In 1998, I was fortunate enough to go on an exchange trip to Israel and Egypt sponsored by the American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL).
To say it was an eye opening experience is an understatement. As I watch the remnants of the Arab Spring continue to unfold on the streets of Cairo today, I can only wonder what will eventually happen to Egypt and the entire Middle East.
ACYPL attempts to teach young political leaders not only about other countries and their political systems and issues, but also to instruct young American political leaders about each other. Each trip sponsors four Republicans and four Democrats pledging to travel peacefully together for two weeks.
Our trip included a Republican of Lebanese descent and a Jewish Democrat. It was interesting as we moved from Israel to Egypt because these two individuals clearly had issues with each other, and it wasn’t based on party affiliation but rather on heritage. We also had very conservative Republicans and extremely liberal Democrats on the trip. Thankfully, President Lyndon Johnson’s granddaughter, Lucinda Robb, was also there. Lucinda would be my nominee for Ambassador to anywhere in the world in need of a true diplomat.
In a separate post, I’ll describe the Israel part of the trip because it was there that our differences with each other were clearer.
When we landed in Cairo, however, it instantly became evident that we were no longer Republicans and Democrats.
We were Americans.
After clearing customs, our U.S. Embassy contact ushered us into a van for the trip to our hotel. No sooner had we all entered the van than armed men surrounded the van to “escort” us.
Our Embassy contact immediately left the van and began imploring the men to leave. It took a while, but eventually they allowed us to depart sans escort.
“They try to escort all groups arriving on a plane from Tel Aviv, but it only makes you a target,” the Embassy staffer explained.
That’s when I clued in that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. It was actually kind of ironic because I remember us discussing on the plane before we left how nice it was going to be to go to a place where we wouldn’t need to worry about a terrorist attack.
That’s not to say that we were completely naïve about the situation. We all knew that the year before our trip, sixty-two tourists had been murdered at the Luxor Temple and nine German tourists died at the hand of terrorists outside the Egyptian Museum. However, we assumed a sense of safety since we were under the direction of U.S. Embassy staff.
Like all ACYPL trips, we met every kind of government official imaginable including Hosni Mubarak’s Chief of Staff. We also each had the opportunity to appear on an Egyptian television program. My Egyptian television premier was on a program described to me as the Egyptian equivalent of The Tonight Show.
Since I was an environmental attorney, U.S. Embassy personnel gave me my talking points of sorts.
“They’re going to ask you if the Nile River is polluted,” my Embassy contact explained.
“Is it?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s horrible,” he replied, “You can’t say that though. You just say that you’re impressed with everything the government is doing.”
Sure enough, after introducing me, the host asked me that very question, and since I didn’t want to trigger an international incident, I dutifully praised the “effort” to clean up the Nile.
We did all the usual tourist things including visiting the Pyramids (where I discovered that I’m very claustrophobic about halfway inside one) and saw the Sphinx (which isn’t nearly as impressive in person as in pictures—kind of reminded me of when I saw Robert Redford at Sundance—same situation).
While I learned more than I can possibly remember about the Egyptian economy and agriculture from the leaders I met there, it was the little things that happened that stick out now.
Probably the biggest “little” thing that happened occurred on our tour bus when another member of our group and I decided to venture over to the Market in Cairo while the rest of the party appeared on television.
We were sitting in the back of the bus chatting when our tour guide, who we called Stuart, walked to where we were sitting and started talking to us in a low voice. Throughout the trip, he’d accompanied us to all our meetings with government officials, but I noticed he rarely ever said a word.
“You know everything these government people have been telling you is a lie,” he began, “This is a military dictatorship. People are thrown in jail for no reason. They are telling you all of these lies because you’re Americans.”
We didn’t have an opportunity to reply before he turned around and walked back to his usual spot in the front of the bus.
Riding around Cairo, you notice the clear difference between the religious and the secular societies attempting to coexist. Muslim women, in particular, completely covered, stood out to us Americans unaccustomed to seeing such things.
One evening a few of the women in our group shared a glass of wine at our hotel with an Egyptian woman who worked for the Embassy.
“I’m a moderate Muslim,” she told us, “So, I drink wine.”
It was clear from the discussion that she felt some concern about living as a moderate Muslim woman in a country where the more conservative members of her faith were clearly striving for control.
It was also evident that there was some sensitivity about the Coptic Christian community in Egypt. That year, the U.S. House of Representatives had passed a measure restricting some aid to countries where religious persecution might be an issue. Because of the Coptic Christians, Egypt made the list and they weren’t happy about it.
Because of that, it seemed that everywhere we went, citizens at every level (including some Coptic Christians) assured us that there was no persecution. Given everything, we politely thanked them for the information but maintained a reasonable amount of skepticism.
Finally, I think the biggest thing that stuck with me was immense wealth on one hand attempting to coexist with tremendous poverty. On a visit to an Arabian horse farm, we drove along the Nile where untold numbers of people were living outside or in makeshift shelters. It was clear then, and I’m sure it’s worse now, that Egypt’s greatest challenge is developing a strong economy.
Today, as thousands of Egyptian citizens crowd into Tahrir Square to protest President Mohamed Morsy’s attempted power grab, I can only wonder what will happen to Egypt.
Sadly, I’m not feeling terribly optimistic.