I grew up hearing about Egypt. The Egypt of those stories, woven inextricably into the memories of my father and his brothers and sisters, was always one of strength, inspiration, beauty and steadfastness. It was the Egypt of Nasser and Um Kulthoum, of Arab Nationalism and of the Bandung Conference. It was the Egypt of solidarity with Palestine. As a child in Beirut, that place seemed as close as the catch in my father’s voice when he would talk about hearing Nasser on the radio. As I grew older, I noticed the bitterness that always laced those stories, the slight shake of my aunt’s head at the end of a sentence, the drop in of my uncle’s shoulders as he described the year he was 30, 1967. I always envied them these memories. I wanted to live in a time of magic, possibility, and pride. A time far away from civil wars, foreign invasions, Arab dictators, the slow aging of refugee camps, and the refashioning of Arab capitals into crude and expensive museums of what they once were. By the time I was 20, my envy had turned into something harder as I could clearly hear the defeat in their stories, their naiveté as to the machinations of politics, and the growing abyss between their memories and their, and my, realities.
Then Iraq was invaded. The violence unleashed during Bush’s shock and awe campaign was supposed to jolt Arabs out of our ‘cultural stagnation’ and into neoliberal US-allied regimes packaged as democracy. To remove a dictator who had consolidated his bloody power under American tutelage, the United States and its allies invaded, occupied, and pillaged both the history and the future of Iraq (for example, via long term oil concessions made to US owned conglomerates). It is difficult to overstate the effect of watching Baghdad burn. It is even more difficult to try to explain the rage that was welling as Arab leaders and Arab states partook in and facilitated the sacking, again, of this ancient city. After 2003, two more invasions further exposed the complicity of Arab regimes in the destruction of Arab peoples and places; the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the 2008 Israeli-Egyptian Siege of Gaza.
Since the protests began in Tunis, I have been experiencing an unfamiliar restlessness. As the protests spilled over into Cairo, I began to recognize that feeling; it was hope. As protestors face down the Mubarak regime and their allies in Israel, the United States, and the Arab world, Cairo is once again a place of possibility and of inspiration. My generation is, once again, looking to Egypt. But this time, it is not looking through the lens of inherited memories and inherited defeats. My generation is watching yesterday, today, and tomorrow as our brothers and sisters refuse to live under continued authoritarianism and disprove the racist logic that “democratization” can only be brought to the Middle East on the backs of tanks and/or the 140 characters of a tweet. While it is unclear how events will unfold in Egypt; one thing is for certain: Cairo is making us dream again.