Relentless Optimism

AngerIt was June 30th when I boarded an early morning flight in Cairo bound for Tanzania. The school year had just come to an end and I was dying for a vacation. For months, the Rebel campaign had been gaining momentum and signatures to hold mass protests on that same day. The campaign sought the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi or snap elections to rid the country of its first democratically elected leader. Petitions were everywhere. People collected signatures on the streets, in gas stations and in my staff room. The country was buzzing with the possibility, the hope, of something new. In the days leading up to the 30th, people poured into grocery stores and marketplaces, securing as much food and water as they could in preparation. As I sat in my apartment in a compound on the edge of the sprawling megalopolis, I worried whether or not the airport would remain open. Eventually, the day came and I left in the early hours of the morning without a hitch. I arrived in Tanzania and headed into their northern national park circuit, away from Twitter, away from Facebook and away from Egypt. A week later on July 7th, I returned to the land of the Internet and sped to my laptop to see what had transpired. Everything had.

I returned to Egypt on the 16th of July to a country that had been turned upside down. The president was being held captive by the military; leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood were being arrested, their media outlets being shut down. As I drove down the desert road to my apartment, tanks and APVs lined the highway. Military helicopters flew overhead with Egyptian flags billowing below. The Rebel campaign had succeeded. Over the next two days, I packed up my belongings and said my goodbyes and left the country, with no plan to return in the foreseeable future.

Now that I am back in Canada, sitting at the kayak shop I call home on Prince Edward Island, my mind is still in Cairo. Today, I woke up to an explosion of news about the clearing of the various pro-Morsi sit-ins. Clashes are breaking out across the country. Christian churches are being attacked and burned in new waves of sectarian violence. Pro-Morsi protesters are being killed and forced to flee from the heavy-handed police. Chaos reigns supreme throughout the country.

OptimismAt this time, my main concern is with my colleagues and the hundreds of young Egyptians I called my students. Their idealism, their hope, their optimism in the face of all that they have endured since the uprising in January 2011 is hanging by a thread. They would ask me what I thought would happen to Egypt and I would tell them I didn’t know, but the only thing we could do was to hope and be involved in the democratic process. I would tell them that democracy is not just a political system, it is not just about counting votes and casting a ballot but rather about shared values and respect for others opinions. I told them that the hardest part of democracy is accepting when you don’t get your way. You put your faith in the will of the majority. This tolerance and acceptance is not something that you can gain through a revolution. The values of democracy that have been instilled over 150 years in Canadians have been learned, not taken.

As I see the violence unfolding and the response of the military, I am reminded that Egyptians have never had democracy. One of, if not the, oldest civilization on planet earth is in its infancy when it comes to democracy. The police and the army know how to govern and react to protests based on authoritarian principles, not democratic ones. The people are just learning how to express themselves through protest and petitions, but the expression comes at the cost of understanding each other. The divided factions in Egypt are all contesting for their chance to be heard for the first time, and no one wants to be silenced.

I am reminded of the mornings when I would come to school and fighting and violence were fresh from the night before. The students would come into class, some would be upset, some would be scared and others were indifferent, desensitized to the mindlessness. On these days, we would sit and eat cake and talk about how we felt and share our dreams for Egypt. Most of all, my young teenage students wanted peace and stability. They wanted the chance to follow their dreams and restore Egypt. They wanted to come to school without having to walk through a war zone to get on their bus. On the worst nights, when protests turned into street battles and people were killed, many schools would cancel the following day. The administration at my school refused to do this. So long as we could, we would come to school and push on with educating young Egyptians. Every hope that Egypt has hinges on the youth. Education is their power for change.

So here I sit, reflecting on the students who got up each morning and made the long commute through the hellish Cairo traffic to come learn. Their country was being pulled apart around them, the lives they knew turned upside down but they remained committed. It would be easy to despair and some days I found myself on the verge, but these young people kept on. They are living through one of the most tumultuous periods in the glorious long-lived history of Egypt, the cradle of civilization. Their courage, their resolve, and their eagerness to learn and understand are where my hopes for Egypt reside.

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