Jill Burcum: Life in and out of the bubble in Egypt

  • Article by: JILL BURCUM , Star Tribune editorial writer
  • Updated: January 31, 2011 - 6:59 PM

As I found on a recent visit there, there's a yearning that an out-of-touch Mubarak doesn't grasp.

Editorial writer Jill Burcum (center, wearing white jacket) with Egyptian school girls

Editorial writer Jill Burcum (center, wearing white jacket) with Egyptian school girls. Burcum traveled to Egypt in December. (Photo provided by Jill Burcum)

Photo: Jill Burcum, Star Tribune

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Egypt's warp-speed, techno-driven revolution has stunned the world, has left Western governments scrambling and has stranded thousands of American tourists and expatriates in the capital of Cairo.

Had I delayed a recent trip there to see a friend by about a month, I would have been one of those now struggling to leave the country.

It's been a tense stretch of days, watching events unfold half a world away.

I'm home safe and sound. But Kelly, one of my oldest and dearest friends, and her family are still in Egypt's protest-torn capital -- as far as I know.

The journalist in me sees history happening: the Arab version of the Berlin wall coming down, perhaps.

The rest of me is trying not so successfully to keep fear at bay as I piece together sporadic information from Kelly's stateside family to gauge where my friend might be. The last cell phone call to her family came on Sunday.

It's hard to believe that chaotic city shown on the news is the same welcoming place I visited in mid-December. Kelly moved to Cairo last summer when her husband took a job there.

They immediately fell in love with the sprawling, ancient city of 18 million along the Nile. I did, too, as I joined her family in playing tourist at Cairo's key attractions: the Giza pyramids, the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, the Saqqara step pyramid, as well as the historic Coptic and Islamic sections of the city.

Not once did we feel unsafe. We were greeted universally with kindness.

Bus riders on Cairo's crowded, crazy roads would wave through their windows at the American family in the vehicle next to them. A shopkeeper pulled out a chair and a bottle of water for me when I suddenly got overwhelmed by jet lag. An imam took time out of his day to talk with us and gave us his business card if we had further questions.

Cairo was frenetic as well as friendly. And in December, its citizens seemed more perpetual-motion entrepreneurs hoping to score dough off tourists than political agitators. Still, when I heard about the Tunisian revolution, I knew instinctively that Egypt was next.

Both countries are poor, youthful (half of Cairo's population is under 30) and have been run for decades by aging rulers concerned mostly with perpetuating political dynasties.

Both countries' populations are also wired, the scope of which is hard to appreciate unless you've visited.

In Cairo, there are Internet cafes tucked behind waist-high garbage piles cluttering the streets. Even the poorest and youngest citizens have cell phones and access to Facebook and Twitter, the social-networking sites that enabled agitators in Tunisia and now Egypt to gather courage and coalesce.

I saw cell phones' widespread use firsthand in an unusual way.

Wherever we went, I was mobbed by Egyptian school girls. They'd take out their cell-phone cameras and want a picture with the Minnesota mom with the sparkly earrings. And no, I wasn't groped by pickpockets.

At the end of one long sightseeing day, stuck in Cairo's insane traffic, I wound up looking at a large political poster of President Hosni Mubarak on a building. The 82-year-old ruler clearly uses some kind of Egyptian "Just for Men" hair color, but he still looks his age.

His likeness contrasted sharply with the youth of the people walking by it at that moment. I was just a tired tourist, but I remember concluding that the age difference and the widespread communication technology was an interesting mix.

Now I realize the word I should have used was "volatile."

Mubarak was foolish to think that he could cut off the revolution by shutting down Internet access. Taking away this modern necessity made people angrier. It also wasn't going to stop word from spreading about the next protest.

Even in the leafiest suburbs of Cairo, people live tightly packed in unpainted, concrete towers that reach far into smog blanketing the city. Word of the next protest would easily ripple through these buildings, from where people could see the melees or the smoke from them by looking out their windows.

Mubarak has long been out of touch. I suspect it's because he's lived for far too long inside the kind of bubble I existed in as an American tourist. Kelly's wealthy, ex-pat neighborhood is far from the city's slums and the sprawling cemetery where some of Egypt's poorest live amidst the mausoleums.

As a tourist, that isolation made me feel safe. As a journalist, it was stifling -- so much so that I simply couldn't stand it any longer when we were driving through a Cairo neighborhood one day.

I told our driver to pull over. I had to get out. I felt like I was missing the story -- what made Cairo tick -- and I had to talk to real people. The moms I spoke to just wanted a good life for their kids.

My guess is that it's been far too long since Mubarak told his driver to stop.

As events unfold in Egypt, I am guardedly optimistic about Kelly's safety (she's smart and resourceful) and about Egypt's future.

Oddly, it's because of the time I spent on Cairo's clogged roads. There are no lanes, few traffic lights and no rules.

But what looks like chaos to the American eye actually works pretty well. Traffic keeps moving, sometimes slowly, sometimes at breakneck speed, and people generally get to where they need to go with surprisingly few accidents.

Now it's protesters clogging the streets instead of cars. There are no rules for this, either, but I am hopeful they too will get to where they need to go.

Jill Burcum is a Star Tribune editorial board member. She is at Jill.Burcum@startribune.com.

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Editorial writer Jill Burcum (center, wearing white jacket) with Egyptian school girls