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The Minarets of Alexandria

Egypt is braced for further protests against President Morsi today following the Presidents televised speech defending the upcoming referendum on a new constitution and his decree which granted him a whole swathe of new powers and has been seen by many Egyptians as a step backwards to dictatorship.  Friday, due to the significance of Friday prayers in Islam, has become synonymous with some of the the biggest protests in Egypt and across the Arab Middle East during this Arab Awakening.  I thought it would be interesting to bring you the perspective on events from an outsider living in Egypt.  Here follows an e-mail interview with a friend of mine who has been living and working in Egypt for the past few months.

 

If you could just give some detail on yourself and where you are working etc how long you have been there.

My name is Simon and I am a primary school teacher. I recently graduated from university in the UK and was offered a job teaching in an international British school here in Alexandria. It is a private, fee paying school. I moved here in early September. I work with Egyptian children aged 7-8.

 

What have been your perceptions of Egypt, its people, the geography of the country?

When I first moved here I was amazed at how diverse the culture is. There is a large divide between the rich and the poor of the city. Foreigners and expats are a tiny minority here – so much so that I am often stared at (and occasionally abused) for my skin colour. Having said that, other Egyptians will give out preferential treatment just for being a foreigner and are incredibly kind and welcoming. I was also lucky enough to spend a few days over half term staying with a family in a tiny village in Upper Egypt. They were a Christian family and incredibly welcoming. The majority of the village turned out to see the foreigners arrive, and they all insisted on shaking our hands and many of them gave us gifts of food and drink. At a guess, I would say that 90% of those people had never seen a white person in real life before. A lot of them had never left the village.

 

What have been the reactions of Egyptians you have met to President Morsi and his presidency? In particular this perceived power grab? Is it often the topic of conversation? Do they talk to you about it?

Outside of school it is generally quite difficult to meet and converse with Egyptians. Many Egyptians only know a few words of English and I certainly don’t know enough Arabic to talk about politics! However all of the teaching assistants and admin staff at school are Egyptian. From conversations had with them (and other people that I have met such as my landlord and a few students studying English etc) they are all against Morsi and his power grab. The Muslims that I have spoken to are very anti-Muslim Brotherhood, and believe that they are misrepresenting Islam and are only interested in grabbing more power. There is also the belief that they want to merge Egypt with other countries to create one big Islamic state.

All of the people that I have discussed this with have obviously been well educated and many have travelled to other countries (such as USA, Europe etc.). The impression that I have gained from being here, is that Morsi’s supporters are generally less educated.

The one Morsi supporter that I have come into contact with was working on the fruit and veg stand in a typically Egyptian supermarket. I shop there as it is where Egyptians shop and I want to integrate as much as possible. I went in to this shop on the afternoon of a set of huge pro-Morsi/Brotherhood demonstrations in Alexandria and Cairo. The man in the shop asked me what I thought of Mr. Morsi. I declined to comment – as a foreigner I already stuck out quite a lot, and I occasionally get bad stares when I am out on my own. After I dismissed the question, the man shouted in my face “Morsi is my leader”. I then left fairly quickly. He is the only pro-Morsi person I have met, and it wasn’t an overtly intellectual conversation!

 

How have the kids reacted to the crises?  Do they ask you questions about it, do they tell you their own experiences of the hardships it has created?

The children in my class as I mentioned above, are aged 7-8 years. At that age, they are fairly accepting/oblivious of world news, but when school was cancelled on a protest day last week, they began asking questions and bringing it up in conversation. Many of their parents (also well educated Egyptians) are joining the protests in Alexandria. Some of them (apparently) also travelled down to Cairo to join the protests in Tahrir square. The children frequently comment that Morsi is a “bad man” and that he “steals from the people”. Obviously at school we are not permitted to talk politics with children. However when we are sent home early due to protests, it is important to reassure children that things are ok. However in these uncertain times is can be difficult. Most children in my class do not show any signs that they are scared, although on protest days or the day after a big demonstration, many parents will not send their children into school.

 

How has it been getting around Alexandria and accessing services?  Most media footage has been concentrated on Cairo; can you give us any details on the extent of the unrest in Alexandria? 

Most Egyptians (generally) don’t get up until late morning/early afternoon. Therefore most protests do not start until about 4/5pm in Alexandria. Much of the day life goes on as normal, and shops are open Etc. However, the last two Tuesdays schools have either closed at 1pm or have been shut entirely. This could just be because of transportation, as protests are huge and roads are often blocked.

Several government buildings have been burnt out over the last few weeks. The police and army headquarters are now pretty much always surrounded and we have been advised to avoid them.

The issue with Alexandria is that trouble can often erupt anywhere, due to the shape of the city. In Cairo there are areas (such as the Square etc.) that you know the trouble will be concentrated in. However here there is no central location, so you can often find yourself in an unfriendly situation as I did.

 

Have you found yourself in any potentially dangerous situations as a result of the on-going protests and subsequent crackdowns?

I accidentally found myself in the middle of a pro-Morsi rally that quickly turned in to a riot. I was returning home after a meal with friends and we were looking for a taxi. Suddenly a group of masked people ran past us and said that foreigners should get away quickly. We then ran (accidentally towards the more dangerous part) and saw crowds of people in masks breaking things, throwing projectiles and banging on cars to try to stop them. As we were crossing the road to get away, a car full of masked youths pointed at me and began to head towards me. Fortunately my friend dragged me out of the way, as the car was trying to hit me. They drove past and began to turn around to head back again, so we ran. Being blond and blue eyed, I stick out from a crowd in Egypt.

After begging several taxi drivers, one man finally agreed to let us in and drive us home (for 3 times the usual price of course!) It was a horrible experience that I will do my best to avoid having again!

 

What have been the reactions of other Westerners?  Have most stayed, or have any felt compelled to leave?

Everyone that I know has stayed, although many are considering leaving. It is harder and harder to feel safe. Almost every day there are fresh reports of pro-Morsi supporters attacking people with sticks, swords and guns.  The last few nights I have been able to hear the protests very loudly from my window. In fact as I type now I can hear shouts, screams and loud bangs/sirens etc.

 

Finally, how have you seen the average Egyptian in the street handle the political and economic crises?

As I said I have had few dealings with the “Average Egyptian”. Most of the people that I converse with are well educated and fairly wealthy. However, they all seem very anti-Morsi, very anti-government and pro-revolution number 2! The people now know that they have the power to change things, and they are not happy with the Islamist dominated power structure. They staged a revolution because they wanted democracy. They replaced a dictator with someone who, it appears, is becoming another dictator. 

Jonathan Woodrow Martin interviewing Simon Burrows 6-7th December 2012.

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