Watching Cairo From Beirut

I was in Lebanon, about six months into my dissertation fieldwork.  As the crowds in Tahrir grew day by day, and all the world watched, I felt at first that I was watching an important symbolic act that would surely fail. Who could imagine that Mubarak, who had the support and blessing of the United States, would be ousted from his 40-year rule?  When protests continued despite the violent tactics of the regime, my amazement grew. Due to the Internet and cellular phone blackouts, I was unable to connect with friends in Cairo; I wondered what daily life was like amidst the chaos. 

While geographically I was close to the events unfolding, Cairo never felt as far away as during my fieldwork in Bourj Hammoud, a suburb just east of Beirut.  I cannot speak for Lebanese “public opinion” (if such a thing exists). There was certainly a wide range of opinions about events in Egypt in Lebanon at the time. I can speak about the reactions of my interlocutors in Bourj Hammoud, a working class suburb of Beirut that is home to the largest concentration of Armenians in Lebanon, as well as to a diverse population of mainly Lebanese Christians, Shi’a, and migrant workers from Syria, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines.  For most of my interlocutors, the events in Cairo stoked a mixture of sympathy and a fear of sudden, violent upheaval and change. I heard a few impassioned opinions about Egypt in Bourj Hammoud. But most people I spoke with thought that a revolution so far away would have little impact on their lives.  I’ll never forget a particular conversation I had with a woman in her 60s who had raised four children throughout the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990. She had struggled with poverty both during the war years, and after. This woman told me that nothing ever changed for her or any of the people she knew, despite the years of fighting and the constant rearrangement of political alignments in Lebanon.  After 15 years of fighting, the Lebanese Civil War had done nothing to change the very political system that had helped to create the conflicts in the first place. Many of my informants were deeply influenced by the experience of endless fighting that appeared to bring about absolutely no lasting political change. While the events in Egypt have little in common with the Lebanese wars, the experience of violence has had an inevitable impact on the way in which people view the possibility for radical and lasting political change brought about through revolutionary movements.

At first, most of my interlocutors in Bourj Hammoud were more concerned about possible turmoil within Lebanon due to local developments, rather than what was happening in Egypt.  The rift between the two main factions within the government had finally come to the fore over the legitimacy of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (the controversial trial to find and prosecute those who assassinated former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005). What at first appeared to be a major local confrontation soon dissipated. After a few days of protest, Lebanon returned to normalcy--a sectarian political system with ever-shifting alliances. I was often asked by friends in the US and Europe whether I felt the revolution would “spread” to Lebanon. I found this question impossible to answer. Lebanon’s political system has little in common with Mubarak-era Egypt. There is no “dictator” in Lebanon, no unified, oppressive government to speak of. In fact, the only sort of “uprising” against the entire political system I encountered during my fieldwork was one calling for the end to the sectarian system of representation. In Lebanon, one’s religious or ethnic affiliation is not only the primary means of political representation. Sectarian religious courts govern personal status laws as well. The only way to get married or divorced in Lebanon, or to gain custody of children, is through sectarian religious courts. Travel agents in Lebanon offer special “marriage” packages to go to Cyprus to perform a civil marriage ceremony; civil marriages performed abroad are honored in Lebanon. While many are opposed to the sectarian system, and there were several demonstrations against it while I was in Lebanon, one cannot compare either the conflicts between the political parties in Lebanon or these demonstrations against the sectarian system to the revolution in Egypt.

After those few days of protest during which Beirut barely shut down, only to quickly revive again, Cairo became the focus of all my conversations with friends, relatives and colleagues. We had become optimistic about the protestors’ ability to sustain the revolt, and were elated at the possibility that a democratic uprising could topple one of the most entrenched dictatorships in the region.  24-hour news feeds on Egypt were broadcast on taxi radios and televisions in shops; they were ubiquitous on the streets. But much to my surprise, many of my interlocutors in Bourj Hammoud were less than enthusiastic. While many of my close friends and colleagues believed that a revolution in Egypt could remake the political, social and economic landscape of the region, a surprising number of my interlocutors were apathetic, or even had great misgivings about the revolution.

In January 2011, I was volunteering at an Armenian-run social service center that was both medical clinic and vocational school for teenage girls who had dropped out of high school. I spent my days constantly reloading news websites on my mobile phone; this became the focal point of much curiosity among my co-workers and students. My interest in the revolution in Egypt seemed odd to them, almost humorous. When the subject was broached, I heard many of my interlocutors express sympathy and compassion for Egyptian protestors. However, the revolution was definitely not foremost on peoples’ minds, nor was it a topic I heard often discussed, even though nearly every television in the neighborhood shops was tuned to news reports about Egypt. 

When I asked some of my coworkers at the clinic how they felt about the revolution, they expressed a range of opinions. Some felt it would surely benefit Egyptians to oust Mubarak. They saw him as a symbol of “corruption,” a thief who was robbing Egypt of its natural wealth to enrich his cronies. It was no surprise that my interlocutors would express empathy towards the Egyptian people, as the theme of corruption and theft by public officials was always widely and openly discussed. However, others had misgivings about any kind of upheaval. Many felt that any kind of major change was more likely to bring suffering and difficulty for the “average” person, and that it could only lead to more violence and instability. What I heard over and over again, from a variety of people I spoke with on a daily basis, was a fear of sudden and unexpected change, and a doubt that such an upheaval would result in a transition to a more democratic political system. Many had been deeply scarred by the realities of living with violence for so long, amidst the clashing of leftist and reactionary movements that was so much a part of the civil conflicts of the 70s and 80s.

I admit that I found it disappointing that many of my interlocutors in Bourj Hammoud did not share my excitement about Egypt. What I found, at best, was a kind of sympathy tinged with fear or misgivings about the future. Often, however, I found a complete lack of connection, even apathy, towards the potential impact of the uprising. Many people I spoke with believe that revolution in the region is impossible without the tacit agreement of the US. They viewed all uprisings with suspicion. I was challenged, then, to think about the ways in which my interlocutors’ political imaginary might lie elsewhere, away from revolutionary Egypt. It challenged me, also, to think about the difficulty of making generalizations about Lebanon, about the difficulty, even, of thinking about the “nation” of Lebanon, particularly when juxtaposed against the more clear and established “nation” of Egypt.

I do have memories about watching Egypt from Lebanon with friends who shared my enthusiasm and hope. When Mubarak finally stepped down, a friend of mine invited me to his grandmother’s house in Beirut for dinner.  I sat in the living room of this 80-year-old woman, eating muloukhiyeh she had learned to prepare in Egypt (“the right way”, she insisted), looking at photographs of her in Alexandria as a child. She had been born in Egypt to Lebanese parents who returned to Lebanon in the 1940s. She was thus part of that important population of Egypt, the “Syrians”, or Shammis, many of whom had left Egypt by the 1952 Revolution. Her accent, a mixture of Egyptian and Lebanese dialect, was a testament to a geography of the region long gone, and her own experience of migration. I listened to her nostalgic musings about her childhood in Alexandria, how she longed to return now that Mubarak was ousted and a new democratic Egypt was arising from the ashes of decades of despotism.

Now almost a year later, the future of Egypt is still uncertain, and the revolution rages on. I want to share in the optimism of my friend’s grandmother, and hope that the Egyptians can reclaim the revolution they have paid for so dearly.