CAIRO—Each evening when I arrive home to my apartment building in Cairo, the boab (doorman) greets me with a grin, a joke, and a helping hand. As he walked me to the elevator the other night, he summed up the state of the world in the famously good-natured Egyptian style: “America—all good. Egypt—all good. In America, no problems. In Egypt, no problems. No problems anywhere!” A loud belly laugh followed me into the elevator and faded as the doors closed.
As a newcomer to Cairo, I am beginning to get acquainted with Egypt’s problems and a handful of its people. On weekdays I attend language school in the downtown Garden City district near Tahrir Square. Staffed by highly educated young Egyptians, the school used to hold group classes throughout the year. Right now I am one of two full-time in-person students. Given recent unrest and current tension in the neighborhood, paltry attendance is sad but not surprising. Traveling to and from school each morning I pass embassies surrounded by stoic Special Forces soldiers and groups of young conscripts camped out waiting for action.
In Garden City, along with many other parts of Cairo, waiting for action doesn’t require much patience. In November a new law banning unauthorized protests added a new item to the already extensive list of reasons for Egyptians’ discontent. The law requires organizers to provide notification of time and place, along with an explanation of demands, three days in advance of demonstrations. Violators are subject to arrest and fines. While the law’s stated purpose is to promote safety and stability, so far it has only proven effective at instigating more protests.
Clashes and demonstrations have escalated in recent months as university students and other groups lit up streets, squares, and universities throughout Egypt. Activists have rallied against the protest law and various grievances, including alleged police brutality used to disperse protests since this past summer. Heightened tension has followed fatal clashes between security forces and students. A new law specifically bans unauthorized protests on university campuses, allows arrests of high-profile dissidents, and cracks down on the Muslim Brotherhood, which was officially labeled a “terrorist organization” by the interim government this past Wednesday.
Flare-ups have also gained momentum as the nation prepares for a seismic shift in governance. A newly drafted constitution—an updated version of the 2012 constitution introduced during Morsi’s tenure—is up for public referendum mid-January. The interim regime aims to garner far greater support for the new draft than its precursor, which passed with 64 percent support and a turnout of 33 percent.
Last month the campaign to win stronger participation and approval took the form of large red signs on billboards, lampposts, and a growing number of other conspicuous spots throughout Cairo. The signs read: “Participation in the constitution means yes to June 30th and January 25th,” references to this past summer’s mass movement to depose Mohamed Morsi and the 2011 revolution resulting in Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. A more recent batch of signs simply say “Yes” in large letters and “Egyptians love their country” in smaller text below.
Pitched as the next stop on the “roadmap” to a better future for Egyptians, on many levels the constitution will codify a new set point of freedom and agency, or lack thereof, for Egyptian citizens. But the document raises a slew of questions: Will recent restrictions on protests prove to be an indicator of the trajectory ahead? How will stifled opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, express their malcontent? Will a critical mass of the nation ascribe authority to the constitution and the institutions it seeks to define?
When I arrived in Egypt, I wondered how this season of large-scale crises and unanswered questions would shape daily life, certainly for Egyptians but also for foreigners like me, an American Christian. So far I am convinced that the hostility in the air is decidedly not about America and not necessarily directed against Christians either. Whenever an Egyptian asks me if I am an American, I hesitate to say yes. Once I say “yes,” they uniformly reply: “Welcome to Egypt!” To Egyptians, notorious for friendliness and hospitality, Americans seem more likely to represent potential consumers of tourism services than political foes.
As a foreign Christian I have also felt far from the epicenter of persecution that continues against the Coptic community. I have attended two international churches with congregations that represent at least 30 countries. Despite the fact that meeting times remain nimble in order to avoid planned protests, preaching, worship and robust lineups of social activities carry on with extroverted energy. The churches waste no time on fearfulness.
Even outside the church, while strife permeates many elements of life in Egypt, peaceful interludes outweigh stressful episodes and people find ways to flourish, keep a sense of humor, and make their homeland as welcoming as possible. Several Egyptians have asked me: “What do you think of Egypt and what do you tell your friends?” They wince and wait for me to say something like, “There are guns, tanks and protests everywhere. This place isn’t safe!” A smile reappears when I truthfully reply, “The Egyptians I have met are warm, open, and friendly. I tell my friends that as long as you steer clear of hot spots and stay calm while attempting to cross the street, this is a good place to be—not the place you might imagine after watching the news.”
While the boab’s proclamation, “In Egypt—no problems,” is false enough to be an intentional joke, it’s certainly not “all problems” here either.