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ON THE SCENE: Egypt on our mind

February 17, 2011
“What do American’s think about Egypt?” asked Abdalla, a Jordanian man who was my seatmate on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfort to Berlin. “Do they understand that these protests are not led by religion, but by the people? Do they understand how much courage it takes for them to protest because the police can destroy their lives?”

“Yes,” I said. “I believe so. I think Americans understand that Egyptians are hoping to create a government that is more like Turkey’s, one where different faiths are practiced and where the state is not led by any religious sect, where it is under sectarian rule.”

“Yes, that is what the people wish,” he said. “They are willing to be tortured for that because any person arrested by the police will be tortured.”

Thoughts about Egypt are very much on the minds of residents of Keene of late because the riots and protests in the street, the calls for Americans to leave by our government officials, touches the lives of one of our very own, Christal Boutte, of Keene Valley, a young woman who is studying Arabic there – one of 50,000 Americans still in the country.

As you can imagine, her family and friends have been deeply worried and, as her mom Alice reported, been “glued to CNN and to stream” to learn all they can while urging her to leave – were urging her until communications were cut off. Good news is that they reconnected through Skype and Alice was able to send out an email to the community through Rev. Milton Dudley’s email list. Alice wrote:

“After proposing several plans to encourage her to leave; registering her with the State Department as an evacuee, calling U.S. Sen. Gillibrand for help, etc....), after talking with her today, we realize she is not afraid for her safety, she has a good network of American and Egyptian friends and she simply does not want to leave yet because she is quite inspired about what is happening. She reassured us that things are much calmer, the banks have re-opened, there seems to be businesses open, people are getting as much food as before, the curfew is shorter, and she is not going to the demonstration area downtown unless her Egyptian friends give her the go-ahead. She is mostly staying in her residential neighborhood, which has formed a neighborhood watch against looters as many neighborhoods have done. But she does have her suitcase packed and available cash put aside now in case she really has to leave.”

“After visiting Egypt for 10 days to visit Christal a little over a year ago,” wrote Alice, “we found Cairo to be a very safe city with very little violent crime, though the traffic is quite chaotic to Westerners with not a stop sign, traffic light, policeman (except a very few in the downtown) or any traffic lanes marked on the roads at all. I have been reminded of my experience with their traffic with these demonstrations going on now. What appears to us as chaotic, without leadership and rather amorphous, like their non-system for traffic, has rather an amazing internal, almost intuitive communion going on between the people that somehow allows the traffic to keep flowing in a way more steadily than Manhattan traffic ever does, in a city with more than twice the population.”

“Christal keeps saying, it (the protest) is coming from down deep in their hearts, “It is truly organic, Mom !” It is coming from the bottom up and it will take some time for them to find their representative voice which must be a collective one, representing many different opposition groups - and they have quite a different sense of time than we do. We could feel while there that the Egyptian people have a deep pride in their ancient culture and history and are quite secure internally that, like their pyramids, their people will always be there, that time, as always, will be on their side now no matter which pharaoh or colonial power or autocrat they have had to put up with. So finally, I can say, after finally reaching Christal and being reassured for her current safety, that we are both more at peace and hopeful for the eventual outcome there in Egypt!”

Toward that end, Rev. Dudley sent an email to his congregation asking if there was someone willing to speak to the Congregation during the Mission Moment about Egypt. Rob Hasting, choir director, responded with a letter from a high school friend, Ann Wilson Coster, who has worked as a teacher in Cairo for 20 years.

Ann wrote, “Friday evening was the first time it felt like we were in a “different Egypt.” As the curfew time arrived, we looked out our front window and saw growing numbers of men coming out on the street, each carrying a stick of some kind. They started placing cement blocks across intersections. As the sun set and the street was enveloped in darkness, we could still tell that these groups of men were there, by their voices, the lights of their cigarette butts, and by car headlights that were turned on to light spots where they were congregating. At first we didn’t know who these men were. Later we learned that these were our neighbors, coming out to guard the neighborhood. The need for such action became apparent to us later when were heard about looting that was happening in areas around Cairo. The police had all disappeared, so these men were filling a void. Later in the news, we saw that this ad hoc need to protect families and property was happening all over Cairo.”

“When we see pictures on the TV of the protesters in the streets of Cairo, we’re struck by the efforts of the people and the military to avoid violence. We know that the Army is made up of Egyptian men who are conscripted into 2 years of service. They are the sons, brothers, nephews and grandsons of the people on the street. We are not surprised at the amount of yelling going on. When we have witnessed any kind of confrontation (e.g., a car accident) between two Egyptians, we hear the yelling first. Rarely, though, have we seen any kind of physical attack on each other (even when tempers seem to be at their height). In such situations, people rush in from all corners of the neighborhood to loudly advise the two parties, making any kind of Egyptian altercation truly a raucous event.”

“It is disconcerting to see statements on the news that say, “U.S. Embassy says all Americans should leave Egypt.” There are thousands of us here. When the Embassy “says” something like that, does that mean they will charter planes to take us out? We have no reason to think so. We also do not feel unsafe. NO actions have been made against foreigners; all their anger is directed at President Mubarak.”

“Will Obama throw Mubarak under the bus?” said Abdalla. “It is a difficult question because Mubarak has supported your government for 30 years which has supported many other corrupt leaders. But I think it is time. America’s prestige has fallen greatly throughout the Middle East. It is time for Mubarak to go under the bus.”



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