Cairo, Egypt: A Tale of Hope and Despair (Bojan Francuz)

Photo: Muhandesin Area of Cairo

Egypt: the land of the pharos and pyramids, gift of the Nile, the most populous country in the Arab world. Cairo: cultural and political center of the region, the city where history and modernity live side-by-side, and the smell of jasmine trees pierces the air.

That just doesn’t sound right. Let me try this again.

Egypt: politically instable military dictatorship in which corruption is prevalent and the safety and security of ordinary Egyptians and foreigners is not guaranteed. Cairo: overpopulated, smog-filled, trash covered metropolis through whose wide boulevards countless beggars roam.

Better? No.

Describing post-revolutionary Egypt and Cairo is not easy. In this country, in this city, hope and despair coexist in an awkward relationship which I as an outsider still cannot fully grasp.

Recently, I was afforded an opportunity to spend seven days in Egypt. I was there with colleagues from my program, and the purpose of our academic visit was to reflect on the modernizing initiatives – or the lack of them – in Egypt and compare them to those in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Jordan, unlike Egypt, is a country with meager natural resources, but highly educated population and throughout its history has been ruled by, for the lack of a better term, ‘benevolent’ monarchs. It cannot be denied that the ruling Hashemite family has made sure that all the Jordanians, and many refugees who have poured into the country for the past fifty years (Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians, and Somalis), have a ‘decent’ – in a very liberal sense of that definition – standard of living. On the contrary, for the past thirty years Egypt has been ruled by a corrupt dictator and his close circle of cronies while ordinary Egyptians have been living in squalor.

These two different historical narratives can be easily spotted on the streets of Cairo and in conversation with Egyptians of all ages. Cairo’s architecture is a mix of Arab, African and European influences, but today many of its buildings are crumbling under the added weight newly constructed grey concrete floors built on top of them as a response to Cairo’s housing-shortage problem. People from across Egypt and many immigrants from other parts of Africa have swarmed into Cairo in search of a better life and economic opportunity. However, the circumstances that greeted them did not quite match up to their expectations. If you inquire about employment prospects the reply is always: awful. Wages? Miserable – if you are among the lucky few to get any. Living conditions: appalling, and then they point you in the direction of the City of the Dead to witness it for yourself.

Nevertheless, in the same breath many Egyptians will also tell you about their high hopes for building a new Egypt, a better nation, which would once again be pride of the Arab world. This new face of Egypt is the face of the young college students who are hopeful and optimistic about the future of their country. I’ve met some of them at the University of Cairo and I was amazed by their level of political involvement. They all have high stakes in rebuilding their country, and at the same time they understand it will take more time, energy, sweat, and pain to achieve this goal that it took to build the pyramids.

Photo: Poster at the Cairo International Airport

And the January revolution? No conversation in Egypt goes without the phrase “in new Egypt things will …” Having had an opportunity to talk to people in Tahrir Square and several political activists, I’ve got the sense that today in Egypt more political space has been created for the voices of the young and the oppressed. Tahrir square is a symbol of people power, but also a place of empowered Egypt where anyone can now air their grievances without the fear of retribution.

Photo: Long Live the Revolution

Bojan Francuz is studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, with SIT Study Abroad.

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