In Tampa the other day, I met an East German named Friedman. I was making a stop on my “Southern (Dis)comfort” tour. It’s a trip around the Southeast talking about homelessness and visiting shelters, soup kitchens and inner-city schools.
Our discussion of the poor led to the events taking shape in Egypt. I reminisced with Friedman about my first day there. I had walked into the country from Israel. Having spent the better part of a week in Jerusalem, I was headed to Cairo.
Of course, there’s no direct land route between the two cities because the Gaza Strip is sealed off and folks have to travel down the length of Israel to find a crossing point. The buses don’t cross the border, either. Folks must disembark the Israeli bus, pass through checkpoints in both countries and hitch a ride on an Egyptian bus on the other side. I’ve never encountered more security while traveling than I did when I crossed the Suez Canal.
Gaza and the Suez Canal are why the fate of Egypt’s political system has the world in a tizzy right now. A post-Mubarak Egypt might not honor Israel’s blockade of Gaza and fear that Suez trade might get disrupted has — according to Bloomberg Financial News — set oil prices on a roller-coaster ride.
But Friedman hadn’t worried about all that as he watched the people take to the streets of Cairo. He explained that he just hoped the Egyptians felt the way he did when the Berlin Wall came down. He told me that people charging the wall en masse and tearing at the symbol and reality of their oppression probably looked bad to the world, too. But Friedman explained, “East Germans weren’t being violent or threatening, they were just ecstatic and running through the streets, not sure what would come next.” He said that what looked to the outside world as unrest was merely “excitement” and the joy they felt over their new freedom.
Then Friedman expressed his hope that the outside world could keep their noses out of it. He told me that a period of uncertainty followed in the former Soviet bloc as they wondered what leaders would rise out of their turmoil and help them assimilate into a new world; a world without oppression and fear.
And then he added the real kicker. “I’m glad the U.S. never stepped in to ‘give us freedom.’” He continued, “I’ve seen how the U.S. liberates people; hundreds of thousands of them die in the process. East Germany secured its own freedom.” He felt the Egyptians could do the same.
Egypt has what is arguably the longest recorded history of any nation. And when you go to the Egyptian War Museum, you see Pharaohs’ chariots parked down the hall from British tanks. Egypt has survived incursions by the Mongolian Kahns and German Panzer units; they’ll likely withstand this latest upheaval. The real question is how the U.S. and Israel will react to regime change from within.
To us who live in the world’s largest democracy all this agitation may seem a little “over the top.” Sure there’s a level of oppression in Egypt. The Associated Press says Sudanese kids get picked on for their “blacker” color and The Washington Post says school kids are labeled on the class roles by their religion. But here in the U.S. we have as bad or worse segregationist practices still going on and we aren’t taking to the streets.
When you spend a few weeks on a tour of the nation — starring the plight of the U.S. underclass — it’s daunting to see the institutionalized discrepancies and, frankly, hard not to get depressed. I toured a Deep South public school in a school department that unapologetically allows the white children to be taken out and moved to “whiter” schools. Not moved to whiter private schools, moved to whiter schools in the same public school district.
To use a little ancient Egyptian imagery, we’re in no position to throw stones. Maybe the events of late will inspire us here in the U.S. to demand equality. If Jordan’s King Abdullah II can sack his Cabinet amid peaceful street protests and Egyptians can rally for fairness, perhaps there’s hope for us yet.
Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.