Voices speak out on Cairo

Egyptians address our misconceptions on the Middle East

At the first large-scale anti-Morsi protest (November 27, 2012) over 200,000 Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to protest President Morsi's overreaching his democratic powers. In the foreground a man from Alexandria holds a cross and Qur'an before the speakers' platform as a prominent reminder that their issues with the government are secular, but also an opportunity for unification. In the background the banner reads, "Egypt for all Egyptians."
Dillon Bowman/Courtesy
At the first large-scale anti-Morsi protest (November 27, 2012) over 200,000 Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to protest President Morsi's overreaching his democratic powers. In the foreground a man from Alexandria holds a cross and Qur'an before the speakers' platform as a prominent reminder that their issues with the government are secular, but also an opportunity for unification. In the background the banner reads, "Egypt for all Egyptians."

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If someone gave you 140 characters to share one message with the world, what would you tell people? Really — think about that for a second. Would it be a message of hope, of freedom? Would you share your words of wisdom or maybe give caution to the coming generation?

If I had to share a message, it would be a warning against ignorance. In this day and age, it’s hard to think critically — not due to any personal shortcomings but as a byproduct of the massive information flood surrounding us. Between rampant jokes about credibility of CNN and FOX news, many of us read The Onion because it’s a relief from the mental exhaustion of discerning what to believe.

To discuss the Middle East is almost always to fall victim to this trend. In fact, after living in Egypt for the past year and witnessing the revolution (twice!), it has become apparent that America’s perception of the Middle East is based largely on mass media misconception.

On the wall of Cairo's famous Egyptian Antiquities Museum, which was briefly ransacked during the first protests, a message in graffiti carries the popular sentiment about the revolution--love is at its core. Love for each other, love rooted in pride of Egypt's national history, and love aimed at giving all Egyptians a brighter future.

On the wall of Cairo’s famous Egyptian Antiquities Museum, which was briefly ransacked during the first protests, a message in graffiti carries the popular sentiment about the revolution–love is at its core. Love for each other, love rooted in pride of Egypt’s national history, and love aimed at giving all Egyptians a brighter future. Dillon Bowman/Courtesy

Yet if I tell you all about these misconceptions, I’m doing exactly what I caution against — asking you to read the opinion of one person and accept it as truth. I mean, what truth can I really share that isn’t just a regurgitation of my own worldview?

What can I share that isn’t inevitably formed through and tainted by my own lens of perspective? Yes, I lived and walked the streets of Cairo for a year. Yes, my stories are sometimes charming and funny, are sometimes intense and frightening and always make interesting conversation. But what I can do, though, is to connect you to the Egyptian people — not my impression of what they want you to know, but from their minds, unfiltered, directly to yours.

I asked them exactly the question I asked you at the beginning of this article: If you had three sentences or less to share a message with the American people, what would you tell them? I asked real people from all walks of life. Some were friends; some strangers.

This is what they told me:

Messages of friendship

Ahmed El Fiky:  “I may have some problems with your administration, but I totally love you and wish you the best. Many of my friends are American, and I don’t feel any hatred towards them. We can live in peace; we can stop fighting each other. We just need to say it out loud and build that needed bridge between us.”

Amin Abu Hashem: “Egypt does not view its relationship with the U.S. with animosity, not at all! Most Egyptians have a very positive outlook of the American people — just not the American government. We would love to continue on a path of mutual understanding and benefits for both our peoples. We’d just prefer if the U.S. government left us to handle our problems on our own.”

I made friends in Egypt that I’ll keep for life.

Messages of Inspiration and Clarification

 At a pro-Army protest this spring, a young girl carries the cross and the Qur'an to remind the protesters that the issue is an Egyptian issue, and not one of religion. She is walking on a massive Egyptian flag, which had ripped and is being sewn out of frame.

At a pro-Army protest this spring, a young girl carries the cross and the Qur’an to remind the protesters that the issue is an Egyptian issue, and not one of religion. She is walking on a massive Egyptian flag, which had ripped and is being sewn out of frame. Dillon Bowman/Courtesy

Noah Kubacki: “Egypt has not and is not losing sight of the democratic process. In fact, they are leading the world in transforming what it means to be a citizen, to be heard and how to keep their governments accountable for the will of the people — something that may affect countries around the world.”

Ahmed Mousa: “Egyptians don’t hate Americans or America — any anti-U.S. sentiments expressed are, in my experience, more related to associating corruption to outside foreign policy.”

I watched a modern revolution materialize from the ground up.

Messages of Warning

Ahmed Mahmoud: “I would say, the standards you Americans apply to yourself and your country will not work for other people and countries, and it’s best if America stops meddling in the world’s affairs. I don’t see any reason why the U.S. secretary has to issue a statement of the USA’s opinion whenever anything happens anywhere in the world.”

Ali Wael: “People stood up for you before they thought you were the enemy. Now they believe you are destroying Islamic countries — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya — and you are trying to break down Egypt and Tunisia. I would suggest America keeps its distance.”

Nabil Khalifa: “I hope your government can understand and stop supporting Morsi’s regime, because he is never coming back.”

In conclusion

I left Egypt shortly before the evacuation of American citizens.

If you Google “Egypt,” “Egyptian News” or “Egyptian Revolution,” you’ll uncover the spout of reckless misinformation serving only the cause of ignorance. This lightning-quick spread of falsehood and pontificating ego-writing has come to represent the dark side of the Internet and mass media. One article will say that the Muslim Brotherhood is anti-democracy and harmful to global security; another will say that elections in Egypt mark the long-awaited beginning of a legitimate Middle East peace process. The truth is that nobody knows what’s going to happen to Egypt. I lived there for the past year, one of the most tumultuous in Egypt’s storied history, and I don’t know either.

If you really care about what’s happening in Egypt (and everywhere else in the world), take the advice of an Egyptian friend who wrote to me, “Watch international news channels every once in a while.” Don’t rely on one source of information, and don’t fully trust anything that isn’t a primary source. The world is a complicated place, and revolutions are massive, undulating and impossible to completely understand.

As I’ve traveled from one reality to another in my return to California, I can see that the distance between the status quo and mutual understanding still spans far. All I can hope to do is relay the voices of the people I came to know and help vanquish the specter of global ignorance in my own small way.

I’ll leave you with the best quote I received — one that reaches above conflict to see the world as one: “We are all humans, and one day, citizens’ voices will decide what happens with governments rather than vice versa.”

Winnie Cunningham is a UC Berkeley alumna. Andrew Seidman is a Dartmouth alum.