Back home

I’ve been home for about three days now after surviving over 24 hours traveling, sustained by Cliff Bars, airline food, and caffeine. My mom barely held her tears in as she squeezed me near the baggage counter in the echoing spaces of the near-empty airport. The rest of the flight pooled around the carousel, frayed and wrinkled.

“It’s good to be home,” I said.

And it was. Four days before, June 30th arrived after weeks of warnings, anticipation, and scattered protests. Like a ruptured pipe, millions pooled into the squares and streets across Egypt. Tamarod, the grass-roots movement that organized the opposition, flaunted 22 million signatures to throw out Morsi while Tagarod, the pro-Morsi opposition, organized sit-ins.

As some graffiti said, “January 25 and June 30, our Revolution continues.”

Flags, fireworks, clenched fists, posters, and red cards colored the crowds. Couples, children, and friends held cards reading “Leave.” In a country with notorious disregard for timeliness, organization, and teamwork, millions gathered with a single purpose.

“It is the biggest protest in Egypt’s history,” one official told Agence France-Presse.

On Monday, protestors torched and looted the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo, and Tamarod issued an ultimatum to Morsi: 24 hours to meet the people’s demands or face widespread civil disobedience. The tourism, environment, communications, judicial, and parliamentary ministers resigned.

Stepping in amid the growing violence, the military issued its own 48-hour ultimatum for Morsi: meet opposition demands or face an “imposed solution.”

The protestors cheered after hearing the news, while military personnel passed out water and organized a flyby of helicopters hanging Egyptian flags. Morsi remained defiant.

As protests continued on Tuesday, the military held talks with Morsi. Worried, the National Salvation Front, the main opposition coalition, stated it would not accept a coup. Meanwhile, the spokesmen for the president and the cabinet quit, making Morsi more isolated.

Despite the odds, Morsi gave a 45-minut speech saying he would maintain the presidency to assure constitutional legitimacy, even if it cost him his life.

Wednesday began with an emergency meeting scheduled by the military, attended by representatives from other key groups, like ElBaradei–the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and dissident central to the January 25 Revolution. Tamarod leaders, ministers, religious figures, and members of Al-Nour, a conservative Salafi party, also joined.

According to the AFP, the military swore an oath at the meeting, saying “We swear to God that we will sacrifice our blood for Egypt and its people against all terrorists, extremists, and the ignorant.”

By evening, as the sun was beginning to set and the military’s ultimatum reached its deadline, troops and armored vehicles swept through Cairo, securing key buildings and fanning out around protests. The military put Morsi and other key Brotherhood figures under house arrest and later issued a statement that outlined a plan for the future.

It concluded, “God preserve Egypt and its great defiant people.”

Opposition protestors met the news with jubilation, while pro-Morsi demonstrators called it a coup. Others agreed, sparking a debate.

Since then, protests from both sides have continued as the interim government–mostly military and loose coalition–lurches forward. Progress is obscure and violence continues, with hundreds getting injured and the death toll rising each day. Today, over 42 died, according to the BBC, after the military fired on a crowed of Morsi supporters outside a barracks. The military said a terrorist group had tried to seize the building. Many called those who died “martyrs,” and the Al-Nour party withdrew from talks.

Meanwhile, the average Egyptian still suffers under the same economy that spurred Tamarod’s support. More than fifty percent of the country lives under $2 per day–up from over 40 percent under Mubarak. Foreign reserves continue to shrink: $34 billion before the revolution to $14 billion now. Egypt’s credit score lies in ribbons, cut 16 times in the past two years. Inflation is up, wages are down, and tourism stagnates with all-time lows.

When early elections finally occur, if they occur, Morsi’s predecessor has a tough, maybe even impossible, task.

My own story the past four weeks, and the the past seven days, has weaved through Egypt’s like a distant subplot. On Saturday, the other Americans and I discussed our plans. Two of us had tickets to leave Thursday, while the other two had tickets for Saturday. Should we leave early? We didn’t know. Whoever we asked didn’t know either. We decided to wait.

Jun. 30 hit. My e-mail and Facebook lit up with concerned messages. Americans and others rushed the Cairo airport, clambering for tickets that weren’t there. The major news networks locked their eyes on Egypt.

Things were heating up, and our four-day lock down began.

On Sunday, we stayed inside, trying to pass the time. Normally punctured by car horns and street shouts, the air was almost silent. It didn’t sound like Cairo.

At night, I went for a walk with one of the students. The next day, he went to Rome to continue his studies.

“I am very worried for Egypt,” he said. “But I am very happy for her, too.” He smiled as he talked. Chanting and horns filled the silence of the conversation.

Just before we separated for bed, he turned to me. “You are like a brother to me,” he said. “I want you to pray for me and pray for Egypt.”

“I will,” I said.

After he left, I went up to the roof. A cluster of people waving signs and flags walked on the neighboring road, chanting “Go away Morsi!” in Arabic. Cars honked out pulsing rhythms, and passengers leaned out windows, waving flags. Fireworks cracked like gunshots and flared into the sky, lightened the darkened buildings. In the distance, among the almost ghostly outlines of far away offices, pulses of light revealed more fireworks, more protests.

I sat on the edge of the roof. A lone light–possibly Venus–pierced the sky above my head. The sky was a pale, almost ruddy black. A hard wind blew, and an old can rattled as it rolled along the flat stones.

The next days passed with the same rhythm. Inside the seminary, time had a loose feeling, almost contemplative, but stresses broke inside the walls as two teachers struggled to find flights home for Thursday and concerned messages continued to filter into our in-boxes, spurring us to act. The uncertainty continued.

The final day, we watched a movie picked by one of the advanced students: V for Vendetta.

It was surreal. The images and words felt so close to home–so realistic. Here, it wasn’t a fiction. Curfews, police brutality, corruption, unrest, revolution: the same words had colored Egypt’s vocabulary under Mubarak and after.

Before dinner, I read the news, seeing the tweets and updates filter in as the military took over. I didn’t know what to think. I went to my room and looked out the window. It was a normal evening. Neighborhood children played soccer on the field below. The call to prayer sounded, marking the time like chimes. The sun tinted the sky a fleshy shade of pink, and Egyptian flags draped from the walls and terraces of the nearby buildings, fluttering.

One would never know what was happening.

Likewise, after the dinner, the students played a series of games and performed plays,  and we almost forgot everything happening. Suddenly, a student in earphones stood up, rushed to the table, and started playing the military’s broadcast.

As the straight, almost monotonous voice outlined the plan for Egypt, the students exchanged glances. Near the conclusion, everyone cheered. “No more Morsi,” they repeated.

After goodbyes, the students collected their bags, preparing to catch home-bound trains and buses, and the teachers went to the roof.

The air was a perpetual horn, all the pulses of cars, trucks and motorcycles converging into a single drone. Cheers and chants echoed down the road. Fireworks continued to clap and fizz.

“This is amazing,” we said. “Unreal.”

After I packed and prepared for our early departure, I went back up, still wired from the day, taking my same post on the edge of the roof.

Gradually, the minutes passed and midnight hit: July Forth. My vigil had grown a little quieter, as the people moved to other areas, but I still saw fireworks and heard the pulsing horns as the new day started.

I thought of America’s own Revolution. I had read the documents, studied the people, and memorized the key speeches, but sitting on that rooftop in Cairo, my understanding deepened, hitting a more sonorous frequency.

Freedom had a new meaning.

I suppose that’s the lesson that drew me back to Egypt. Last year, I saw Egypt go through its first free election. This year, I saw Egypt go through its second Revolution. In both cases, people clung to freedom, a word American politicians use so frequently that it doesn’t mean anything anymore. “Freedom” lets us assert our own will, whether this means getting drunk, insulting rival groups, or oppressing others.

But as Camus said in his speech Bread and Freedom, “freedom is not made up principally of privileges; it is made up especially of duties.”

Camus argues that we have forgotten to defend freedom. Instead, we seek other things, like justice, pleasure, or bread. Only none of these things can function without freedom.

To break this cycle, and solve other issues, we must revive the value of freedom, agreeing to never sacrifice it, even for a moment.

Atop that roof, the anonymous names and faces that had colored the front page of papers at home were fleshed out and voiced. They were all around me, honking their horns, lighting the fuses of fireworks, and waving flags, thirsting for freedom.

Better than I, I think, they understood what Camus concludes: “that freedom is not a gift received from a State or a leader but a procession to be won everyday by the effort of each and the union of all.”

The next day, as I touched down in Syracuse, Fourth of July fireworks lit patches over the city, celebrating our own assertion of freedom in 1776, when Jefferson argued that if a government did not meet the needs of the people, they had the right to dissolve that government. About 14 years later, “We the people” established a more perfect union.

At the base of all our American rhetoric lies a spirit, I think, that resonates in Egypt because it resonates with all nations: people are people.

They are not mere numbers or statistics. They are not tools. They are not faceless collateral in the margins of newspapers or the stitches of clothing. They are not mere background to the photographs in textbooks or travel brochures.

People are people, and people have lives, longings, and fears, requiring freedom to function. For all our talk of globalization, world markets, democracy, and high-speed technology, we’re still caught up in the fractures that have always divided us: religions, nation-states, classes, physical differences, and more.

We can’t seem to move beyond that. Even within our homes. Even within Egypt.

Held by my mother, on the solid earth, mere miles from my home, but thousands of miles from Egypt, I recalled the rooftop and the students, the power outages and the Pyramids: the bits of Egypt lodged under my fingertips and buried in my heart. There, they would stay, a part of me. Mere miles and culture cannot separate people once they realize they’re people. It’s a faith seared into them by experience–or so it is with me.

And so I return to my daily life mindful of that rooftop, with its pale black sky and droning horns. As I promised my student, I will pray for Egypt and do whatever I can to witness freedom in my own life, grateful for the lessons I’ve learned.

From here, life unfolds.

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6 thoughts on “Back home

  1. A turbulent, frightening, wonderful time. I hope for the best for Egypt, fear the worst. The shootings by the army may well have only legitimized al-Nour, and gained it support it might not have had otherwise. Democracy is an idea; power is reality.

    1. I agree, unfortunately. I can see Egypt getting caught up by the power-fueled violence of the military and the uncompromising stance of the Brotherhood. Somehow, somewhere something will break, sparking widespread violence. I only hope civil war doesn’t take place and the military respects the factions of democracy. But more and more, hope seems foolish and idealistic.

  2. It must have been an incredible experience, one you are still probably living with all the chaos happening in Cairo. My feeling match a contradictory statement one of your friends made above about being worried for Egypt (how can you not be…the state of economy is not well), but at the same time being happy for her as well.

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