Popping my Political Bubble…فرقع فقاعتي السياسية
Born and raised in American suburbia, there is no doubt in my mind that I won the global childhood lottery. While I may have considered aspects of my life challenging during junior-high school they paled in comparison to what the average individual faces on a daily basis in this very harsh world. Thankfully my bubble sprung a leak during high school through some volunteering in southwestern Phoenix and Oaxaca, Mexico before finally popping forever when I spent nine months in Egypt during my junior year (or so I thought).
Thus when I arrived in Egypt some two months ago, I did not expect to discover new constant reminders of my childhood lottery success. After all, my bubble had already been popped. I knew that Egypt was a developing country mired somewhere between the second and third world (as much as I abhor the use of these vague terms). I knew that there would be unusual smells, a lack of hot water or water pressure in my apartment, and garbage gathered on the corner. I knew that beggars would be a regular sight on the staircases of subway stops and that my modest stipend would be more than most Egyptians make in a couple of months.
Through multiple conversations with far too many Egyptians in Tahrir Square, I’ve become aware of how terribly wrong I was. My socio-economic bubble may have been popped but my political bubble was so well disguised that I did not even know that it existed.
For instance, a few weeks ago some friends and I struck up a conversation with a couple of Egyptians while we wandered around the sit-in in Tahrir Square. Like most conversations with Egyptians, the subject matter quickly moved from flattering comments on my Arabic proficiency to politics – specifically American foreign policy in the Middle East. A few moments later, the Egyptians were clearly shocked by my critical attack on American foreign politics specifically our continued support of Israel, our involvement in the Libyan Civil War, and most of all our false notion of American exceptionalism – that we as a nation are endowed with special virtues that not only makes us an object to be emulated by other nations but also gives us free reign to reform the world in our image. A half hour later, I looked around to discover that my friends and I were in the middle of a crowd of more than thirty people bombarding us with political questions or accusing us of being foreign spies.
Those accusations broke my political bubble. Growing up debating politics over the dinner table and in the classroom, I have taken for granted the right to express myself freely without ad homenim attacks. I have taken for granted the right to criticize my government without fear of incarceration. I have taken for granted that public discourse exists and allows for both the free and unhindered exchange of opinions and the reevaluation thereof. Since the Free Officer’s coup in 1952, Egyptians have not enjoyed these rights. Moreover, all criticisms of the government – regardless of their validity – have been attributed to foreign infiltrators hoping to sow discord among the Egyptian people.
In some, the Egyptian masses have learned to fear differences of opinion. Although the revolution shattered the barrier of fear, there is still little respect for differing opinions, trust of political opponents or promotion of objective public discourse. Liberals fear that Islamists seek to impose shari`a (Islamic law) while Islamists paint liberals as agents of Israel. The religious devout declare secularists to be infidels while the seculars portray the devout as extremists. In sum, the Egyptian verbal world is black and white rather than varying shades of gray.
Although most media coverage of the Egyptian political transition, however, has focused on the challenges of drafting a constitution, mobilizing constituencies for elections, and dealing with the dubious policies of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, peaceful public discourse and the adjustment to the newfound freedoms of political expression are the lifeblood of democracy. The use of such freedoms, however, cannot be taught in the classroom. Instead it must be learned over time through trial and error.