Turning over a new leaf

The International Herald Tribune Daily News

April 26 2011

By Philip Whitfield

An economist taught me it took 80 years for America to turn an agricultural economy into an industrial powerhouse, 18 years to restore Japan and Germany to normalcy after World War II and 8 years for China to do what all three did. Egypt’s trying to transmogrify itself within eight months.

The unanticipated consequences mirror a legal conundrum. If you demolish your house and the mice you didn’t know existed in the basement flee into your neighbor’s, should your neighbor sue you, the wrecking gang or the council for responsibility?

A youngish mum I respect, who busses tables in Mohandessin to put her kids through a good Cairo school that charges LE 4,000 a year fees per pupil, is faced with the unanticipated consequences of Egypt’s revolution. She sat down for a while (restaurants are shadows of their former bustling selves) and told me what had happened to her kids.

Until 24th January her two girls, one aged 12 the other 7, played joyously with their best friends in the playground. She enjoyed chit chatting at the school gate with other mums before the kids came out. After the prolonged vacation prompted by the revolution all three found their world turned upside down at the school. The girls’ friends not only refuse to play with her daughters anymore, but their mothers cut her dead at the door. They all blame the waitress and her girls for upending the status quo.

What are they saying, I asked? They say the Christians were behind it, she responded. Uh? But I know some of the Tahrir Square leaders and I read their tweets and blogs and there’s not a Christian among them…Doesn’t seem to matter, she said. Please, please help me to get to Canada…there’s no future for us here.

Spool back a few years to the beginnings of the revolution in Northern Ireland in the late 60’s. The civil rights campaign began with peaceful marches to bring the world’s attention to unjust cronyism, corruption among some officials, particularly Protestant-led councils allocating public housing to fellow Protestants, sometimes to single women regardless of the overwhelming demands of homeless Catholic families. Thugs organized by a Protestant preacher dispersed marches Camel-charge style.

Both sides ignored history. Latent hatreds surfaced. Guns and explosives were spirited in. Soon a reenergized Republican Irish Republican Army (IRA) was engaged in a night-and-day battle with a resistance movement, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The dust hasn’t altogether settled almost 50 years later and the last time I checked, more than 3,500 were killed, many innocent bystanders.

Here’s the rub. Egypt and Ireland share uncanny similarities. In early 19th Century censuses the British estimated that 5 million people lived in Egypt and about 5 million in Ireland. Now there are something like 70 million Egyptians and 70 million Irish. The big difference is that 65 million Egyptians live in Egypt (occupying a third of tiny Ireland’s acreage) and 5 million live abroad, whereas 5 million Irish live in Ireland and 65 million live abroad.

Forced to fall back on potatoes to survive at he time, the Irish failed to anticipate that the potatoes they had were extremely susceptible to blight. A million Irish died from starvation and a million took to the boats to America beginning the Irish Diaspora and skewing their demographics for evermore.

The unexpected consequences of reform in Egypt have apparently unleashed a latency that threatens to destabilize the everyday relationships of Muslims and Christians. Ignoring what’s going on is as bird-brained as planting the wrong strain of spuds.

Rather than helter skelter towards reform, those who want to rule should be making sure the unruly use tolerance to heal society’s wounds. Instead, I see a vengeful, unbecoming metaphorical lynch mob grabbing ropes and timber to hang the unconvicted awaiting justice in Torah. They should be wary of the unexpected emerging later on in the saga. The first pictures of the Crucifixion only went up on the Vatican’s walls 400 years after the event.

The other day I went to see people I’ve worked with for a few years in their office. We can’t talk here, their supervisor said, ushering me to an unaccustomed, closed conference room. What’s up, said I?

We don’t talk to one another any more, the supervisor said. There was a big row between the No’s and the Yes’s just before the Referendum. We don’t talk to each other now. I looked around the office: early-30s Egyptians who observe Islam respectfully, but lightly. Previously best buddies, now they can’t stand working with each other. And like the waitress’s kids, they walk home tearfully and rarely go to sleep dry-eyed.

Wisdom passed down via the Pharaohs over thousands of years accepts universal free choice and freedom of expression bound up with mutual respect and rejects bigotry that puts kids in the playground at each others’ throats or co-workers in purdah.

The lesson: don’t try to second-guess the outcome of social change. Your enemy’s enemy isn’t necessarily your friend. And don’t chirp if you flutter into the glop. A sly fox might gobble you up for lunch.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at pjwcairo@yahoo.com or twittered @mohendessin.

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