Minority voices in Upper Egypt

 
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By Josephine Littlejohn

A publisher in Luxor who happens to be Christian shows how Egypt’s majority and minorities, despite growing tension, share similar dreams and fears.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Mena Melad floating on the Nile.

In Luxor, I caught up with Mena Melad, the editor-in-chief and owner of Luxor Times, a glossy magazine and newspaper for Luxor’s English-speaking community. The publication is targeted at expats and tourists, and covers local issues, archaeology, the arts and current events. Melad is also from the Catholic community, a minority among Egyptian Christians, with the majority being Copts. I had not realised there was an Egyptian Catholic community, and so my curiosity was piqued.

I arranged to meet Melad and another member of the Catholic community, a local bus driver, to get their thoughts on post-revolution Egypt. Melad is young, sharp, educated and very much reflects the new generation in Egypt: hungry for change and desperate to modernise his country.

His frustration at the system, and the slow pace of change since the revolution began. “Laws area not being implemented. Rubbish is piling up everywhere and no one does anything about it. The crime rates are going up but the police don’t want to upset anyone and cause another riot. People expect things to be done for them,” complains Melad. “A group of us went out into the villages and helped with trash collection, showing the villagers how to recycle, what to separate out, and how to bag up their trash for collection. We did that for a couple for weeks to get it going but when we went back a few weeks later, it was back to being strewn everywhere and just tossed out of windows.”

His despair and frustration were obvious. The mountain that stands before him and before Egypt is not just a matter of voting in a new government, it is the massive process of slowly turning around how a population thinks. People are used to paternalistic rule. Individual and communal responsibility had been ruthlessly engineered out of society’s grassroots in the past in order to dis-empower the population, so it will take a long time for the people to recover.

Melad talked at length about local resources, unregulated construction and the fragility of the Nile itself. To illustrate, he took us out onto the west bank so that I could see for myself. Business people and some expats had taken advantage of the political turmoil and the subsequent lull in law enforcement to throw up apartment buildings to sell at inflated prices (by Egyptian standards) to foreigners looking for a cheap holiday home. I was appalled at what he showed me.

Gaps of land in between the regular buildings had been filled with new apartment blocks, pushed cheek to jowl against existing homes, cutting off any views or privacy the existing residents may have had. The roving editor also showed me how precious agricultural land, necessary for growing food crops, had been built on indiscriminately.

“There are available building plots further inland, and that is where any expansion should be. This land, close to the Nile, is needed for growing food; this land is precious and is already under strain. We could have sustainable housing 5km away from the Nile, we should not build near the Nile,” he pointed out.

We then moved on to Luxor, and the political and communal uncertainties brought about by the revolution.  The bus driver expressed his worries: “As a Catholic, I am already a minority within a minority, and it worries me. Will my community suffer discrimination? Will we get fair [treatment from] the authorities if they are run by an Islamic group? Will we get fair justice? Will we get fair arbitration with local conflicts? Or will we become second class citizens?”

I could see his fears really troubled him. He was a quiet, gentle man struggling to provide for his family. He told me how his income had dropped considerably as work dried up. No one had money to spend, and now because of the relative lawlessness, he was afraid to work late at night in case his bus was stolen from him or his earnings robbed. He was very concerned for the future of his young children and his ability to provide for them.

“We need order restored, we need the police to [serve] us, not just the tourists, and we need local government to start doing its job,” the bus driver urged.

I asked Melad about the future of the governorship of Luxor under the new government as there was an impending reshuffle. What did he think would be a good way forward in the future? What qualities did he think a future governor would need?  Melad thought it important that a future governor would be “an outsider to Luxor. ” I asked him why? I would have thought someone local who knew the community well, who knew its needs and its problems intimately, would be more helpful.

“Yes, that is a good point,” he said. “But we are worried about the issue of tribal allegiance. If we get a local, there will be the risk of getting someone who gives more attention to his extended family and community rather than the whole of Luxor.”

That was a good point and one I had not thought of.

Melad went on to tell me about a local organisation that had grown in Luxor, The Love of Egypt. This group of young people of all different faiths and backgrounds come together to discuss the community’s problems and try to find joint solutions. It sounded like the younger generation in Luxor were really on the ball and taking an active role in birthing a new Egypt.

I asked him what he thought the most pressing problems were that faced the communities in Luxor. He was very clear: “Clean water, proper sewage processing, decent education and proper medical facilities. We need people to do their jobs in these areas too. Often these days, people do not want to put in a hard days work, they all want to work in offices, come into work at 11am and leave at 2pm.”*

I then asked him about what he’d like to see develop in Egypt as a whole: “Decent quality education. We have quantity but not quality. In the state schools, the supplies that children have to buy are expensive for them, and the method of teaching used is not that good. Then they can leave school at 11 or 12, which is not enough. But they want to leave at that age, they want to be grown up. We need to encourage them to stay on to high school.”

Melad also wished to see greater transparency and freedom. “I want freedom of information, like you have in the UK, freedom of speech and no corruption in authority. The internet has enabled us to see what other countries have and we want those things too,” the young journalist added.

This highlighted something that I had previously been unaware of. There is an image in the minds of young Egyptians who had not travelled much or at all of places like the UK being bastions of real free speech, of no corruption, and of fair wealth distribution. Although the UK is not suffering the problems of Egypt, it certainly has its own skeletons rattling away in the cupboard.

I came away from the meetings with Mena Melad with a sense of real hope: there was a bright energy in young Egyptians like him, a drive for a better world, and an intelligent awareness of their own community. It struck me that the opinions, aspirations and fears that Melad, as a Catholic, had shared with me were the same as those that members of the Muslim community had also shared. Let’s hope they work together towards them, with respect and the mutual admiration that each part of Luxor’s rich communal tapestry deserves.

 

This is part of a series of articles on Egypt’s political transformation as seen from the rural and provincial grassroots. Below is the full list of articles in the series:

1. Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

2. Egypt needs are human, social and educational, not religious, says Islamist MP

3. Minority voices in Upper Egypt

 

* This paragraph was amended on 24 September 2012 to remove a factual error.

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Egypt’s needs are human, social and educational, not religious, says Islamist MP

 
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By Josephine Littlejohn

 Member of Parliament for Luxor AbdulMawgoud Dardery believes religion is a “personal issue”, and government’s job is to focus on collective challenges.

Friday 31 August 2012

Dr Dardery in “Western” clothes.

I arranged a series of interviews with Dr AbdulMawgoud Dardery, not to learn about the politics of Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which is affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, but to listen to an individual voice from within the party. I wanted to hear his own opinions, his dreams, fears and wishes for the future of Egypt. Dardery is a member of the People’s Assembly (the suspended lower house of parliament) for Luxor, a pivotal city far away from Cairo, a place where the rural farming sector and the tourism industry meet.

The first meeting got off to rather a bizarre start. It was the night before the holy month of Ramadan was due to start and the streets outside the hotel were buzzing with preparation. I was waiting in the hotel lobby and watched with interest as the security guards tried to stop a tired looking man dressed in a traditional galabeya from entering. It took a moment for me to realise this was Dardery and it took a bit longer for the security guards to realise this was their member of parliament, not a Kalesh driver touting for work.

He apologised for being dusty and tired, and explained that he had thought about going home and changing into “Western” clothing, but decided it was better that I saw him as he was when he was out working with his constituents. I appreciated his honesty. It certainly raised some eyebrows in the hotel lounge, something that was to repeat many times over the coming week.

What became clear immediately from the discussions was the struggle that Egypt faced squaring its progressive aspirations with the largely conservative values of much of the country. It would take a very special balancing act to develop international trade with an economic policy that did not suck its working class dry; to evolve laws that allowed elbow room and a political voice for the country’s minorities, its thinkers, artists, writers and dissidents, but that also worked in a way that did not tear apart its conservative underbelly. How did he feel about that challenge?

“We want to modernism but not Westernise. We want to take the materialistic obsession out of the culture. It is not the only way: you do not have to be very rich to be happy, and you do not have to be poor either. There is a middle way, a socially conscious democracy,” the parliamentarian for Luxor asserted.  “The revolution did not happen in a vacuum: there was a background of corruption, of destructive ideas, of greed and a wish for extreme wealth. We are trying to resist this, this culture of extreme materialism, something that creates inequality within the culture itself, and not to repeat the mistakes others have made.”

What struck me most was that Dardery had given a lot of thought to what he saw as a section of society wanting to emulate Western culture, laws and social structure without thinking about the real ramifications of transplanting a foreign system, unchanged, on a population that is culturally, religiously and socially unprepared for it. It was also obvious he had given a lot of thought to the damage that could be done to a society if it was too restricted or too religiously dogmatic. He had neither rejected or accepted aspects of ‘Western’ society, but had observed, weighed up the pros and cons, seen what works and what would not, and was trying to come to his own conclusions.

He made a very poignant point that would be pivotal to community harmony: “Being Christian or Muslim is a personal issue not a social issue. What do Christians and what do Muslims want in Egypt?”

“They want the same things,” Dardery answers in reply to his own question. “The rubbish problem is not a Muslim problem or a Christian problem, it’s an Egyptian problem and we solve it as Egyptians. Religion has nothing to do with it. Just like there are no Muslim health services or Christian services, there are just health services. Just like education… our health service and our education services are struggling badly. The problems in these services are critical and they need overhaul, investment.”

His expressed standpoint was one of tolerance, education, understanding, communal responsibility and diversity. He was also acutely aware of the ethical and moral structure of Islam, the traditional society, and how those elements would play out through the political arena in a predominately Muslim country. All of these critical qualities are necessary for a man who is going to be potentially voting for or against policies that will directly affect the nation.

He outlined for me the problems of years under military rule: the regime infantilised people, leading them to lose their own sense of self sovereignty, and their sense of responsibility for themselves and their community. He made an interesting comment, in the context of bribery and corruption which is rampant in Egypt, but it has a wider wisdom behind it: “There needs to be critical thinking about our actions and the actions of those around us… Islam teaches us to be responsible for our individual actions, and we need to live up to that, with understanding, through education rather than dogma. Excuses such as ‘it is my culture’, ‘or the way of my family’ do not hold water: it is important not to accept the status quo as ‘God given’, which is a crime in Islam… one has to always to strive to challenge the situation you are in.”

Personalising his philosophy, Dardery added: “I was born into a poor family; it was up to me to change that, rather than expecting God or anyone else to change it. We are individually responsible for our actions and as a Muslim working in the wider community, I have a personal as well as public responsibility to live up to that.”

However, it is clear from the political struggles taking place in Egypt that the intricate issues of freedom and democracy, and the actual practical implementation of the democratic process, is still not fully understood by many players in the current political arena. More than once we have heard a declaration or promise, only to have it overturned a few months or even weeks later.

My suspicious side wondered about propaganda and dishonesty (which has a role to play), but looking more closely I realised it was more a matter of pronouncing what appears to be a good idea at the time, followed by a swift reality check and furious back-pedalling. Then, there is simply the volatility that comes with revolution, and how one interest group can raise a prospect and another shoot it down.

Many Egyptians are fearful of another “Iran” emerging, of an Islamist theocracy, which would be a tragedy for so many reasons. “Extremism of any sort is easy. Extremism of any sort poses a threat and that is not what we want,” observes Dardery, who believes that extremism is directly linked to dis-empowerment and disenfranchisement. “People become extremist from fear and powerlessness: it is not part and parcel of this land or culture,” he explains.

“There are different forms of Islam, but that is people’s right. There are people who are different and think differently, and that is their right: but that difference is not to be forced upon others,” insists Dardery. ” Ignorance comes from lack of education and communication, which leads to prejudice which leads to hostility and violence.”

The answer? “Coming together and communicating, being friends and a community is the key to understanding, and finding joint solutions that suit all parts of the community. When people are ignorant they are fearful, then they become conservative and extremist: this is a major hurdle we have to overcome both at home and abroad,” Dardery reflects.

For now, with a military that has shown it is not competent to rule, a secular opposition that seems relatively out of touch with the wider, non-urban Egyptian electorate, and the shadow of Salafi theocracy hovering in the background, the Freedom and Justice Party are, in my view, currently the only viable option to move the nation a step forward. Dardery talked at length about his hopes for the next generation, about the need for the young people of today to think carefully about their path into the wider community.

He had this to say to the young members of the Freedom and Justice Party: “Don’t try and get deep into religion and go for the role of the religious scholar, we have enough of those. What we need are doctors, people who can go out and work for Egyptians. For example, we currently need an eye doctor who is willing to go out into the villages and check the eyes of the children to spot the problems before they do permanent damage”

“We have human needs, social needs, educational needs…not religious needs,” he elaboarted. “We need a comprehensive approach, the physical, psychological, social, political, economic and spiritual.”

Let us hope that the FJP will live up to its name and help deliver freedom and justice for all and that, over the next few years, the opposition parties will succeed in better connecting with the reality of the electorate, especially in rural areas, to act as a viable alternative to the FJP.  I came away from the meetings with a sense of hope for the future, a sense that although it is going to be a hard road to navigate, while there are people like Dardery on all sides of the political spectrum, it will be a road well worth walking.

 

This is part of a series of articles on Egypt’s political transformation as seen from the rural and provincial grassroots. Below is the full list of articles in the series:

1. Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

2. Egypt needs are human, social and educational, not religious, says Islamist MP

3. Minority voices in Upper Egypt

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In the shadow of the pharaohs

 
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By Josephine McCarthy

Even though the downfall of Egypt’s modern “pharaoh” has scared tourists away, Luxor, the seat of Egypt’s ancient rulers is still well worth visiting.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

It was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that my two friends and I set off for a visit to Luxor in Egypt in the midst of the early December elections and what seemed, judging by the images on British television, to be a battle zone. Pictures of Cairo had flooded the news, with terrible images of abuse, conflict and danger, not to mention all the fears of a takeover by Islamists, who would implement Shari’a and ban alcohol and bikinis on beaches.

When we arrived at our hotel the streets were calm, businesses were open to peddle their wares and cafes exuded the atmosphere of relaxed chat. We stayed at the Sonesta St George, a five star hotel run by Copts that was reasonably priced and of the highest standard. The rooms were spotlessly clean, beautifully presented with everything you could possibly need. The staff were reliable, friendly and extremely helpful. In fact, one member of staff called Romany went to great lengths to help me find an elusive treasure that I wished to return to the UK with: incense resins.

After a rather comical and entertaining display of hand gestures, charades and acting, Romany finally understood what I did not have an Arabic word for and he had no English word for. Later that afternoon, we set off, clutching a small piece of paper with Arabic instructions for the taxi driver. We ended up in a back street market bustling with people buying fruit, vegetables, live chickens and meat. Nestled in the midst of the aromatic chaos was a small spice shop. We smelt the wonderous odours wafting out of the dimly lit unit before we saw it. The walls were filled with row upon row of resins, spices, flower petals and barks. I was in heaven. Yet more hand gestures, broken Arabic, broken English, lots of pointing, sniffing, tasting and the pile of weighed out bags before me was growing.

Then it was down to pricing. The hibiscus tea came out, the shisha (hookah pipe) was fired up and stools appeared as if from nowhere. The haggling began. The first price the spice seller quoted was a price pulled out of the aromatic thin air that was filled with hopefulness mingled with a sense of humour. “Ha! I don’t think so,” I replied, and a counter offer was put on the table. After 10 minutes of bantering back and forth, the spice vendor turned to my partner: “She is breaking my heart, making me so sad”, he said with a grin. “If you only knew,” retorted my partner with a sigh. I made sure that the final figure was a good price from an English perspective, but was also a good price for the vendor. It was obvious, looking around, that there were few tourists and not much money passing hands. What can seem a small amount of money to an English person could be a vast amount to an Egyptian small business, so it is imperative always to be fair and ensure that money goes around.

Whereever we went, be it the great temples of Luxor and Karnak, or the Valley of the Kings, I noticed a dire lack of foreign visitors, many of whom will have been scared away by the news reports of violent protests. Winter is the main tourist season for Luxor, and as many vendors pointed out to me as I chatted with them, this is the time that they make enough money to get through the following summer, when tourism trails off as the heat rises.

The upside for us was that these areas were quiet which enabled us to truly take in the vastness of these ancient monuments. A good example was a discovery we made in the Valley of the Kings. After sitting in the shade for a rest, the three of us had one last ticket to visit a tomb. Rather than go for one of the more well known kings sleeping in this silent place, we decided to look a bit further, visit a king that was perhaps not so well know. We found the tomb of Twosret, a little known female king, whose tomb was definitely worth the visit. It was vast, highly decorated with the most unusual depictions of the deities and very peaceful.

Back in Luxor, we discovered, quite by accident, two restaurants that were a delight to the palate: A Taste of India and The Fortune Cookie. ‘A Taste of India’ was clean, quiet and had the highest standard of Punjabi food I had tasted in years. It was also very reasonably priced, with a three course meal coming in at around £6 each. The same could be said of the Fortune Cookie, once again a high standard of excellent tasting food, wonderful chatty staff and low prices.

We spent a few days wondering the streets, soaking up the character of Luxor proper, meeting people in the food markets, sipping tea with locals and taking long walks along the banks of the Nile, while dodging the incessant appeals from taxi drivers. I felt bad for them as it was obvious there were not enough tourists to go around and people were getting desperate for money.

One of the things that I felt was unfair, was the coach trip guides, the ones usually connected to package holidays, were telling the tourists not to buy from the local shops or use the local taxis. Instead, they were bussed out to larger factories and shops and in return the guide was given a substantial commission on inflated prices.  The tourists were being told, quite wrongly, that to go around the shops or use local taxis was dangerous and they could be mugged or sexually harassed. This was simply not true. My friends and I wandered all over the city, down the back streets, into dark gloomy shops, cafes, hailed taxis off the streets and struck up conversations with various locals. I wandered around alone as a woman and felt perfectly safe at all times. I did wear a hijab and was well covered up all the time in respect of local tradition and I think this helped me to wander around without being hassled.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Since coming back to Britain, I have learned that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won the local elections in Luxor and this did not surprise me after the many conversations I had with locals. One of the issues that came out in conversation was how many people felt uncomfortable with the idea of half-naked tourists wandering around and also the with the alcohol issue. It made me stop and really look at the tourists who were visiting Luxor. They seemed to be divided in to two distinct groups. One group were obviously in Luxor to explore the ancient ruins, the mosques, churches and temples. They were mostly covered up and conducted themselves respectfully. The second group wandered around scantily clad and spent most of their time in the bar or lounging in bikinis around the hotel pool. It made me wonder why they had spent so much money to come to such an amazing place as Luxor just to spend the week sunbathing on a hotel terrace – I guess it takes all sorts to make the world go around.

If, in the unlikely event, the ruling government brings out laws regarding the serving of alcohol and the covering up of tourists, I doubt very much that it will make much difference to the industry at large. I do think that Western tourists do have to get over the idea that the rest of the world should suspend their culture/religion/preferences just to suit them. As a Western woman, I do and would fight to stop the enforced veiling of women in my own country, but where a woman chooses to veil, then that is her business and it is her right as a woman to decide what she wants to do. As an outsider to Egypt, the veil issue is not my battle and I have no right to challenge the rules of a country that I visit. I have no problem covering up in respect of local traditions and if anyone chooses not to come to Egypt because such local tradition becomes law, well, it’s their loss.

Egypt is a wonderful, exciting, powerful and ancient treasure. Its people are friendly, its streets are safe, the food is excellent and the sun shines every day. The culture is fascinating, the ancient buildings are humbling and the every day life of ordinary people needs the financial support that tourism brings. Egypt was a joy to visit, a land and people worthy of great respect and a place that instils you with awe not only of the ancient sites, but of the courage and tenacity of its people.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Josephine McCarthy.

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