Egypt: reflections from the author of "Down the Nile"
Rowing solo 120 miles down the Nile gave Rosemary Mahoney a unique perspective on the Egyptian character.
A few years ago, an American named Rosemary Mahoney dumbfounded Egyptians by rowing 120 miles down the world's grandest river by herself, traveling in a country where bold women aren't the norm. She told her story in 2007's "Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff," which The Christian Science Monitor named one of the 10 best books of the year.Skip to next paragraph
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Our reviewer Marjorie Kehe praised Mahoney's "quick-silver intelligence, her sharp eyes, and her slightly astringent voice," saying she's "a woman who doesn't suffer fools gladly. Yet at the same time she is patient and generous enough to allow people and things to show her their best – and they frequently do."
Amid this week's events in Egypt, I asked Mahoney for insight into the people and politics of the ancient land that suddenly has the world's attention.
Q: What did you learn about the relationship between Egyptians and their government (and authority in general) during your trip?
As an independent traveler embarking on the somewhat unusual venture of rowing alone down the Nile, I had reason to meet and talk with a lot of ordinary Egyptians in the smaller cities and rural areas of the country – farmers and fishermen, shopkeepers and school kids. I spend a total of three months in Egypt and in that time I had the impression that the people of Egypt felt very distant from their own government and rather fearful of it.
The younger people I met, most of whom were unemployed, had spent their entire lives under Mubarak's martial law. They seemed both resigned to it and frustrated about the prospect of change in their country. Mubarak's government has never allowed public political discourse and certainly not public political opposition.
The overwhelming sense I had was that the people felt they had no real freedom or power over their own destiny and no faith in the government's interest in their needs. They had no choice but to yield to and obey the police and the military.
A man could be thrown in jail for supposedly showing disrespect to a foreign tourist, whether or not the tourist had any evidence of such. The government was more a force to be endured rather than one to be appealed to for assistance.
Q: A lot of Egyptians live outside the big cities. Is their world a lot different? How do you think that might play out?
In a population of 90 million people it's never possible to find a truly unified voice.
The people demonstrating in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria are young educated professionals, government workers, business people, civil servants. Because they're educated and informed they take their democratic rights and responsibilities seriously. They understand what democracy should be. They have enough faith in the democratic process and enough hope for the future that they finally dared to say no to a government that has for years not only disrespected their rights as citizens but disregarded their basic needs.
But more than half of Egypt's population lives in rural areas. The farmers and fishermen living along the Nile beyond the cities are generally less well educated and more conservative, and though they live in extreme poverty (40 percent of the Egyptian population lives below the poverty level) and their daily lives are unbelievably difficult, they are generally less vocal and less inclined to feel that they could collectively effect any great change in their circumstances.
The turmoil taking place now in Cairo and the period of disorder and instability that's likely to reign in its aftermath could, in the short term, affect rural Egyptians in adverse forms that might give rise to real resentment.