By Laila Afifi
The unremitting sounds of gunfire shatter the silence of the night, followed by the thud of heavy footsteps as my neighbors in the apartment above run toward their balcony. My first instinct is to do the same, yet as I pull open the balcony door the smell of burnt tree branches and smoke coming from the fire at the corner of the street flood my nostrils. For a mere minute I am taken to another continent, to a different country, where the smell of a burning fire brings back memories of roasting marshmallows for s’mores during my Girl Scout campouts. Yet the husky voices of men yelling and metal chains scraping against the pavement shake me out of my entranced state. Welcome to my nightmare, round one.
Just as I thought things were moving on, I was proven wrong. It was February, a month well past the Egyptian revolution, and so I had put back the kitchen scissors and knives that had, for weeks, lay on the dining table, moved the broom stick away from the apartment door, and finally turned off the night-light in the hall. And as I sat watching TV on a Thursday evening, absorbed in my own world of happy thoughts, it was as though time had chosen to go backwards and I was pulled into a nightmare that I had hoped to never experience.
Over the loud movie that was playing rose the deep shouts of men; so loud you could hear sounds but couldn’t comprehend the words. They clustered together in two large groups clearly one against the other, for what reason or cause remains unknown. They were armed with knives, large metal poles, and chains. Sudden gunfire shattered what, minutes before, had been a silent night. My heart started to pound as I ran back inside the apartment and shut the balcony door. Minutes later as more rounds of gunfire were heard. As people from the neighborhood started to make their way towards these rebellious groups, I ran for the phone. I dialed number after number of emergency hotlines and landlines that I had taken down during the revolution yet they were either busy or disconnected. I rushed back to the window, worried not for my safety as much as for my car. There it stood, less than a year old, in the middle of the two quarreling groups. What if they broke the glass while fighting? What if they decided to steal it? Would I ever find my car again? It might seem ridiculous to be fretting over the car, but the thought persisted. At the same time, however, I started to feel a sense of anger and frustration boiling within me. I started jumping up and down and yelling. I was frustrated and stressed. Why should a handful of armed thugs who were fighting for a cause far from justifiable, have the capability to disrupt a neighborhood? Did they have the right to create panic and fear for those residing in the street? And where was the police to stop them and put an end to all this unrest?
Yet, I guess this is the aftermath of overthrowing a thirty year regime that ruled with an iron fist and put people far past their state of comfort under the emergency laws. These are just some of the aftershocks as thugs desperately attempt to latch on to the last bits of anarchy as the country tries to regain its stability and security. Petty disputes that will momentarily blow out of proportion, violence, and chaos are sure to plague the nation for quite some time.
So where does the solution lie? Given, of course, that I am no social or political expert, it seems logical however to assume that when and only when all the convicts who have fled their fate are put back where they belong and until all those who believe they can run away from the law face it head on, will anarchy finally end and the country slowly regain a sense of safety and security.
With all the social and economic unrest that currently grips the nation, are we a step closer to the freedom and democracy that we resiliently fought for? Today, Egypt lies in a state of blunder; high-schools and colleges have gotten more “vacation” time than they bargained for, hundreds who used to make a decent earning, fed their families, and kept a roof over their heads now find themselves unemployed and unable to make ends meet. Convicts wander the streets of Egypt, police presence is limited, and the stock market has entered into another month of hibernation. This hardly seems close to the ideal state of democracy that 80 million people envisioned. And yet, we are currently treading between two worlds, the past and the present–treading in what many have deemed as a state of transition.
Egypt is desperately trying to keep its head above water. The massive sea of Egyptians, once united in the millions to oust the old regime, are now factionalized with different demands. While the upper strata yearn for a transparent government, the lower classes hope for a rise in the minimum wages and the provision of their basic needs, needs. And so I wonder, what does a democratic Egypt mean to you? To me?
The reality is that democracy even in the most “free” of nations has limits and that the pillars and values on which it is founded are violated behind closed doors as their people remain oblivious. That is why it is imperative that Egyptians remain united, to bring together their ideas for a democratic nation and to ensure that these ideals are the building blocks with which the state is to be recreated. Yet, some might argue that people are doing just that as they continue to swarm into Tahrir Square to protest, and call on the army and transitional government. Others see these continued protests as a barricade holding the nation back and preventing the army from beginning reforms. So what are we to do? Demonstrate regardless? Give the army the necessary time to sift through thirty years of corruption and injustice? I wish I knew the answer or had the necessary political and social academic expertise to provide one. But, speaking simply as an Egyptian national, I conclude that finding a balance between the two options seems to be the most logical and reasonable solution.
Out of the many text messages that the army has sent, their latest one held a considerable amount of truth and value. Loosely translated, it read, “We’ve waited thirty years, so what’s the harm in waiting a little longer for us to provide you with the better.”
Patience always seems to be the key, but in our case I don’t believe patience means sitting along the sidelines, allowing the army to take matters into its own hands while the population loses its drive, momentum, and patriotism. I believe that patience is the ability to realize when we need to leave the army to do what is has to do and when the people need to mobilize themselves for a million man march that has a justifiable and noteworthy purpose. This is not to say that those still gathering in Tahrir Square have petty demands. On the contrary, it’s about realizing that at some point in time, despite the hurt, anger, and mistrust that three decades of a flawed regime have engraved in its people, we must once again learn to have faith, hope, and put our trust in the government. We must understand that doing so, at least for now, is the most feasible and enduring solution for moving forward. The people of Egypt have let their voices be heard and shown the world their determination and iron wills. This leads me believe that the coming government will think twice before doing something that is deemed unjust or flawed. If Egyptians continue to recognize their power and strength, the coming government will too.
Democracy isn’t simple. It isn’t a math equation that can be memorized, nor is it a science experiment that can be recreated in a lab. Rather, transitioning to democracy and the process of laying down its foundations is like an earthquake. It unexpectedly shakes the nation. Destruction and devastation is the aftermath as people, infrastructure, and the ruling regime crumble. Sifting through the rubble, we come face to face with pain, loss, anxiety, and violence, which become just a handful of the repercussions as we attempt to overcome the shock of the quake. In an effort to move forward, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start rebuilding. Yet, after an earthquake people undeniably hope to see something brighter. While 80 million Egyptians hope to see a brighter path, each in their own way, I hope to see us rising from the rubble once again – stronger , fearless, and empowered like never before.
Laila Afifi is a senior studying at the American University in Cairo.