The news and images coming from Egypt this past week have been unsettling for most. Scenes of protesting and violence in the streets, so close on the heels of the the Tunisian protests have led many to wonder if we are on the brink of upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East. Foreign governments have called for evacuations of their citizens from Egypt and have begun arranging for special flights to get ex-pats out of the country. The wealthy have been fleeing as well. While middle-class travelers have been sleeping on the floor of the airport waiting for flights, over 60 private planes have taken off, apparently including one carrying one of the most famous names/faces in the Arab world – pop star Amr Diab.
Of course, the majority of the Egyptian population do not have the means or interest to flee the country. This is a popular uprising fueled, in part, by economic discontent and the huge gap between the haves and have-nots in the country. Officially around 20% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. These are old statistics and unofficial estimates are that closer to 50% of the population live in poverty – unable to provide for their basic daily needs. Unemployment is high, even among university graduates.
I know many Egyptians here in Jordan. They fuel the service sector of the economy working as janitors, car washers, garbage-men, waiters, cooks, and guards. Restaurant workers tend to work 12-hour shifts for less than a Jordanian Dinar per hour. Our building guard doesn’t even get paid by our landlord – for his hard work his family of 5 gets the privilege of living out of two tiny rooms and collecting a small monthly stipend from tenants. For 6 or 7 Dinars Egyptians will wash Jordanian cars 2 or 3 times a week for an entire month. Compared to life in America these “jobs” and rates of pay are so sub-standard its hard to even categorize. However, every Egyptian I know here says that life and work conditions in Jordan are far superior to opportunities available back in Egypt. They would rather live as 2nd-class citizens and work for next to nothing here in Jordan than face the lack of opportunity in Egypt.
So it is no surprise that the those struggling with poverty and daily existence are now protesting in the streets. The wonder is not that it is happening now, but that it has taken so long for it to occur.
It is hard at this point to tell if change will be for the better. Many of the Egyptians I speak to here in Jordan view the unrest as a very positive thing. They are hopeful that it will prompt true political change for the better. However, Christian Egyptians (in the vast minority), are very nervous. Copts in particular have been the victims of much violence over the past several years. In the midst of the current unrest members of the radical groups who advocate such attacks have been freed from prisons. Many are speculating that more radical elements will fill the power void that appears to be developing in Egypt.
Of course the media plays of the fears of a radicalization of the Islamic street in Egypt. The reports of vigilante justice and mob mentality sounds pretty scary. However, one American friend of mine says he is appreciative of the club-wielders on his street. With the breakdown in police services and spread of unrest families and neighbors have been looking out for each other. Curfew starts at 2:30 PM. After that strangers are not welcome on the street and private citizens will do what is necessary to protect themselves. My friend is known in the neighborhood and is not really concerned for his safety. Egypt is a collectivist society and it is not, like some Americans might imagine, truly “every man for himself.” Just like in the rest of the Middle East, family and tribe and neighbor and guest are words that hold important – almost sacred – meaning. What may seem like a dangerous man with a club or knife on television may actually be a father standing ready to protect his family and guests.
Of course, my prayer and hope for Egypt is peace. In the short term that senseless violence and looting would cease and that order would be restored. However, true peace will not come to Egypt without justice. Economic justice. Social Justice (to use a phrase demonized by conservative politics in America). Political Justice. And solutions that recognize that all people deserve dignity and opportunity and the ability to not just survive each day, but to thrive.
Of course these problems are not just present in Egypt. The gap between the economic and political haves and have-nots has been growing steadily around the world. Personally I am afraid that “every man for himself” thinking has gotten us into these situations, but will not get us out.
Filed under: Egypt, Intercultural Notes, peace, Social Justice, Violence | Tagged: economics, Egypt, Egyptian protests, justice, media, political violence, Poverty, Protest, Social Justice | 1 Comment »