Opening Pandora’s box in the land of the pharaohs

2011-02-05 15:45

Egyptian filmmaker Jihan el-Tahri popped the cork on a bottle of champagne and danced in the street during the first two days of protests in her homeland.

“I could not believe that Egyptians would rise. After what happened in ­Tunisia, I was still cynical that it could happen in Egypt.”

Then, on January 25, a small protest snowballed into the biggest uprising Egypt has seen since the “Bread Riots” of January 17 1977.

From her home in ­Greenside, Johannesburg, El-Tahri proudly watched on television how her compatriots unified for a million­person march by Tuesday.

“They were veiled, unveiled. Guys wearing hip-hop jackets and bearded men. Christians, Muslims. Men, women, young and old.”

El-Tahri knows how brave her ­countrymen must be to stand up against Hosni Mubarak’s oppressive regime. She was banned from Egypt in the mid-1990s for three years for having written an article about how Mubarak’s sons, Gamal and Ala, were enriching themselves.

Today she can travel to Egypt to visit her family, but she is not allowed to work there. Not even her father, who has been a diplomat and worked in the presidency, can protect her.

Being a journalist, her every move is scrutinised by security police every time she is in Egypt.

“I have been taken in and questioned by them so many times. And with the reality of people disappearing, and the safety of my family, I live in South Africa and Paris to be able to work.”

To understand how truly amazing the Egyptian uprising is, El-Tahri says, you have to understand the make-up of the people of the Nile.

A proud and peaceful people with a high moral code, they have been clobbered many times by their rulers.

“Since the pharaohs, Egyptians as a people have never been consulted. We are so used to being subjects that are ruled over. The fear factor in Egyptian society is massive and has always been there. Fear of being taken behind the sun and never seen again.”

That fear boiled up on the third day of protests when “weird things started to happen. How do 40 000 prisoners just escape from prison if you do not open the doors for them? Weapons at police stations disappeared. The police force started pulling out from where the protesters were.

“One million people crammed into a square the size of Soccer City did not create a single violent incident, but then the hooligans and thugs started coming out. And it seems there is a concerted effort behind the scenes to turn the protesters into ‘troublemakers’ who can be contained by force.”

Who is instigating the violence and why?

“Suddenly ‘pro-Mubarak’ supporters appear. You do not know if it is the Mubarak government or the Muslim Brotherhood trying to cause chaos.”

El-Tahri is among the privileged and could theoretically have an interest in the status quo of keeping Mubarak in power, but the apartheid-style tactics of Egyptian rule have led to her country’s decay – especially over the past 10 years when the economic divide has ­become even greater than in India.

A direct result of Mubarak’s rule has been to create extremes in Egypt – to oppress ordinary folk, the middle class, intellectuals and democrats, who want neither his regime nor to be ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1928, is one of the oldest political parties in the region, and is often branded by the West as “Islamic jihad”, but the Brotherhood is not a terrorist organisation.

“I am not saying I want the Brotherhood, but I am not willing to destroy the entire country so that one man can stay in power, and stop a political party – one of the oldest – from playing a fair game.”

El-Tahri is Muslim, but growing up in Egypt in the 1960s and 1970s, she was unaware of other people’s religions.

“I had a friend who I never knew was Christian. But over the past few years things have changed. A whole new consciousness started because of the sectarian strife that was instigated by Anwar Sadat’s regime and the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran.”

This is one of her fears of what will happen when Mubarak suddenly leaves: Muslim versus Christian strife.

But an even bigger worry is that freedom could open a chapter of crime that has never existed in the country.

“You could be opening a Pandora’s box. What Egypt will look like after this, God bless us all, I have no idea, and it is very scary.

“In the battle to get rid of a dictator, I really hope the structures of what makes this a nation do not fall apart.”

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