Nema Milaninia recently returned from studying political science in Cairo. I was curious to know the mood in that part of the world, so I emailed him a few questions. Nema is a law student in Southern California and has his own weblog: Iranian Truth. — Jahanshah Javid
How would you describe the general mood in Cairo. Politically, culturally…? It's important to first note that I have been in Cairo for the past two years, which given political events in the Middle East during that time, is a significant point. Politically, I think the people are frustrated and exasperated.
There is a sense that the decision to go to war basically humiliated the Arabs. People felt the war was wrong. More importantly, they truly felt that by protesting in the streets of Cairo, particularly in front of Al-Azhar University, they could effectuate some change in the US's decision to go to war.
As we know now, the Arab opinion did little to nothing to change the US's course to war. In addition, the Israeli/Palestinian problem literally serves as a daily reminder that Arab political opinion is almost making no difference.
I distinctly remember last year, that Egyptian analysts were fairly optimistic about the “Roadmap to peace.” Egyptian analysts genuinely felt that it would work. The fact that the roadmap has degenerated, that Israeli incursions in to the occupied territories continue with literally no response from the US, that the US invaded and is occupying Iraq, and that their own leaders essentially do nothing to evoke influence has directly drained Egyptian (if not Arab) political consciousness.
As a result, you no longer have a deep sense of frustration, though it still is there, but rather a form of bitterness and apathy, which is reversed slightly only when something of major significance takes place, like the assassination of [Hamas leader] Sheikh Yassin [earlier this year].
Depending on what your notions of culture are, the Egyptians are a very distinct people. First, Egyptian culture is still divided amongst territorial and tribal lines. You can't really compare Egyptian culture with other Arabs. Even within the nation, culture changes per locality. You will notice that Cairenes, Alexandrians, those in Aswan, all generally maintain different cultural practices and are not afraid to brag about it.
Generally, however, I would say that there is a deep sense of society in Egyptian culture. The actions of one person are never seen in isolation, but rather as part of a whole. A friend mine most appropriately put it “marriage in our culture, unlike the States, is not seen as the enjoining of two people, rather as the blend of two families.”
This type of mentality is pervasive. It is rude to sit in a taxi and not speak to the driver. It is inappropriate to see a person who you recognize and not engage in a conversation with them. This is not to say that there is no concept of privacy in Egyptian culture, but that privacy is shelved below social engagement and social expectations.
I'm amazed how Hosni Mubarak has stayed in power for so long. Is there any hope for Egypt to move towards a true democracy?
I think there is. I think the reason Mubarak has stayed in power for so long is because, for the most part, he has satisfied the masses. It's interesting to note that literally every time Egypt decides to forego bread subsidies, the people rise. In fact, in order to decrease bread subsidies, the government covertly decreased the size of bread.
Even then, however, the people found out and protested. Thus, the stability of the regime has really been based on being able to provide basic needs. However, since the mid-90's its become more and more difficult in sustaining subsidies in light of movements toward economic development. As such, the foundation for Mubarak's stability is increasingly becoming threatened.
That being said, there is a movement toward democratization, an extremely slow one. Civil society has become much more dynamic, human right treaties are being given extra consideration, and there have been movements towards the eradication of security status laws.
But the picture is pretty cloudy. I'm not sure what will happen after Mubarak. There have been talks that his son has popular backing by the youth, but in the end I don't think anyone wants to see another Mubarak ruling. Moreover, given the relative power of the military in Egypt, I'm not sure a non-military individual could effectively rule the country.
Who do young Egyptians look up to, or have most respect for? That's a tough question and I'm not sure if I can give a just answer. Being at the American University in Cairo, I was generally exposed to the opinion of the elitist youth and so my opinion should be framed from that perspective.
There is no one person Egyptian youth look to. Their opinion is pretty much shaped by their political, social, religious backgrounds. For example, amongst the more “Islamist” students, Amr Khaled has generally become a source of inspiration for them, whereas, the more politically savvy students look up to [former Foreign Minister] Amr Moussa. However, if Moussa were to announce himself for elections Mubarak would for once receive some serious competition.
Particularly amongst popular culture, Moussa is considered a more dignified, intelligent, and independent individual towards the United States in representing Egypt via-a-via the world community. In fact, one of the more infamous songs by Shabaan Abdel-Rahim, a singer more known for his lyrics and popular appeal then actual music abilities, stated I hate “Israel and I love Amr Moussa.”
What do they think of the Iran under the Islamic Republic? A friend of mine shared a joke about this with me (who's name I'll withhold out of confidentiality). It's ironic that the government which so many Iranians despise, is generally looked up to by the majority of Egyptians that I've come across; although, for superficial and ignorant reasons.
It's important to understand that when Egyptians see Iran, they see a government which is a) Islamic; b) stands up against Israel; c) doesn't visibly back down to the US; and d) is potentially the most democratic state in the Middle East. On almost every occasion where I've talked to an Egyptian and been asked about my ethnicity, whenever my answer has been “Iranian” they have replied helwa! (great!) and proceeded to express their praise for us. So I guess to that extent, I owe the Iranian government a bit of gratitude for making it easier for me during taxi cab negotiations.
Where's your favorite hang-out place? What's special about it? I'm extremely preferential with Cafés that have political and social history, like Café Riche (downtown) and Coffee Roastery (Zamalek).
In general, however, I have to admit that I'm an extreme fan of Khan-a Khalili, the Egyptian bazaar. First, the bazaar is located in the dead center of Islamic Cairo who's architecture alone emanates history and culture. Second, the noise, smell, saturation of merchandise for sale, and constant rattling of shopkeepers bargaining is enough to keep one second occupied with a multitude of sensations.
In reality, you can stand still at any point in the bazaar and spend a day absorbing the details of your surrounding. I'm afraid that it's a very Orientalist point of view, but then again what type of Iranian would I be without love for the market.
Have you been to the movie theaters? Personally, I like Arabic cinema. They remind me of Iranian movies from the 1950s and 60s. I think Arabic cinema has become too much like the Iranian movies from the 1950s and 60s. Let it be known that the most positive contributions from our “revolution” has been the rise of education amongst women and the evolution of Iranian cinema (no offense).
In particular, Egyptian movies have become a competition between directors to see who can push the threshold of immorality more. Who can show the most skin, film the intimacies of men and women, and push the themes of sex, money and drugs. It's a step backwards for Egyptian cinema seeing how traditionally Egyptian directors were known for their story-telling abilities, rather then their voyeurism.
Have you interacted with other Iranians in Cairo? Absolutely, particularly with the Iranian students who are studying abroad in Egypt. It's actually always interesting to gauge Iranian perception of Cairo, particularly the older generation who experienced the revolution in 1979.
I remember when my mother visited last year, she couldn't help but expressing how similar Egypt is to pre-Revolutionary Iran. An identical comment was made by a friend of mine who visited only last week. In fact, if I remember correctly, a writer for Iranian.com made the same point upon their visit as well.
What will you miss most about Egypt? Fresh juice. It's ironic that organic, fresh juice in the States costs double or more the cost of synthetic, genetically modified products. Egypt, on the other hand, has juice bars speckled across literally every street where any of the popular drinks (i.e. orange, pomegranate, mango, and guava) cost roughly 20 cents versus packaged drinks that begin at least five times that price.
The juice man has truly become my one true Egyptian hero. Where else can in the world can I place a torn-up, muddied, Egyptian pound (which in the States wouldn't afford a gumball) and receive a large glass of fresh orange juice. Given the convenience and benefits of this commodity, it is not surprising that I have become an addict.