By Dr Ronald Meinardus
After nearly eight years at the helm of the Cairo Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF), Germany’s liberal think tank, Dr Ronald Meinardus, who has on and off contributed also to the editorial page of this newspaper, is leaving Egypt shortly. Following is the third and last part of a personal review the author has titled “My Liberal Times in Oum al Dounia”.
Looking back, the past three years have been exhausting emotionally and also physically. If I say this as a foreign observer who over the years has tried to keep up with what is going on in the streets and squares, what should Egyptians say who have acted at the forefront of political developments throughout? Politics in Egypt had, at times, become exceptionally dynamic and short-lived. After the uprising in January 2011 so many things happened in so little time, that it became nearly impossible to keep up with the frenzy – let alone lean back and reflect on the historic developments evolving in front of one’s eyes. This has been a paradise for a news junky, and I feel privileged to have been a close witness and to have met and befriended many of the political players and activists of the early hours.
Once you drink from the river Nile, you are destined to return. So goes an old proverb that holds true for me. I posted this popular wisdom on a blog together with pictures of myself as an infant in the arms of my parents in front of the pyramids before moving back to Cairo in 2007. It was a return: I had spent the major part of a very happy childhood here. Coming back to this grand metropolis nearly half a century later in a senior professional position was an experience laden with emotion. So many things came back to my mind, images buried in deep memory returned to life. We settled in Maadi, still a favourite area for expatriates but long rivalled by places like Katameya, Arabella and other posh areas. The roads I had crisscrossed first on a scooter, then on a bicycle are now occupied by speeding automobiles. Most of the old villas with their post-colonial flair have been taken down and replaced by uniform and ugly apartment blocks. As most of my friends, I went to the German school which back then was still in Zamalek. I have fond memories of the daily bus rides down the Corniche passing by un-built areas of green fields. As today, the Deutsche Evangelische Oberschule (DEO) was very popular with well to do Egyptians who aspired to instill in their offspring the proverbial German virtues. Decades later I met up again with some of my former classmates. They had succeeded in life – be it as lawyers, managers or entrepreneurs.
All this said, I am puzzled why only very few Egyptians who are aware of my biography would inquire how it felt coming back after so many years. I have yet to find a convincing answer to this question. Is it that they just wanted to avoid the answer that all was better back then – and today things have become much more difficult?
Amid all the changes, many of which are objectively not to the benefit of the country and the people living here, one important component has survived more or less unaltered – and this deserves special mention: It is the kindness and human generosity of Egypt’s people. I say this not as a platitude, but as a result of uncounted encounters with Egyptians of all walks of life. For me, it remains a mystery how in all the chaos and degradation the average Egyptian, the man and woman in the street, the shopkeeper and taxi driver, the messenger and door keeper, and all the many others, preserve their friendliness and exceptional sense of humour. I dislike stereotypes and am not an anthropologist. Maybe it has to do with religion and the religiosity of the people. Another un-professional explanation would be that making fun and the – at times annoying – Egyptian habit to take things lightly are collective reactions to the daily sufferings and humiliations.
Although I have lived the privileged life of a “hawaga” without the hardships of the average Egyptian, I sense that during my sojourn in this country I have been partially infected by the stated Egyptian character traits. I like to crack jokes even when the formal situation does not necessarily invite such distraction. I am also, quite sincerely, starting to take things less seriously, although a German by upbringing I will probably never fully adopt the culture of “malesh”.
Egypt is confronted with myriad problems. Living in Cairo, this beast of a city, one senses that these problems keep growing by the day. To make things worse, few are the signs that those in charge, whoever they may be, have the intention, let alone a plan to put order into the chaos. Recently, strategic politics have become victim of transition politics with short lived governments living from hand to mouth. Now, the people are made to believe that all will change to the better as soon as the new leader will direct the nation in the right direction.
Everybody seems to agree that the country must find solutions for colossal problems. But beyond that little is visible. A united effort, a national vision and, on top of it all, a declared political will are in demand. What should Egypt look like in 10, 20 or 50 years?
I have missed such debates and complained about this again and again.
One of the many fundamental differences between politics in my country and Egypt is how politicians deal with the future and the challenges lying ahead. While Egyptians tend to be optimists and the sentence “tomorrow will be better than today” has become an empty mantra in political and other small talk, I have seen little evidence to base the confidence on. The only seemingly reliable projection I have heard repeatedly is that by 2050 – a horizon the big mass of young Egyptians will be around to experience – Egypt’s population will have exploded to 150 million. This projection is material for foreign doomsday prophets who fear Egypt’s problems have reached dimensions and complexities beyond control and management. They predict more impoverishment, hunger revolts, turmoil and as a political answer to all this harsh dictatorial rule. Arguably, this is the bleakest of all the bleak scenarios available in the market place of opinions. As an optimist by nature, I stay away from this school of thought. However, for the bleak scenario to remain what it is (a dark projection of the future), radical and structural political adjustments need to be taken now – or very soon.
As my (liberal) times in Egypt are coming to an end and I’ll be moving on to a new assignment in magical India, Egypt and her people will always have a firm place in my mind and heart. For a second time, I have tasted the water of the river Nile. Who knows what this holds for the future.
Dr Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF) for the Middle East and North Africa. Twitter @Meinardus