Protests in Cairo surprise some from Juneau who lived there

The country is a place of great history mixed with cultural divides

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2011

The air above Cairo was a thick, pink haze of pollution last October when former Juneau mayor Jamie Parsons and wife Mary Beth Parsons returned to the suburb of Maadi to visit friends. Driving beneath the haze they saw a woman wearing a flowing jellabiya and headscarf sweep trash from the street with a twig broom, but the Dumpster nearby was overflowing.

When she saw the same woman she recognized from her time there as a teacher, sweeping the same street, “I think what struck Jamie and me was that nothing had really changed in four years,” Mary Beth Parsons said. Except, perhaps, for the air pollution, which was worse by far that day than it was when they moved there in 2003 for what was to be a two-year teaching job.

A social sirocco of change has come to the streets of Cairo now as demonstrators demand President Hosni Mubarak resign, leave the country and take his family with him.

The tumult brought commerce to a halt and violence to some streets and squares. The Parsons and other former teachers with ties to Juneau, and their spouses who went to Egypt with them, are keeping a close eye on developing events — and checking up with friends and former colleagues who were still teaching at Cairo American College and surviving day-to-day in a society gripped by revolution.

Communiqu?s arrived from teachers who worked at the now-closed school, a walled compound, but lived in an ungated suburb where neighbors — not the police — are keeping order. Some police stations have been burned, officers melting into the population in plain clothes due to their reputations as corrupt bullies, Parsons said.

Institutions people rely upon are closed. One friend wrote to the Parsons, “I am out of money ... no banks. I am having to ration food and water.”

Another friend told the Parsons food is still available, the man who sells beans still shows up and donkey carts bring in food. Parsons said her friends who stashed some cash for emergencies are faring better than others.

Another former colleague who is considering leaving the country told them, “I could live here longer.”

“It means ‘I could survive,’” Parsons said.

Montoya said Friday she heard the teachers had been evacuated to their countries of origin to await word on when the school might reopen.

Like some other Juneau residents who have spent years living or working in Cairo, the Parsons took away fond memories and deep impressions of the good and bad aspects of living in Egypt.

Egypt is a place of great history, with kind and caring people who look after their neighbors, former Cairo American College teacher Parsons said. It is also a place of great cultural divides, such as widespread and grinding poverty in a society where the privileged few have much power and influence; a nation where educated young people can not find employment.

Without employment, in that culture, many are expected to live at home with parents — unmarried — until they have a job and a home of their own. The median age for both men and women is 24, according to publicly-available data compiled by the CIA. For people who can’t find work, “you’re really stymied and frustrated,” said Vivian Montoya, a former teacher at the same American school who left at the same time the Parsons did, in 2006.

Even knowing about a background level of frustration with the economy and government, especially among the roughly 50 percent of Egyptians who are 25 or younger, these former residents of Egypt expressed surprise at the suddenness and intensity of the demonstrations.

Montoya and her husband Jay Livey, who works for Sen. Lyman Hoffman at the Capitol, spent years in Cairo and returned to America in 2006 with the Parsons. They also are taken aback.

“My impression of watching the protest was that it was pretty spontaneous,” said Livey. Livey said he’s not sure there ever was a coherent plan for what could follow the Egyptian president’s departure.

Livey said Mubarak has long played one interest group against another in a political system where he controls the party, the elections and the media.

Montoya said an important factor in how the demonstrations play out is still unknown. “I’m unsure about where the Muslim clerics are coming down on this, and where the military will fall on this.”

The military, which garners more respect from the people in general than the police, has so far vowed not to fire on crowds but has not turned on the president, who himself came from the military.

The stable Cairo with a heavy police presence and soldiers on the streets has vanished. Now the neighborhood mosque that usually calls worshippers to prayer also broadcasts warnings of looting “or other inappropriate behavior” so people can shut that activity down before it gets out of control, Mary Beth Parsons said.

Montoya said she is told army tanks patrol the streets in Maadi, but there was no violence reported to her.

The Parsons did not foresee things getting to the point that demonstrators from across the social strata fill the streets and demand Mubarak leave power.

“It amazed me, to begin with,” Mary Beth Parsons said of the spontaneous street demonstrations that now fill a square that features a national museum filled with precious antiquities, including artifacts from King Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Citizens there live under a repressive and corrupt regime, she said, and had developed an acceptance. Good things will happen, “God willing,” and “Allah will provide” were common phrases she heard.

“It has reached a point where they will no longer let poor economic times and poverty keep them down,” she said.

Parsons said she was not amazed brave citizens ringed the national museum to stop looters and protect the artifacts until officials could secure the complex and guard it. “It’s consistent with the caring nature of the people.”

She was also not surprised by the brutal response earlier this week by supposed ‘pro-Mubarak’ supporters. “I think about those thugs who rode into Tahrir Square on camels with whips and clubs. It was typical.”

The word “Tahrir” means “Liberation.”

Although things were usually quiet in Maadi, a suburb about 6 miles southeast of Cairo, Parsons said she witnessed two incidents of police brutality. Something as simple as not having the proper papers can land someone in trouble and facing harsh police tactics, she said.

Corruption is another issue that complicates Egyptian society, she said.

The custom of baksheesh is widespread in many parts of the world. It can mean anything from a service charge demanded by taxi drivers, shopkeepers and tour guides to outright bribery of a public official or museum attendant for special privileges.

Bribes are just a way to feed a family for some, Jamie Parsons, who left his post as head of Juneau’s Chamber of Commerce to go to Egypt with his wife in 2003, said in a note he passed to his wife as she discussed baksheesh.

“Baksheesh is a how many people earn their livelihood,” Mary Beth Parsons added.

Coupled with a corrupt court system and a corrupt government, the lesson people learn is that they can have their way if they have enough money, she said.

Students at Cairo American College are from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. Most are not from Egypt, but some students are from wealthy Egyptian families. Two of Mubarak’s own grandchildren were educated there.

“For an Egyptian family to send their children there, it is expensive,” she said.

Maadi is home to an expatriate community and draws people from all over the world. Apartment buildings have caretakers who tend the buildings and make sure the residents are safe. Security is not taken lightly in Egypt.

When the Parsons went touring to places like Luxor or a nearby oasis, they went with a driver and an armed guard who would step out of the car and open his jacket to reveal his gun to bystanders. She said many people have weapons in Egypt.

“It’s amazing from my point of view that this demonstration has been one of rocks and Molotov cocktails versus guns,” Mary Beth Parsons said.

In Egypt, the sirocco wind is called khamsin. Like much of the world, those with ties to the country can only watch to see what those winds of change will bring.

• Contact Managing Editor John R. Moses at 523-2265 or

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