Outside In

Omar Sulayman capitulating to the demonstrators' foreign agenda

After nine years living in Egypt I would say that Egyptians have no problem with actual foreigners, but huge ones with imaginary ones. 

During the 18 days of the revolution, the demonstrators were called foreign agents and foreign infiltrators. State TV ran interviews with hopped-up teenagers swearing they heard people in Tahrir speaking Arabic "but their accent was not Egyptian!!" 

"We get your message," the presenter would say, nodding gravely. My zabbal* told me matter-of-factly: "Those boys and girls are all trained by Israelis. Everybody says so." Meanwhile, almost every foreign journalist I know was beaten or barely escaped a beating, by a real or a stage-managed mob. Mubarak said he wouldn't step down because of "foreign dictates." 

But also, late one night, leaving Tahrir Square with my husband, we heard someone running up behind us, and as we turned somewhat nervously, a young man we didn’t know caught up with us. “You must be the ones with the foreign agenda!” he laughed. Omar Suleiman* had just gone on in an interview about the "foreign agendas" behind the protests, and some demonstrators had brought actually agendas to shake mockingly in his face. 

Every single Arab regime in crisis has done the same: called its people traitors, trying to make them outcasts. It's first and foremost a declaration of contempt: Only foreign minds could conceive of such bold change. 

It was to be expected, but I have to admit, I’m surprised by how this charge has persisted past its expiration date, the foreigner/activist/journalist/spy/agent/saboetur/thug/protester category continuing to morph and expand and confuse, cast its emotionally charged, intellectually sloppy shadow over every conflict. Sectarian clashes, street fights, terrorist attacks, general instability -- it is all the work of unspecified outsiders.

Generals who receives a $1.3 billion allowance from the US are launching a special investigation into foreign funding to local human rights NGOs. One of Mubarak's lawyers, Yousri Abdel Razeq, says it was foreigners -- Iranians and members of Hamas --who shot the demonstrators. 

Of course this is all shameless bait-and-switch. While the SCAF drones on about “foreign hands,” the same gallery of grotesques still colonizes the airwaves with their choked-up, amnesiac hysterics. Patriotism is the last resort of a scoundrel, etc. I'm looking at you, Amr Adeeb*. 

But if this manipulation works, that must be because it speaks of and to something that is actually there -- a wounded dignity, a persistent fear, a fantasy of closing ranks. (Islamists have it particularly bad, condemning the total corruption of Western society and in the same breath earnestly demanding that that very West recognize the superiority of Islam). 

In recent months, some Al Azhar students I contact on Facebook -- where they have set up a public group demanding reforms -- accuse me of "foreign interference” for asking for an interview. A lawyer who I want to go to court with says she is afraid people there will take me for a "spy." 

I take it as a sign of both how assimilated I’ve become and how helpless I feel that I now fantasize regularly about appearing on Egyptian TV talk shows to demolish the bombastic fraudulent xenophobia of the moment. (I have long entertained similar fantasies about making guest appearances on Fox TV, to stump its screeching liars. The Egyptian version is a more intense fantasy, however, since in it I speak Arabic fluently). 

It’s not just foreigners but many Egyptians who -- because of their haircuts, their fluent English or their political opinions -- are dismissed as khawagas*. In the days I spent in Tahrir, more than once I stood by while Egyptians yelled at each other: "You're not Egyptian! No, you're not Egyptian!" 

Today the country is continuing to play this dangerous game, banning Egyptians with a foreign grandparent from running for president; most likely not allowing Egyptians abroad to vote in the upcoming elections; smearing activists and youth groups for allegedly receiving foreign funding. Shrinking what it can mean to be Egyptian to the narrowest, stingiest definition. 

The Egyptian revolution -- despite what both lobbyists in Washington and paranoids in State Security and demagogues on TV talk shows would have you believe -- was 1% foreign interference (and that mostly in the form of Tunisian inspiration) and 99% Brave Angry Amazing Egyptian Crazy. 

So why this lack of confidence? The fact that Egypt has been the victim of real conspiracies and real attacks is no excuse. Of course foreign powers will meddle. But Egypt can write its own history. 

I've always felt it's in poor taste to complain about my host country. I’ve written all this well knowing Egypt has bigger problems than my comfort level; well aware of my freedom to leave anytime, my expat privilege and my country's shitty foreign policy in the region.

And I've never had much patience for the sentimental, nostalgic literature of a Robert Solé, the laments for a lost cosmopolitan pre-1952 salon where the natives were little more than picturesque wallpaper. But I believe Egypt will be the richer for engaging with its foreign elements, with the full spectrum of what it has meant and means to be Egyptian. Look at Beer in the Snooker Club, that Egyptian masterpiece written in English, a grapple with the class-politics and the politics-politics and the plain humanity of a tragi-comic khawaga complex. 

As someone who has gained so much by living in Egypt, I can't help but feel how much Egypt has to gain by living in the world. And how much to lose by knee-jerk nativism, by building national identity on the shaky foundations of being aggrieved and self-righteous and suspicious. 

During the revolution, when Egyptians asked what I thought of what was going on, I tended to modulate my support, out of a certain professional coyness, that pretense journalists affect of not taking sides. Now, I also hesitate to express my enthusiasm for fear of tainting its object-- my foreigner's solidarity not only impugned, but incriminating to others. 

But of course I supported and I support the Egyptian revolution. On the first morning of it all, with the NDP building still billowing smoke, we expats wandered around Tahrir like everyone else, dazed and elated, taking in a reality set electrifyingly askew. But in the following weeks, among the crowds, I moved at a certain clip -- pausing inevitably attracted too much attention, too many questions, the first of which was always: "Where are you from?" Then, “Why are you here?”

Perhaps I was too cautious, too self-conscious. It is one of my great regrets, that I was unable to melt, to mingle, to just take it all unreservedly in. I accept it, though -- this isn’t a battle or a time I would pretend to call my own. It’s an honor just to assist. 

Millions of foreign agents and infiltrators pretending to be Egyptians celebrating Mubarak's ouster

*Garbage collector

*Mubarak’s cadaverous spy-master, appointed vice-president during the revolution

*TV presenter with a distinguished record of sycophancy and demagoguery. Egypt’s less hallucinatory but equally obnoxious Glenn Beck. 

*Now the country’s #1 privately owned daily newspaper, often described as “opposition” 

*Colloquial term for foreigner (the Egyptian equivalent of “gringo”)