The turmoil in Egypt through a young Islander’s eyes
By Jesse Sharratt
It was June 30 when I boarded an early morning flight in Cairo bound for Tanzania. The school year had ended and I was anxious for a vacation. For months, the rebel campaign had been gaining momentum and petition signatures to hold mass protests on that same day. The campaign sought to oust Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader.
Egypt was buzzing with the possibility and hope of something new. In the days leading up to the 30th, people poured into marketplaces, securing as much food and water as they could, preparing for the worst.
Eventually, the day came and I left as dawn broke. Arriving in Tanzania, I headed to the Serengeti, away from Twitter, away from Facebook and away from Egypt.
I returned to a very different Egypt on July 16. Morsi was being held captive by the military; Muslim Brotherhood leaders were being arrested and their media outlets shut down. Driving to my apartment, tanks and hummers lined the highway. Military helicopters flew overhead with Egyptian flags billowing below. The rebel campaign had succeeded. Over the next two days, I packed up my belongings and said goodbye to Egypt.
Now back in Canada, sitting at the kayak shop I call home, my mind is still in Cairo. Clashes are breaking out across the country between Morsi supporters and the opposition. Christian churches and homes are being burned in a new wave of sectarian violence. The Nobel laureate and interim vice president, Mohamed El Baradei, has resigned and fled. Chaos reigns.
At present, my concern is with my colleagues and my young Egyptian students. Their idealism, their hope and their optimism in the face of all they’ve endured since the uprising in January 2011, is hanging by a thread.
They would ask what I thought would happen to Egypt and I would tell them I didn’t know. Remain hopeful and be involved in the democratic process, I would tell them. Democracy is not just a political system; not just about counting votes and casting a ballot, but rather about shared values and respect for other opinions.
The hardest part of democracy is accepting when you don’t get your way. You put your faith in the will of the majority. Tolerance and acceptance are not something you gain through a revolution. The values of 150 years of Canadian democracy have been learned, not taken.
As the chaos unfolds, I am reminded that Egypt, one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, is in its infancy when it comes to democracy. Egyptian leaders know how to govern based on authoritarian principles, not democratic ones. The people are learning how to express themselves through protests and petitions, but the expression comes at the cost of mutual understanding.
The factions in Egypt are all contesting for their chance to be heard, and no one wants to be silenced.
On the mornings after violence, the students would come to class upset, scared and indifferent, desensitized to the mindlessness. On these days, we would eat cake and share our feelings and our dreams for Egypt.
Most of all, my young teenage students wanted peace and stability. They wanted the opportunity to follow their dreams and restore Egypt. They wanted to come to school without having to walk through a war zone to get on their bus.
After the worst nights, many schools would close. The administration at my school refused to do this. So long as we could, we would come to school and push on with educating young Egyptians. Every hope that Egypt has hinges on the youth. Education is their power for change.
So here I sit, reflecting on the students who each morning made the long commute through hellish Cairo traffic to learn. Their country was being pulled apart and turned upside down, but they remained committed. It would be easy to despair and some days I found myself on the verge, but these young people kept on. Their resolve, their eagerness to learn, and their relentless optimism are where my hopes for Egypt reside.
Jesse Sharratt of Montague spent 20 months in Egypt as a high school social studies teacher. You can follow him on Twitter @JesseSharratt.