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The following is a guest post from AUA Mosaic Scholarship recipient Mirabel Rouze. She recently returned from volunteering with Hands Along the Nile Development Services, Inc. in Egypt. To find an amazing opportunity like this one, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today!
In this week following my return from Egypt, I am continually working to process the experience—doing so while drinking my Egyptian hibiscus tea and wearing my brightly colored scarf from Cairo. I expect this constant reevaluation will continue for months: our week in Cairo was so incredibly condensed. Throughout this time back, though, I have noticed how my conception of revolutions and transitions is shifting, as Cairo provided me with a more realistic—less sensational—perspective. While there were many instances that strikingly highlighted how the nation was undergoing political and social transitions (as I had expected to see) there were nevertheless signs of a return to normalcy, which I had not strongly considered beforehand.
Traveling to Cairo, I was prepared to see the notable remnants of a revolution: in many respects, I did. Beginning with our first day there, as I walked out of our tour of the majestic Egyptian Museum, I was immediately confronted by the burnt façade of a former-Mubarak-regime governmental building. This created such a shocking contrast with both the ideals of the revolution and the rich cultural history. As it has not undergone restorations since, it in many ways represented the continuation of transition. Seeing this in person was both frightening and intriguing.
In the area surrounding the museum, as well as throughout the city, there were security guards densely stationed together. The tightened security around governmental and media buildings particularly stood out. I was told that aspects of this security were common before the revolution as well, but it nevertheless seemed another reminder of the transitions the nation is undergoing.
I also saw this same atmosphere of transition while visiting the recycling school in the Zabbaleen village. Here, I met a man who had lost a brother in the time following the revolution. He showed me a memorial poster created for the lives lost in the riots directed against his predominantly Coptic community. This again represented how both the nation and state are in the midst of change.
However, these stories of revolution and transition were alongside witnessing lives that have begun to return to some level of normalcy. The first morning I spent in Cairo, I was awoken to a prayer call upon a loud speaker. Hearing these calls each time throughout all of the subsequent days served as a continual reminder of how this integral portion of life to many living in Cairo was transcending the political tumultuousness of this period.
Speaking with Egyptian activists highlighted how the revolution is being used as a means to expand upon work that was already being done before the revolution—Egyptians are not just continuing their lives during this period: they are further advancing social advocacy goals. Meeting with a lawyer from a freedom of expression organization exemplified this, as his organization has been working to advance its mission since several years before the revolution began; following the revolution, it simply has more work. For me, this created an element of continuity that many times is overlooked during a transition, because a sensational account is presented that disregards how there are roots to changes. Furthermore, in his explanation of his individual cases, he reiterated for me how there are success stories even during what seems to be a tumultuous transition.
I saw this again later in the week when I met the women’s rights activist. She had been involved in working to initiate a women’s rights movement from a grassroots level as early as the 1980s. Today, her organization is working to support young women desiring to initiate change. As with the lawyer, she highlighted for me how there was thought and involvement in these issues starting well before the revolution. Likewise, she presented me with positives as the lawyer had, as more women are becoming socially active and participating in programs to prepare them for public service.
Both of these meetings helped me recognize just how much revolutions are mystified. Tunisia very much left anyone following the Arab Spring with sense that everything happened overnight. Yes, the spark did abruptly occur. However, this undermines the voice of those who had been involved in social activism before any of the revolutions. It was not that Tahrir suddenly caused a recognition of the state of affairs—it instead provided the opportunity to create a more public, cohesive response to express long-held grievances.
This continuation of daily life despite the transition was further reinforced during my meetings with college students. When meeting with them, our level of comfort with one another and topics of conversations was very similar to ones I have at Columbia. We sat together laughing, discussing politics, interests, and school during this time that is perceived as so dangerous and imbalanced in Cairo. There was something incredible about meeting them in an informal context that transcended the stereotypes about a transition period. These students were so calm and collected—for them life moves onwards.
The lives of people living in Cairo are continuing. Collectively, this trip presented an element of realism to a nation that is reduced to the category of a revolutionary nation. Although the significance of the overthrow of the Mubarak regime should be highly emphasized—it was so significant—at the same time, it is very important to recognize how life in Cairo has not stopped. The traffic is still horrendous. There is bustle in the markets. Prayer calls continue throughout the day. More than anything, I want this human perspective of a political transition to stay with me: it left me with hope for Egypt’s future.