large percentage of the population was in the middle class, and there were poor people yes, but there weren’t any outrageously rich people to make anyone envious. By the end of the 1990s, that all changed, and Egypt became a country of the haves and have nots. The majority became severely impoverished, while a small percentage of the population lived the lives of the rich and famous with extravagance that knew no bounds.
I had warned about this inequity for years, wrote about if often in the articles I’d written in the Egyptian economist. I would even go as far as to say I predicted some of the upheaval we are seeing today. But, I wasn’t the only person making that prediction, any fool could see what was coming, but anyone who said Egypt was nothing other than prosperous would be shut down, unable to write, unable to lecture, considered a voice of dissent, someone envious of success, or a scrooge representing some foreign interest.
But, I was an idealist. I wasn’t for or against anyone let alone the government of the time, or even the prevailing system. I wasn’t going to fight that system either, and I figured the best I could do was to join government and do what I could from the inside. And, no, it wasn’t an if you can’t beat them join them strategy, I was a young man who saw my father’s ideals, who believed in love of country, someone so full of himself at the ripe old age of 25 who was on a mission to make things right. Years passed quickly and anything I tried to do couldn’t make a dent. I left government defeated and broken wondering what would become of Egypt over the medium term.
My years in government were all but boring. It was unbelievable how much back stabbing could happen in a place where people were making less than $100 a month. I remember on one festive occasion, the Eid, I was working late in the office and my mother called to ask me when I would come home because we were expecting guests. I remember saying soon, but after I hung-up a man’s voice followed at the end of that conversation. He said, “Dr. Sherif, I too wish you a happy Eid.” I recall saying, “and you are?” with his answer being something to the effect, “I’m the guy who is always here on the phone with you day in and day out. And, if I may say, you work too hard, go home and enjoy the holiday and know I am always one hello away if you need me. We are always here to protect and serve.” He went on to wish me a happy Eid, and I wished him the same. Naively, I asked him if my long hours kept him away from his family, but he said no, they worked in shifts, but that he got me most of the time.
Yes, it was a police state, but it was stable. It was also a system of rules, not too many, and rules that were very easy to understand. You knew who you couldn’t criticize and if you did the consequences weren’t pretty. The motto of the day was “don’t look for trouble, and trouble won’t look for you”.
I guess thirty years of a police state were just too much for people to handle, coupled with too much corruption, poverty and nepotism. People celebrated when that system collapsed, and I profess to being one of those people. We wanted our freedom, that’s all, a voice, a new way of doing things, and with it we lost the stability that we once cherished. Today you can’t walk the streets at four in the morning, there isn’t petty crime; there is major crime. People are getting killed left and right. Half the time, you don’t even know who the perpetrators were that committed this crime or that; all you know is a lot of people died. They can be killed in demonstrations, and maybe this you can partly understand. But, they are also dying going to soccer games, going to Libya to find work and in other events that are highly publicized and often look staged. The last thing I saw was a beheading that some jack ass sent me to see on video. He sent a link with an ominous message “watch this”. I did, and I was sick to my stomach. I called him and asked him why he felt the need to send me something so awful and his response was “look closely at the butchers hand; he’s wearing a Rolex watch. He’s chopping someone’s head off and he’s wearing a Rolex watch”. My follow-up question was “so?”, and his come backer was “who would get blood on his Rolex, this has to be staged”.
Really, another conspiracy theory? That’s all we hear today is one conspiracy theory after the other. Some of the conspiracies are about forces from within the country; others are about our enemies outside the country. And, everyone is happy when one side or another gets whacked, murdered for lack of a better word.
I called my sister in Cairo from Washington DC the other day to check in on her and her family. She said “well today was a good day, there were three bombings in Cairo on Sunday, two on Monday, four on Tuesday, but thankfully nothing today”. She worried that if nothing happened today though, this was likely to be the calm before the storm and something really bad would happen soon and she was right. The next day the ceremonial execution of the abducted Egyptians in Libya followed. And, yes the lead executioner was wearing what looked like a $10,000 dollar watch to the beheading. Maybe, because he knew he was going to be on camera, he dressed up, maybe it was a fake, or he has a whole bunch of watches from people he killed before, either way it was all disgusting, all crazy, all senseless. An atrocity committed not by little murders, but big ones.
But, I learned long ago from living history in the Middle East that crazy people don’t sit around wondering if they’re nuts. Crazy people will do crazy things especially if they think they are doing it for a worthwhile cause like salvation, or God. At least to them, this doesn’t make them crazy.
Now, many of the people that celebrated the old system’s demise wish that those days could somehow return, with the stability, or the mirage of stability it once held. This much I do know now; we are no longer in an airport in New York in the 1970s being approached by someone pandering for the Hari Krishna’s. There aren’t people out there who are either harmless, or capable of being little murders, they have the potential to be much bigger than that, and this is the beginning of something truly scary, if not outright evil.
So the status quo now seems to be everyone is killing everyone for some reason or another. This will undoubtedly lead to decades of long lasting bitterness and a future of meaningless chaos. While I can’t pretend that this time I can guess how Egypt’s fortunes will turn, all I can say is I long for what was, even if it was an illusion. I long for stability, for the time no one felt threatened for who they are, what they believe in, or what they have or don't have. Today’s Egypt is not a place for little murders; it’s for big murders with ambition. Persistence in killing is the path that some believe will accomplish their aims. Murder, mass murder, is the vehicle they hope will propel them to power.
But, maybe their aim isn’t to seize power. Maybe, they want us to live in their world of fear, where there is no escape, no surrender and no mercy. Where they get to kill every last bastard that stands in their way not for revenge, not because they deserve it, not because it will create the divinity on earth they wish to establish. They need a heap of bloody bodies so when it’s all said and done, all of us will see what it cost to mess with them.
So, parents like my sister now live in an Egypt where their heart’s drop when they put their kids on a school bus. This is their life today. They are all scared, they are all victims, and in the minds of a whole bunch of little murders and big ones, this is called winning.