Finding Inspiration and Courage in Egypt

This article was originally published for The Retiree Advocate at in February 2016.

Last November, my wife and I spent almost a month in Egypt and Ethiopia. It was a trip of a lifetime experiencing the history of 3,000 years of rule of the Pharaohs and the modern day struggles for democracy and freedom against the modern day Pharaohs.

We traveled to Abu Simbel, the site of two famous temples of Rameses II, the greatest of the Pharaohs. In the 60s, the UN saved this great site from being permanently flooded by a new dam. The temples were dismantled and reassembled overlooking the Nile in an extraordinarily beautiful and desolate site. I followed this story as a youth and waited 50 years to see it. It was worth the wait.

What did Abu Simbel mean to the people of the time? Walking into the Rameses temple, we faced a huge wall carving, the dedication wall. Rameses had one foot on the face and throat of a black Nubian slave lying on the floor. Scepter of kingly rule in one hand, whip in the other, Rameses lashed out at other cowering Nubian slaves while the gods approved.

We were visiting a shock-and-awe temple dedicated to conquest and slavery. The temple was a warning to the conquered peoples. We have the power to enslave you, we have the wealth to build awesome monuments, and we have the power to crush you again if you fight for your freedom. My childhood fantasies of awesome beauty collided head on with glorifying brutal conquests and a monument to injustice. We found this conflict repeated at other ancient sites.

At the end of the trip, a friend and I went a second time to the Egyptian Museum, the world’s greatest collection of Pharaonic art. It is located on Tahrir Square, the site of the 2011 Egyptian Spring uprising. A huge run-down building, very dirty, poorly curated but nonetheless a spectacular place to visit. We went to the outdoor snack bar to reflect on our trip, the museum, and the connections between ancient times and today.

We talked over the roar of huge machines jackhammering down a six-floor gutted building next door that covered an entire city block. “It’s the sound of freedom,” I said. They were demolishing the former national headquarters of the former military dictator’s political party. It was a monument to 31 years of military rule under General Hosni Mubarak, a modern Pharaoh. It had been destroyed during the uprising in 2011.

Let’s connect some dots. According to Congress, our government gave Egypt $18 billion in military aid between 1998 and 2011. Egypt has been a solid ally in the “War on Terror.” They do our dirty work of interrogating and torturing suspected terrorists so our government can deny responsibility. To quote former CIA agent Robert Baer: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear — never to see them again — you send them to Egypt.”

In 2011, the Egyptian people shocked themselves and the world by toppling Mubarak. In 17 days they overthrew a Pharaoh for the first time in 5,000 years of recorded history. They toppled Mubarak, but they did not topple the structures of oppression. In the election that followed, they had a choice between Mubarak’s vice president and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Progressive forces were in disarray after decades of U.S.-backed repression. The Muslim Brotherhood narrowly won.

Within a year, the people poured into the streets again calling for the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government. Given that the secret police and corrupt and violent local police have not been tamed, people were cautious talking about the current situation. Everyone we talked to welcomed the military overthrow of the Brotherhood.

They also said that their struggle for democracy, freedom, and social equality would be long and hard, but the people have found their power like never before.

Finding inspiration. On January 1, 2011, a suicide bomber killed 21 Coptic Christians outside a church. Thirty-two days later, hundreds of Copts encircled thousands of Muslims who were praying in Tahrir Square as the uprising began. What were they doing? They were protecting their brother and sister Muslims from possible attacks as they knelt to pray. Christians and Muslims standing together for freedom, justice, and social equality. Everywhere we went, we were treated well, including the two young men on the crowded subway car who got up and offered us their seats. Maybe we can learn from them.

Returning home was very difficult: massacre at Planned Parenthood in Colorado; cover-up of police murder of young black man in Chicago, with the Mayor’s office implicated in $5 million of legal hush money; racism, sexism, homophobia, immigrant bashing, union bashing, climate-change-denying, evolution-denying, divide-and-conquer hate and fear mongering — all fundamental parts of the Republican campaign for President.

I love my country and want it to live up to its stated and noble ideals that inspired me in my youth and today. I want us to stop propping up brutal military dictators. Thank goodness no Egyptian asked us why the American people supported a brutal dictator like Mubarak. I want us to build a country in which everyone is treated equally and fairly. We have work to do. I draw inspiration from the courage of the Egyptian people.

Mark McDermott is Co-chair of PSARA’s Education Committee.

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