I spent nearly two years in Egypt in the late 1990s. I was a study abroad student for one semester at the American University in Cairo, and two years later, I returned to teach journalism and help advise the student newspaper at the university. AUC is in Tahrir Square where the demonstrations are taking place daily. The time I spent there was filled with laughter, sumptuous food, sight seeing, learning Arabic, visiting relatives (my sister’s in-laws), and meeting some of the kindest and fun-loving people I’ve ever come across. Those people became friends and although I haven’t returned to Egypt since 1997, my memories and relatives have kept me connected to the country. One day trip I took with friends in Cairo was to the Southern Cemetery where impoverished Egyptians have turned a graveyard into a slum city. When I watch the demonstrations on TV and youtube now, I look at my photos from the cemetery to understand why Egyptians have risen. In one picture, a woman cleans the sewage from her tin made home with a straw broom, her headscarf wrapped around her nose. I could take the photo because her home had no door and the cloth curtain she had installed was slightly drawn to reveal her sweeping. In another photo, a woman in a large, purple headscarf holds one child’s hand and another toddler is propped on her shoulder. She holds a plastic container with the other hand. She has to walk miles to fill the container with water because she has no running water in her home. These are not the worst images of poverty I have seen, but they stand out at a time when Egypt is on the verge of change.
Dissent and debate against government corruption and injustice was alive when I lived there but the momentum for a movement and a mass uprising wasn’t. The protests in Tunisia that overthrew the dictatorship has inspired Egypt and other countries to speak out and fight for their rights. It’s easy to become excited as I read my Egyptian friends’ posts on Facebook. They are passionate, hopeful and rejuvenated to improve human rights, curb high level corruption and decrease the gap between the rich and poor. But my experience with uprisings and revolutions has seen nothing but violence. Living through the communist coup in Afghanistan, I recall university students demonstrating against imperialism and feudalism, against the gap between the rich and poor, against corruption and nepotism. The slogans were different then but the reasons behind the uprisings were the same. Many of the idealists who had become communist believed in justice and equality but their vision was shattered. The communist government in Kabul was brutal and the insurgent Mujahideen who replaced them were drug dealing warlords. Afghanistan and Iran have both gone through Islamic revolutions and the people of both countries are now struggling to establish a civil society outside of a religious theocracy. The Afghan communist coup of 1978 began the demise and unraveling of my homeland to what it has become today — one of the most dangerous and impoverished places to live. I can no longer live there to raise a family.
To compare Afghanistan and Egypt is perhaps callous — the two nations are vastly different historically and economically. Egyptians may succeed in overthrowing their leader Hosni Mubarak and the current government, but what kind of leadership will replace them? I fear the next government might be more cruel and repressive like Afghanistan and Iran. Afghan and Iranian intellectuals of the 1970s seem naive and overly idealistic in the pages of history. I encourage my Egyptian friends to protest but to be aware of the consequences that may lie ahead: beatings, torture and imprisonment. I implore them to proceed with caution and a healthy dose of skepticism. I want to see them victors of long term reform for a democracy that protects its people. I only hope their vision is not destroyed like those of my compatriots. I hope they don’t have to become refugees in foreign lands to raise their families like Afghans have.