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Ellen Umphrey: From inside, watching Egypt’s freedom fight

Posted Oct. 04, 2013, at 6:17 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 04, 2013, at 1:42 p.m.
OpArt by George Danby | BDN
Bangor, Maine native and former John Bapst student Ellen Umphrey recently left her husband and home in Cairo because of unrest in Egypt.
Brian Feulner | Brian Feulner
Bangor, Maine native and former John Bapst student Ellen Umphrey recently left her husband and home in Cairo because of unrest in Egypt.

I moved to Cairo, Egypt, as a student in the summer of 2010 to attend the American University in Cairo. I moved frequently, getting an idea of the different areas, even living close to Tahrir Square in 2011. After three full years of experience, and a revolution and a coup later, I walked away with some searing images but also fond memories — like rowing on the river Nile at the break of dawn.

I saw many things, aspects of humanity so far from Bangor, Maine. I saw what happens when the Internet and cellphones are cut indefinitely and the fear it instills. I saw thugs paid by the regime to attack civilians and sow chaos. I saw an orchestrated prison break and mass looting.

Mostly, I was inspired by the boundless, infectious hope and pride after Hosni Mubarak was ousted. People were practicing freedom of speech for the first time and, therefore, being tested by others’ opinions for the first time. Multiplicity in political belief and freeing of the media was often likened to opening an unused faucet to find that a stream of murky water needed to be expunged before clean, respectable content could spill forth.

The lesson in that was freedom, and the limits needed to protect it required practice and patience until a balance was found between regulation and liberation, the murky and the clean.

But the systematic failures and abuses of the state never changed. Liberals and seculars had no practice politically and became divided and weak, while the Muslim brotherhood emerged as the strong institution, as it has been organized underground for decades.

Shortly after the Revolution, I saw evidence that the police-state apparatus hadn’t been disabled. A friend of mine showed me his purple skin after being “taken” and tortured by the police for protesting the abuses by the Ministry of Interior. Coptic Christians were crushed by American-manufactured tanks, and I saw the sudden floods of men running to get away while I jumped on a fence to avoid being pulled into the tide. Friends of mine were kidnapped/arrested from their apartment by thugs and military police.

Ultimately, the internal issues of the state proved too large and complicated, while the political strata was too wide — from ultra-conservative Salafis to liberal seculars — for “New Egypt” to come to accordance. The collateral damage was a disbanded parliament, constitution and a new president who many felt held allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood first, Egypt second.

Unfortunately, they weren’t the only institution to put themselves first and Egypt second. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which leads the fascist military junta that deposed the (inept at best and malevolent at worst) civilian president, Mohamed Morsi, has favored stability for their business projects, including resorts on the Red and Mediterranean seas, gas stations, production of kitchen appliances, and construction projects over democracy.

Many Egyptians do not understand why the United States would want to supply massive amounts of ammunitions to such an abusive entity that most recently killed more than 1,000 civilians who opposed the military coup while embarking on a massive state-controlled propaganda campaign likening any Islamist, Christian, journalist, refugee, political dissident or Sinai resident to a terrorist. Many of those demographics have become social pariahs likely to be harmed.

I know most of the country has accepted the hate and blood lust that the military is espousing (aimed also at America). There is much economically that needs to be done to develop Egypt, and, without the democratic freedom to address systematic failures, it seems likely the military will let it rest, as it does not interfere with the segregate “Egypt” of military-business enterprises.

But as the economy tanks lower in Egypt, with the foreign reserves below 50 percent of what they were three years ago (even with recent support from Gulf countries), the currency depreciating, commodity prices increasing, a fiscal deficit fueled by large subsidies for the legions of the poor, and an inability to maintain electricity in all neighborhoods at all times due to outstanding debt to international energy companies, I have a hope that against all the odds of a failed educational system, someone will inspire a new revolution, one that will have the tools to change what needs to change.

Only Egyptians will be able to address what needs to be changed and rise as the proud people of their ancient heritage, working together and treating each other with respect. Revolutions and freedom take practice, and Egypt has had only one democratic year. So let’s not judge Egyptian transitions too harshly. Even the French revolution was followed by the tyrannical reign of Napoleon.

Ellen Umphrey was born in Bangor and attended John Bapst Memorial High School. She recently graduated with a BA in economics from the American University in Cairo.

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