Friday, October 24, 2014

Cairo Trip

With Scott and Matt from the EMI office in Colorado. You
can see the typical smokey/dusty African air.
Arriving into Cairo and stepping off the plane onto steps leading down to the tarmac, the warm and musty air and smell of sweet smoke made me feel like I was in Uganda. Looking over to the side beyond the airport fence though, I could see a very fancy hotel with two black luxury cars out front – it was clear there were going to be differences from Uganda! Once inside the airport, it was a strange mix of a very nice building with subtle signs of a lack of proper care and cleaning. The white structure of the ceiling was shadowed with dirt – like I’ve seen in virtually every African country.
Downtown Cairo, split by the Nile River
And overall, I think my first impression was an accurate picture of my first, overall impression of Egypt – a mix of sights, sounds and culture that show both signs of extreme wealth (Middle East oil) and lack of development or proper management of resources that keep you well reminded that you’re in Africa. You see fancy buildings and homes, nice cars, and most all the Western stores that are noticeably absent from other African countries like Uganda – McDonald’s, KFC, IKEA, Starbucks and more. But you also have roadways that are arguably less orderly than Uganda – 4 lanes of traffic, except the lane markings are absolutely meaningless. I mean that literally - they are completely ignored, even when there’s no traffic a car is just as likely to straddle the line as it is to be in a particular lane. It boggles the mind - even in a place like Uganda cars generally spend at least a fair amount of time in one particular lane or another. But that was not what I saw in Egypt.
My favorite coffee chain from the UK - I was quite
pleasantly surprised to find they had stores in Egypt!

I thought this was funny once I learned it wasn't what I thought
it was. 'Isis' is an Egyptian goddess from the polytheistic
pantheon of ancient Egypt.
You also see some trash and overall dirtiness of things that give it an African look. Most of the buildings in the city are 6-15 stories tall or more, smashed side by side with a network of very narrow and crowded streets – almost like England in that regard. On the outside, the buildings look like they’re poorly cared for, but architecturally they are elaborate and no doubt were very fancy looking when they were new. Inside, most every building has air conditioning, and it’s striking to the first timer how generally nice the insides are. So yes, a weird mix – almost like a halfway point between sub-Saharan Africa and the modern, European world to the north. I’m told that this is a pretty accurate picture of the Middle East as a whole.

Surprisingly – though I’m not sure why it was surprising to me – the people here are very nice and friendly. The animosity I was expecting to sense for being a Christian and an American visiting a predominantly Muslim country in the Middle East hasn’t appeared. I feel respected and very much welcome to be here. We’ve been told that though most people aren’t always fond of the US government nor of the immoral images that Hollywood projects of our culture, people generally like Americans here.

A 'Coptic' cathedral in Cairo. The Coptic church has it's roots in the
apostle Mark, whose tomb is in downtown Cairo.
One thing I’ve been told about Muslims here in Egypt is that the majority are very moral and kind people whose main objection to America, and by proxy Christians, is the immorality that TV and the movies project of us. That’s seems to be the case here in Egypt, where my impression of the general public is that they seem very 'normal' and even fairly modern. They have large, Western shopping malls, and the culture definitely seems to be impacted by aspects of Western culture. But there are differences too – alcohol is largely unavailable in Egypt, except for in ‘Christian’ parts of town. You can begin to see why so many Muslims have the view that Christianity is a perversion of religion and an abomination to God. It’s sad, because this misperception drives them further away from exploring who Jesus claimed to be.
The roots of Christianity here in Egypt are an important
part of the history of this country.

As a 'non-John', I'm a bit of a photo-bomber in this
picture with John D. and John B. (Not pictured from
our group - John S. from the EA office).
But, getting to recent events and the state of Egypt today… and in case you didn’t follow along in the last few years as to what happened in Egypt, here’s a brief synopsis of the two revolutions that have occurred here since 2011 (which is remarkable by the way - two complete and successful revolutions in the past 3+ years. It's amazing the country is as stable and peaceful as it is right now.). I’m by no means an expert on the subject, but this is what I’ve pieced together from talking with a few people here:

Tahrir Square off in the distance. This was 'ground zero' for
the first revolution.
The headquarters for former President Mubarek's political
party was torched during the first revolution in 2011.
1) After 30 years in office, the public grew frustrated with President Mubarek. Despite the fact that he’d done a lot of good things in the region and brought peace during his time at a number of key points, there was a lot of corruption in his government and the lowest class in Egypt really suffered. It’s said that in the last years he was in power, the entire annual income earned from the Suez Canal was used to fund the operation of the Presidential Palace! (It’s interesting to note that Mubarek had very good relations with the USA, to the point that the Egyptian army is 2nd only to Israel in the amount of support they receive from the USA). In the end, it was the middle class who stuck up for the lower class, and they ultimately threw him out of power using largely peaceful demonstrations starting at Tahrir Square (we visited there briefly yesterday – just a large traffic circle in the center of town). In the following several months while the military ruled the country, an election was held where the candidates were a candidate from Mubarek’s party, a candidate from the more hard-line Muslim Brotherhood, and a few other minor candidates. Since the Christians are a small minority, and as a backlash against Mubarek’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate won the election.

The torched building in the distance, along the banks of
the Nile River.
2) The 2nd Revolution: After less than 2 years in power, the newly elected President Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood was thrown out of power by the same people that threw out Mubarek. This time, the reasoning was religious – President Morsi was unabashedly turning Egypt into a very conservative, fundamentalist Muslim country. He was imposing the more strict version of Islam on the Egyptian people, and the people didn’t like it. As I mentioned, the vast majority of Egyptians are very moderate Muslims who value their societal freedoms and modern ways and they saw those values quickly eroding under Morsi. In the end, large demonstrations (mostly by the middle and upper middle class, so they were largely peaceful) led to the leader of the military going on national TV and telling the President to step down. He also asked the people to show their support for this by turning out the next day in the streets around the presidential palace. Millions showed up, so the military removed the president and once again took over the country. They set up another round of elections, but this time the head of the military ran and was easily elected the new president. Since that time, things have been largely stable and calm in Egypt, partially due to a bit of heavy-handedness (the military isn’t allowing dissenting groups from rising up again). The only remaining tension comes from the remnant of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Virtually all the leaders of that group have been arrested and convicted already – some given life sentences and others even a death sentence. So occasionally, you’ll see a news report of an attack on a police officer or soldier in Egypt, signaling that the Brotherhood supporters are still fighting for their cause. But overall, it seems the vast majority of the Egyptian people are content with the new government.
It was great to see my friend and former colleague,
Mike Woods, from the EMIUK office.