Five Reasons We Should Pay Attention to Egypt

A certain country has a lot to teach us about #NotMyPresident, blackface, revolution and mummies.

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Screen capture of meme by Kefaya Habal كفايه هبل بقى.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt is a big fan of Russian President Vladimir Putin. I know because I was living in Cairo in 2015 when the city rolled out its red carpet treatment for Putin’s visit, posting his image on every lamppost and demanding a performance by the Cairo Opera Ballet (including American and Ukrainian dancers) for his private audience.

The overt public admiration of “strongman” Putin by Sisi and much of his people continues, and it is not the only reason to be more aware of what’s happening in Egypt. Here are four more.

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1. A Revolution Betrayed

The world loves a good revolution. In America, we were especially swept by a romanticism of the Arab Spring and the images of Tahrir Square in our newsfeeds from 2011 to 2014. In the time since, we have turned our eyes from the disappearances, as well as from the dehumanization of the Muslim Brotherhood members, from the Rabaa massacre, and from the mass trials and mass death sentences. We have lacked diplomatic creativity and understanding of the potential of these sociopolitical earthquakes. And, in many cases, we were simply wrong, and we continue to back autocrats. Note the blowback from Secretary of State Pompeo’s recent visit to the American University in Cairo. As the revolutionary graffiti and murals have been whitewashed by the Egyptian government, we in the art world have been generally silent.

Now, as Sisi grabs more and more power as the price for homeland security and economic stability, our dissent again has been missing. Maybe because the situation is too familiar or ominous. As we speak, the Egyptian Parliament is considering extending presidential term limits, making it possible for Sisi to stay in power until 2034, and also giving the military expanded powers while erasing the revolution, culturally and literally. The Guardian’s Jack Shenker warned of this in 2016:

Egypt’s revolution has been misunderstood, and a great deal of that misunderstanding had been deliberate. An upheaval that began on 25 January 2011, and will continue for years to come, has been framed deceptively by elites both within Egypt’s borders and beyond. Their aim has been to sanitize the revolution and divest it of its radical potential.

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2. The Role of Journalism in a Polarized Society

The translation of the word “sisi” is pony; if President Sisi were POTUS, I would think that Saturday Night Live would play on this fact often. But in Egypt, there’s been a crackdown on satire and “fake news.” Bassem Youssef, hailed as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, is living in exile by choice after being pulled off the air and threatened. There’s been continued challenges to truth telling. If you caught Sisi’s sweaty denials on 60 Minutes last month, you know why the government of Egypt tried to block the interview from airing. Yet, like in the US, the media in Egypt faces a polarized public. What you might have missed was the meme with Sisi portrayed as a dark-shaded cool kid throwing (what his base determines is much-deserved) shade at America. Even in jest, a portion of the country still backs their man. Many attribute stability and the potential of thicker wallets to his leadership.

On a more positive note, Awalem Khafeya (Hidden Worlds) is currently on Netflix. It is worth checking out this 2018 series featuring the legendary Adel Emam for its comedic and drama talent, sociopolitical commentary, and take on corruption in today’s Egypt.

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3. Blackface is Closer Than We Might Want to Acknowledge

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam‘s recent admission of wearing blackface in 1984 makes him unacceptable for office, many say. Gucci, also, has had to apologize for their blackface sweater debacle. But blackface is a much more recent offense, and occurring in our own arts and culture industry. In 2015, I started a petition to request that Cairo Opera and Cairo Opera Ballet stop using blackface. For me, it was a simple and understandable ask. This action turned out to be dangerous politically: I was threatened by the rumor mill.

This is a global issue in opera and ballet. Many traditional scripts are problematic and demand a critical eye and clever adaptation. Oftentimes, the problem is not with artists or directors, but lies in the scripts themselves and the context in which stories and characters were devised. In Dance Magazine, Joseph Carman writes:

You’ve seen them in story ballets and perhaps they’ve made you cringe. The ethnic stereotypes embedded in the plotlines with dated attitudes. They’re those non-Caucasian, non-Christian characters … often the troublemakers or the butts of jokes. At best they’re annoyingly quaint, at worst they’re offensively xenophobic.

Judith Mackrell in The Guardian writes:

In the 19th-century, ballet took a blatantly imperialist line on everything; foreign dance styles, foreign cultures and foreigners themselves were all tourist novelties, to be imported on to the Mariinsky or Bolshoi stages for a few laughs … Great swathes of the cultural canon fail every test of political correctness.

Globalization and social progress have made modern audiences more savvy: many  storylines are well understood without references to racial and ethnic difference. Cultural sophistication and education should continue to be promoted. Racial and ethnic stereotyping is outdated and unattractive. Gwynn Guilford in The Atlantic states:

There’s an opportunity cost to those choices: the chance to move audiences anew. The tighter they cling to tradition for tradition’s sake, the more they rob the world’s most powerful art form of its relevance.

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4. Government Museums and Mummies

The US, as a unified political unit of declared independence, is 243 years old. If a person is 100, they have existed 41% as long as this nation. So, yes, we are an especially young country. Our nonprofit anniversary celebrations of 10-to-50-year sustainability and history are laughable when considered in the context of the rest of the world or in the context of this continent thriving for millennia before immigrants and invaders arrived.

Now, in Egypt, dozens of 2,300-year-old mummies have recently been discovered and King Tut’s tomb has been restored. Amazing attractions seem to be popping up more often as the $1B Grand Egyptian Museum, built amid painful inflation, is due to open next year. An amazing, government-run museum stands as the main strategy to draw tourists back to Egypt. But if you ask me, Egypt’s mighty history is not nearly as inspiring as its recent past and hopefully its future. A Grand Revolutionary Center and Museum of the People with a contemporary performance space and street gallery would have been a far better choice.