"My cousins are people who have all gone to private schools, and suddenly they're thrust into a situation where they are protecting their homes with kitchen knives," says Silvia Youssef Hanna, an academic adviser at the College of Charleston. Hanna left Egypt with her family in 1972, but she's kept up with the recent protests and political standoffs half a world away by following Arabic television and speaking with her extended family — "first cousins and on back" — who still call Egypt home.
Hanna's relatives, members of the country's small business class, emptied their respective stores of all the merchandise in an effort to avoid looters. But that came with a new set of worries. "Many of those who shopped with them knew where they lived, and says, 'Let's go to their homes and see what they've hidden,'" Hanna says. At one point [the looters] were even climbing the walls of their building to get in through the windows. "Just imagine," Hanna says, her voice brimming with disbelief. "You're a peaceful person, you live a quiet life, you don't own any weapons, and suddenly you're confronted with the question of how do you defend your home from people trying to get in through the window?"
In two weeks of anti-government riots, protesters filled central Cairo as chaos descended on the city and other communities in Egypt. At times it was nothing short of a running battle between opponents and supporters of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, police and demonstrators, and protesters with each other. Since the protests began, at least eight people have died and 1,000 have been injured, according to the Egyptian Health Ministry. On Friday, Murbarak fled the capital as the military took over.
Charlestonians native to Egypt are a part of the fabric of our community, running businesses and selling homes. These days, they're helplessly watching television news accounts of the riots with worries about their loved ones more than 6,000 miles away. Asked about the crisis in the Middle East, most seek to put distance between themselves and the unfolding events with a quick statement declaring that they're not interested in politics. They then plunge into stories of family members in a far-off land who are afraid, unable to go to work or resume other aspects of their normal daily lives, and quickly running out of food and money.
The situation in Egypt isn't surprising to Hanna. Tensions in the country have been brimming for several months. "I keep telling people who ask that we saw this coming," she says. "But we didn't think it was going to get this bad." Radical fundamentalist groups have been warning that they were going to "get Egypt where it hurts" by striking at its tourism industry and by ending the nation's close ties to the United States, says Hanna, a Christian. The Egyptian economy as a whole has been in dire straights for an extended period, with food and other prices escalating as rapidly as the prospects for work for the nation's young people were declining.
As the Christian holidays approached last year, several Christian buildings were fire bombed. Then, on New Year's Day, 21 people attending a Christian mass were killed and 79 injured when a bomb exploded outside a church in Alexandria. The bombing escalated fears of more sectarian bloodshed between Muslims and the Christians who make up 10 percent of the country's population.
As the riots have continued, Hanna's relatives pulled together, establishing a one-family beachhead in their community, sharing food and looking out for each other. "The fear is what happens next," Hanna says. "Because once whatever food people have been able to cobble together runs out, they are going to be hungry and angry, and the violence will likely spread — and that's when I really fear for the minorities in the country."
As Mubarak seemed poised for an exit on Fri. Feb. 11 and military leaders claimed to be taking a hold of the government, Sam Mongy, an Egyptian émigré who owns and operates the Rutledge Café with his wife Yasmin, also expressed frustration with the turn of events. "It really is a big mess," he said Friday morning as the breakfast crowd filled his establishment and reports began to trickle in that Mubarak had left the Egyptian capital for the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, about 250 miles from the epicenter of the protest. "I'm like anyone else of Egyptian decent ... the situation is still very confusing. Nobody knows who is in charge now," Mongy says. "In my opinion this lack of clarity won't, and can't, continue for too much longer because the economy of Egypt is in ruins."
Mongy said the plight of family members left behind has been a constant topic of conversation at the mosque at which he prays, and "everybody has the same opinion — that Mubarak had to step down. It's enough." According to the restaurant owner, evidence of how badly things have gone in Egypt during Mubarak's rule has always been in plain sight; one need only look at immigration patterns from the Middle East. "Save for Morocco, Egypt is the only country in the Middle East that has people leaving it for a better life," he says. People leave in hopes of making money, getting married, having an apartment they can call their own — these are things you dream about in Egypt. "You'll never find a cab driver in New York from Saudi Arabia or Qatar or Kuwait. You'll never find someone working in a deli here or a restaurant in Europe from the Emirates or Abu Dhabi or Bahrain. Never. Never," Mongy says. "It's always Egypt and Morocco, Morocco and Egypt. Those are the only two screw ups."
Hanna hopes that if the Mubarak era is truly at an end, his government will be replaced by moderate, liberal leadership that is accepting of differences. "You hear a lot about U.S.-Egyptian ties and Middle East peace, but equally important is that Egypt be a nation where its various internal groups are able to collaborate with one another," she says. "Because what happens in the alternative? There's going to be a genocide that occurs — and not just for the Christians, but for more moderate Muslims as well."
Despite the years she's spent in the United States, Hanna's affection for her homeland was very much in evidence as she spoke, her words tinged with a mixture of nostalgia and sadness as she referred to the images on her television screen. "We see all this destruction unfolding, and, you know, you're talking about a country that's beautiful," she says with a catch in her throat. "Cairo is like New York City. It's cosmopolitan, it's very young and happening — and Alexandria is like Myrtle Beach, in a way, a city very much oriented to the ocean front, in this case the Mediterranean Sea, and people have a relaxed, laid-back mentality."
While Hanna says she understands Egypt needs to ultimately solve its own internal problems, she says she also believes that the United Nations, "or somebody else," needs to step in and intervene. "That's because if they don't, it's only going to mean having to go in and clean up something later," she says.
"My family emigrated to the U.S. because we were in the minority back home and because they wanted their children to live in freedom, particularly the freedom from fear," Hanna says. "We achieved that dream. My brother serves proudly in the U.S. Air Force. And now all I can do is sit and watch my homeland, a land I still love, crumble."