Egypt is the place to be right now. Personally, I don’t want to be there, but it is certainly the best place to be. I am jealous of those who are there right now. Before I explain why, a little background:
On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, self-immolated in front of his local police station. His protest incited protests throughout the country, which in turn evoked from the state violent attempts to quell. Bouazizi’s death on January 4, along with the Tunisian President’s sickening visit to his bedside, further fueled the popular uprising—against economic hardship, for political freedom. The unrest quickly spread all along Africa’s Mediterranean coast: Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and others—countries with similar issues of prosperity and freedom. And not long after, it made its way Eastward, into Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.
The West’s focus is now on Egypt, which saw its first protests in late January. Egypt draws so much attention as the convergence of the political (it’s Israel’s best ally on the block), the economic (its Suez is crucial for world trade), and historical (home of the Sphinx, the pyramids, the Pharaohs, all romantic images in the Western mind). But it shares many of its neighbors’ problems, against which millions now protest: Mubarak’s authoritarian regime; his son’s expected inheritance of the ‘throne’; an intense police presence. The intensity of our popular and political interest in Egypt is the combination of its importance to the U.S. as an ally and its rejection of that with which it is allied, its simultaneous anti- and pro-democratic nature. And these protests—which have spread throughout the country from Cairo to Alexandria to Sharm-el-Sheikh and have forced the resignation of many cabinet members and, nearly, Mubarak himself—bring this paradox to the forefront. The decidedly pro-democratic protesters are pitted against the decidedly anti-democratic regime and, yet, if the U.S. supports the protesters, it might be undermining Israel—that lionized democracy—and Mubarak’s efforts against anti-democratic terrorism.
Egypt’s geo-political significance drew a number of Woodrow Wilson-types to Cairo for what was supposed to be a Spring Semester abroad—to study Arabic, the Middle East, and so on. Egypt is an immensely popular destination for such studies abroad both for its significance and, ironically, its relative safety that resulted from Mubarak’s oppression of all potentially dangerous opposition. But this unrest has loosed his and his forces’ hold on the populace; violence has broken out between his forces and protesters; looting and vandalism abound. It is, apparently, no longer safe for a Woodrow Wilson student to be there, and those students were evacuated with haste and immaculacy—their experience over, their semester disrupted, but their bodies/lives safe. Newsweek documented their ordeal, in an article dubbed “Evacuating Egypt”, which I read and which spurred my jealousy:
[Robert] Joyce [a Princeton student] spent part of Saturday night wielding a broomstick on the street with the neighborhood watch that had been organized to protect the building from armed looters, escaped convicts from a nearby prison, and thugs rumored to be hired by President Hosni Mubarak. “About every hour to 45 minutes, there’d be a car or a group of guys with guns who would start shooting, and the entire mob of people on the block would charge them,” Joyce says. Adds Tik Root, a Middlebury junior who lived in the apartment complex and had been studying in Egypt since September: “I personally had a PVC pipe. It really hit me that this was all we had to defend us against gunshots and Mubarak’s thugs. It was really scary.”
I read this and swelled with jealousy rather than with sympathy or relief for the students or hatred for those gunmen. Jealousy, that is, for the American students’ ordeal. Jealous—why? Jealous of wielding a weak pipe or broom against blazing guns, jealous of being stranded amidst violent, revolutionary tumult—why? Because it is a real experience, a really real experience, that is not to be had in these states.
First, is not Joyce’s guard shift the adult equivalent of the fort-games children play in snow and backyards? I don’t mean to trivialize the weight of his situation, but my first reaction to reading “wielding a broomstick on the street with the neighborhood watch that had been organized” was envy at his fun. This was a child’s game with stakes, unlike any child’s game in the world. This was a game with direct, physical consequences to losing, not merely inadvertent bumps and scrapes, which in turn makes the game more fun—in the same way that some ‘civilized’ games, like hide-and-go-seek, in their rare moments of uncertainty induce delightful anxiety and tension, in their participants approaching terror without touching it. Joyce’s experience, essentially a realized game of hide-and-go-seek, in its moment, reversed the contemporary American experience of play, which is of simulation and safety. The 20th century has been typified by the rise in popularity of organized sports that act out Wilderness scenes—the ‘shootouts’ between pitcher and batter, linebacker and running-back, for instance—and in doing so within the confines of stadia and rules, remove their wildness and true spirit. That century and this one have also seen the rise of organized play for children, in playgrounds and classrooms, where all risk is removed and all walls are padded. Joyce’s ‘game’ on that Egyptian street exists external to any ‘friendly confines,’ to any system of rules. And there is something about its lack of padding of every sense that makes it deeply attractive in this risk-less world, this comfortable bubble, for the games we most enjoy watching, like football and hockey, are also the most violent.
Second, wouldn’t his experience have been the ultimate semester abroad, the ultimate international experience, had he stayed? From what I’ve heard, if a study abroad student is out late on a dark street on any continent, he or she is probably drunk. And even if not inebriated, what might the student be doing? Learning a language, seeing sights, learning about the country, talking with ‘locals,’ writing home about how fantastic ‘locals’ are, perhaps living with a model local family—all of these are great, formative things. Being in Egypt now, even without that formal foreign education, would trump all other programs. Why? Because what one could experience in Egypt now—public passion, violence, true political change, the abandonment of ‘normality’ and pure ‘survivalism’—is truly rare in this world in which authority seemingly absorbs opposition instead of rejecting and thereby validating it. Egypt’s internal clash, rather than reaffirming the existence of social stratification, affirms anew the human practice of principle and belief. This clash of passions—for liberation and for ruling—would be inspiring to see, on sabbatical from our repressed West. Furthermore, one would be witnessing raw history as it happens, rare as well in our settled culture of petrified pasts. The intimate experience of passion, as such, is a uniquely edifying experience. The purpose of studying abroad, and travel itself is to experience the locally unavailable. Egypt, beyond its universities, possesses the most potently experiential experience.
A noodler might ask: but what about the violence? The violence is essential to my—and I suspect, many people’s—current attraction to Egypt, and to the value of being there, too. That violence, comprised of actual violence and simulated violence (protests and the repression of them) and intellectual violence (anti-establishment and pro-establishment, but either way radical), is the lure, for it is by adjoining that violence that one may learn the Truth of human nature and the Truth of oneself—both are evoked by extremity.
Third, the extreme conditions that brought Joyce into the street with his broomstick are petri dishes for rapid maturation. Rarely here, especially rarely in Princeton, is one truly forced to survive in an active way; usually, we just doddle along a comfortable slipstream, whose jutting rocks are usually fiscal or fornicative. These protests, however, in penetrating the repressing veneer of the Egyptian state also penetrate the witness’ own calm veneer. Being there necessitates being there. One must, as Joyce did, fend for oneself and cooperate with one’s neighbors and think quickly and well and take one’s fate wholly into one’s own hands. A sense of deep responsibility—which comes far later in life, once life is ‘achieved’, if at all—is in Egypt found, in response to the terrifying confrontation with ‘the Real.’
The experience of Egypt, as of now, thrills, educates, and steels a person for the lesser challenges of life. As such, the experience of Egypt is not to be avoided and evacuated away from, but, rather, engaged as unique and important in these numbing modern times. That is why I am jealous of the students who were abroad there: they experienced an unfetishized brush with extremity that elicits humanity from the experiencer. Few will have a similar opportunity, but the students have returned to Pleasantville. That is also why I would not go there now: in doing so, I would, in a sense, sterilize and theatricize that extremity through my calculated experiencing of it.
But, regardless of side-taking, the unrest in Egypt has positive consequences for us, who lay beyond its sphere of extremity. Though we can see its extremity only through the nullifying screen of the television—so we don’t actually experience its extremity— we understand its symbolism immediately: the cracking of repression by the very passion that repression represses. It gives great hope that stasis is not, in fact, static, and that our domestification by ourselves for the sake of prosperity and survival is not eternal, and that a passionate public, accompanied by a more passionate private, will manifest itself in America in response to injustice, as it has in Egypt.
One does, however, fear that Egypt’s repression will simply absorb the people’s passion, that a few compromises will be made and the repression will ooze back, and that America will understand the unrest as a distant problem. Literally, it is not distant, for our government supports Mubarak’s regime, and because our societal repression allows Egypt’s societal repression to persist, the opposition to Mubarak’s repression and the cracking of that repression are also directed at us. These protests have shattered Egypt’s repressiveness and made it a unique locus of transformative extremity. These protests should teach us to acknowledge our own repression and should inject our intense social moderateness with an ounce of extremity, that we should understand them as Rilke’s command to care and improve: you must change your life.