by Luna

by Luna



Blog Intro

Hello, I'm Luna, and I'd like to welcome you to "Kisses from Kairo,"* my blog about living and working as an American belly dancer in Cairo.

Life in Cairo isn't easy for dancers, foreigners, women, or even Egyptians. It is, however, always exciting. That’s why after living here for seven years, I've decided to share my experiences with the world. From being contracted at the Semiramis Hotel to almost being deported, not a day has gone by without something odd or magical happening. I will therefore fill these pages with bits of my history in Cairo—my experiences, successes, mistakes, and observations. Admittedly, my time here has been rather unique, so I want to stress that while everything I write is true, my experiences do not necessarily reflect the lives of other dancers.

In addition to my life as a belly dancer, I will write about developments in costuming, performances, festivals, and, of course, the dance itself. I will also make frequent references to Egyptian culture. I should note that I have a love/hate relationship with Egypt. If I make any criticisms about the country, please keep in mind that I do so with the utmost love, respect, and most of all, honesty. Egypt has become my home, so I want to avoid romanticizing and apologizing for social maladies, as most foreigners tend to do. Nothing could be more misguided, patronizing, or insulting.

I hope you find this blog informative, insightful and entertaining, and that we can make this as interactive as possible. That means I'd love to hear from you. Send me your comments, questions, complaints, suggestions, pics, doctoral dissertations, money, etc., and I will get back to you. Promise. :)~

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An Entirely Possible Possibility

Until now, I’ve refrained from dabbling in political discussions about Egypt.  Mainly because watching this so-called revolution unfold before my eyes elicits intense emotions.  A year later and with elections currently underway, however, I don’t know how much longer I can keep silent without exploding.  I mean, I didn’t get a degree in Middle Eastern politics for nothing. :) 

When Egyptians first took to the streets to overthrow Dictator Hosni Mubarak on Jan. 25th, 2011, I couldn’t help being swept away by all the revolutionary fervor.  Indeed, since moving here 3 years ago, I’ve been saying that Egypt is ripe for revolution. Life for the average Egyptian has become intolerable. Poverty is rampant, food prices are unreasonably high, government corruption and inefficiency know no limits, and unemployment rates are well over 50 percent.  I predicted that violence would erupt before the upcoming presidential elections in November, for which Mubarak intended to nominate his son.  Due to the jolt of inspiration Egypt received from Tunisia, however, it happened earlier than I expected. 

Now that Mubarak is gone and the honeymoon phase is over, certain unpleasant realities are beginning to surface.  All the different ideological factions that joined forces to make this coup d’etat happen have now split apart at the seams. There are secularists, socialists, nationalists, and (my favorite) Islamists, and they are all battling for the hearts and minds of Egyptians.  Though they all speak in broad terms of democracy, social justice, human rights, and freedom, each faction defines these concepts in radically different ways.  And each envisions a radically different Egypt. 

Which is why I’m of two minds with respect to this revolution.  The American in me is beaming that the rhetoric of democracy has finally made it to the Middle East, and that people are willing to die for it.  And I get all fuzzy inside watching everyone from young adults to 80 year old veiled women line up at the ballot box.  My inner American, however, is sobered by my inner Egyptian, slash realist, which doubts the wisdom of implementing democracy in a place like Egypt.  For several good reasons.  The most important being that it will most likely open the door to Islamist rule.  If not sooner, then later. 

Most of us balk at the thought of an Islamist Egypt.  Many refuse to even consider that this could actually happen.  My question is, why not?  Just because it wouldn’t be in Egypt’s interest?  It wasn’t in Iran’s interest either.  Just because we find it too painful a thought?  Our feelings don’t negate the reality on the ground.  And that reality is that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists have found fertile ground in the Egyptian populace, which has been growing more conservative by the day.  

Not to mention that the Brotherhood is potent, influential, organized, well-funded, and serious.  Though it’s been denied political power since its inception, the Brotherhood has largely compensated by providing creative grass roots solutions to social problems in impoverished areas.  It’s created an extensive network of education, health, and job training programs.  It has provided private gender segregated transportation to mitigate the harassment of women in public.  It runs more than 22 hospitals, has schools in every Egyptian governorate, and has set up numerous care centers for widows and orphans.  It even allows women to give birth in their hospitals for a fraction of what it costs in other clinics.  By stepping in where the government has failed, Islamism has gained a credibility long lost on the “secular” regimes of the last 60 years.

Even without the Brotherhood offering all sorts of social services, it still has more credibility than secularism. That’s because in the Egyptian political psyche, secularism has been associated with and blamed for the corruption that defined the Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak eras—(though in reality they were never really as secular as they pretended to be). This perceived failure of secularism has thus emboldened Islamists to vehemently denounce it.  

The other thing we need to consider is Egypt’s demographic landscape.  Egyptians are, for the most part, religious.  They take their prophets and holy books quite seriously. Roughly 90% are Sunni Muslims.  And though many are what I like to call “lapsed Muslims,” the overwhelming majority believes itself to be religious.  Or at least aspires to be. Religion is still the main frame of reference here.  It informs how Egyptians dress, think, act, perceive the world, and even understand history—not entirely, but much more so than in the more secularized half of the world.  Given that Egypt is religiously hard-wired, it makes sense that the Brotherhood's ideas resonate with a lot of Egyptians.  For example, they want the new constitution to affirm that Egypt is an Islamic state.  For the majority of Egyptians who already understand themselves to be devout Muslims, this is more an affirmation of reality than an innovation in Egyptian politics.  And definitely nothing to be scared of.  It’s the liberals who don’t want Egypt to be an Islamic state that the average Egyptian looks upon with suspicion.  

In addition to being religious, Egypt is largely un(der)educated.  Official Egyptian statistics put the literacy rate at 70%, but unofficial sources say it’s more like 50%.  Yet more than 50 million Egyptians are registered to vote!.  Not that I believe all 50 million will go to polls-- a large segment of the population is still politically apathetic.  But voter turnout did hit record levels these past two days.  Mostly on account of Egyptians’ newfound political enthusiasm, but also because the government is forcing people to vote by threatening those who don’t with a 500 pound fine and jail time.  Forced voting!  How’s that for democracy?  :) 

This is why it’s difficult for me to imagine that enough Egyptians will make informed decisions at the ballot.  No one anywhere in the world does, but it's a little worse here because there are more than 6,000 candidates and 400 parties to choose from!  No one knows who these candidates are.  And no one knows who they’re voting for. This is a real problem because people wind up voting for the only 2 parties they’ve ever heard of, which are the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties.  Even if they don’t necessarily agree with their platforms.  It’s purely an issue of recognition.  

This is exactly what happened with at least 2 Egyptians I know.  Two members of my band, to be exact.  Musicians.  Artists.  The people most likely to suffer under Islamist rule.  They admitted to voting for the Freedom and Justice Party—the Muslim Brotherhood’s Party—merely because they didn’t know any of the other candidates or parties.  And they admitted to voting in the first place because they didn’t want to be fined or jailed.  I obviously haven’t conducted any scientific polls, and I know that 2 people do not represent a nation.  But I have a sinking feeling that many Egyptians are voting in the same way and for the same reasons. 

To make matters worse, reports of election fraud have already surfaced, and the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be responsible for most of it.  At several polling stations, several Brothers stood around “helping” people vote—telling them which polling stations they were registered at as well as “reminding” them who to vote for.  They also hurled religious slogans at voters, some of whom they paid to vote for them. 

None of which surprises me.  We already saw the precursor to this in March. With their hyper-religious rhetoric and fear mongering, the Brotherhood managed to win (intimidate?) the hearts and minds of many Egyptians in the March constitutional referendum.  Much to their advantage, 77% of voters voted “Yes” for a series of reforms that would allow parliamentary elections to take place quickly, which was what they wanted.  As we're starting to see, quick elections benefit Islamists because they are much better mobilized and recognized than their secular counterparts. It’s also not surprising that they reportedly intimidated voters into voting “Yes” by telling them a “No” vote would land them in hell. Being that Egypt is more religious than it is educated, this kind of religious bullying yields results.   

These are some of the reasons why democracy in Egypt could possibly result in Islamists coming to power.  And this is why I’m pessimistic about the merits of democracy in Egypt.  In addition to a minimum standard of education, democracy requires a healthy dose of secularism to function properly.  Separation of church and state.  It also requires all citizens to see themselves as equals. 

Though I definitely think a revolution was in order, I don’t think Egypt is ready for democracy.  Democracy is not simply casting a ballot.  And it’s definitely not raging in Tahrir Square every Friday.  Democracy is a way of life that presupposes a relatively educated population, separation of church and state, tolerance for minorities, and patience! Democracies are known to be the slowest decision-making bodies on the planet, because there isn’t one man in control hastily calling all the shots.  

Most of all, democracy is NOT the only legitimate form of government.  We don’t all have to be the US or the UK or France (which still don't get democracy completely right, by the way).  I think there’s something to be said for a benevolent dictatorship, which is what I think should have happened here.  Something slightly along the lines of Nasser's revolution in 1952.  Rather than an entire people rising up to overthrow the cancer that was Mubarak, I think it would have been better if a well-intentioned, educated corps of liberals ousted Mubarak and set up a mildly authoritarian state—one which would gradually prepare the people for democracy by erecting an effective education system, increasing literacy, making religion a private issue, discrediting the Brotherhood’s ideas, and creating an economy based on manufacturing, not just pyramids.  Only then should we even begin to think about democratizing Egypt.  Any time before that, and Egypt could very well end up looking like Iran.

I do apologize if I’m sounding overly-pessimistic.  And I by no means seek to be the prophetess of doom.  It's just that I have a tendency to see politics as a choice between greater and lesser evils.  I realize that there are extremely well-educated and intelligent liberal Egyptians out there capable of running the world, not just Egypt.  Yet they are disadvantaged in many ways, and severely outnumbered by the un(der)educated religious masses.  These are the people I’m worried about.  The people who could easily be bamboozled into into voting for religious zealots.  

At the end of the day, we can’t turn back the hands of time and do it all over again.  All we can do now is hope for the best.  Hope for a miracle.  Because the future of Egypt is hinging on these elections.  As I anxiously await the election results, I hope that history proves me wrong.  

*Please feel free to agree, disagree and debate.  


  1. Very informative post and well written. I appreciate the insight and tend to agree with your points.

    I'd love to see a post from your perspective of defining the Muslim Brotherhood, what they stand for, why this is a risk to artists, musicians, dancers and the like.

    Hope you decide to write one about that!


  2. Thanks Raksanna, and great idea... and I think it's necessary, given that the zealots have won a majority in the first round of the Parliamentary elections. :/

  3. Thank you Luna for saying what so many do not want to hear. There is no history nor tradition of democratic ideals in Egypt. Without a prepared population, it cannot flourish or even come to the surface.

  4. Thanks Sharifa, I try :) What makes me really angry is that this is a no-brainer. It's common knowledge that no society can make a successful transition to democracy overnight. It didn't happen in Eastern Europe after Communism, and it won't happen here. Why didn't the liberals who started this revolution take a step back to study and understand their own society? Did they really think all Egyptians were liberal like them? The sad part is that once this country falls into the hands of the extremists, the liberals will be the first ones on the plane out of Egypt. They will not stick around to fight the regime that they effectively put in. I'm not Egyptian but I'm so angry. :(

  5. What a well written piece this is. I salute the education you've invested in so that you can form these opinions based on so much information and experience. Thanks for sharing your view so articulately. I, too, would love to hear your opinion of what happens to the arts under Islamist rule. Dance on!

  6. Wonderful, informative post! I don't believe your outlook on this is pessimistic at all; you comparison of the similarities of the Iranian and Egyptian revolutions are disturbingly accurate. Unfortunately, I too think this premature bid for undefined democracy will result in a similar end result for Egypt.

  7. Thank you Aurel & John. I too think I'm being more realistic than pessimistic, but you know people get all cranky when you tell them the truth. Working on another post about the "hood" :) and why they're a threat.