Paranoia over Foreigners in Egypt Eclipsed by Cooperation
There is paranoia now all over Egypt about the role of foreigners in the midst of this upheaval. From all sides, although in different ways. In anti-government Tahrir Square, I saw a sign instructing Americans to stay out of Egypt’s business – while I heard pro-government supporters (peacefully queuing along with everyone else to get into Tahrir) claiming that foreign agents were in the middle of all this.
Not that this translated into any sort of unsafe environment for foreigners in Tahrir itself. Tahrir, despite being the scene of a protest bereft of state authority, the magnitude of which the Arab world has never seen, is remarkably safe. Going across Cairo, on the other hand, if one chooses to go by car, and holds a foreign passport, one is likely to find their way home elongated quite a bit.
I had the misfortune of being stuck outside my neighbourhood after curfew, and took a cab to get home – bad idea. Better to walk home, and take an hour or so in the walking if necessary, than be stuck in a cab, and be the target of suspicion at every road block. Some road blocks take no chances – if they suspect the foreigner has been at Tahrir, they jump into the taxi, and drive off to the nearest army post, to ‘deliver’ the suspect. Invariably, the army allows them to depart a few minutes later. But the paranoia remains – one road block I encountered profusely apologised for having to stop and search me, but that he found Russians and Israelis the night before with a lot of cash, drugs and guns. I confess, I’m not too sure I believe him – but it shows the worry about the role of foreigners.
It’s a type of concern that I am not particularly worried about, though. Egypt has always been incredibly welcoming of foreigners, and the respect for the stranger in traditional Muslim societies has always been paramount. Nationalism sometimes overrides that, but this is not a chauvinistic, nationalistic uprising. When I entered Tahrir, people were teasing me, with all the sincere joviality that anyone could have, that I had my passport with me, saying this is how you enter Egypt – not how you enter a square in Egypt’s capital.
But truth be told – the Egypt I entered in Tahrir was a special kind of Egypt. Some of it has always been evident, and clear to everyone. For example, seeing the Priest and the Imam walk hand in hand, chanting together – whether you were pro-regime or anti-regime, you could not help but be proud. The fact that even during this time, when there is an unprecedented lack of security in Egypt, no church (or even the few synagogues that remain) has been attacked or threatened, is evidence of the strong ties between Christian and Muslim in this country.
Seeing the immensely polite attitude of people searching those coming into Tahrir. The free teas that were spreading all around Tahrir, no doubt paid for through the charitable support of someone in the crowd, or donated by the tea-shop owner – its just another part of the Egypt I have always known. But the Egypt I have known would never have seen people feeling free to voice their criticisms of the president so strongly or openly – that type of attitude certainly existed prior to this uprising, but was limited to private meetings, or outside of Egypt. In that Square, while it is still the same country that we have always known, there was something different.
As the discussions go on behind the scenes, all are waiting to see what change will look like. But one thing is for sure – those who went to Tahrir are not the same people they were a week ago. They’ve changed.
HA Hellyer is a Fellow of the University of Warwick, director of the Visionary Consultants Group and the Europe Fellow of the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article was published by Religion Dispatches on February 5, 2011: