CAIRO – On Wednesday, Egyptians will for the first time choose a president from among several candidates. And so I have come to Cairo to watch my fellow Egyptians cast their votes and to ask: is this democracy?
I got an answer before I even left Cairo airport.
I flew from New York to Cairo via Rome, where my bags remained an extra 24 hours. Jet-lagged, exhausted from my travels and frustrated that I had arrived while my bags had not, I awaited my turn at Cairo airport to file a report with the airline representative on my missing luggage.
A couple from Costa Rica who had arrived on my flight gave her the address of their hotel, where they were told their bags would be taken once they arrived from Rome.
After the airline representative took down my information, I asked her if my bags would be delivered to my parents’ address, where I am staying.
“No, Egyptians have to come and pick up their luggage themselves,” she replied matter-of-factly and turned to the next passenger whose luggage had not arrived.
I did not even bother asking why.
As my father drove us home, and as my eyes caught the election banners that festooned Cairo squares, I wondered exactly how much of a difference an election makes when a foreigner is treated better than a citizen in her own country.
Is democracy just a matter of casting a vote?
I became increasingly upset at what appeared to be reverse racism and complained to several Arab friends. Their replies were sadly similar.
Camille, a Syrian friend, told me that many people in his country treat tourists better than they treat their fellow Syrians.
“These things are engraved in the culture. People behave that way without
questioning why,” he told me. “I remember I was at a restaurant in Cairo, and an American teenager finished eating then told them he had no money to pay. They thought about it, then decided ‘let him go, he”s American’.”
Tarek, an Egyptian friend, reminded me that discrimination – against Egyptians – runs deep in Egypt.
“An average Egyptian civilian has very few rights. To be treated with respect and dignity, one has to have influence, connections, money, or power (be a military and police officer, etc.),” he told me.
Candidates for Wednesday’s presidential elections have promised Egyptians everything from more jobs to the return of the tarboush. But I have yet to hear one candidate promise us the one thing that is at the heart of any democracy: respect.
Before I moved to New York, I visited the city for a job interview. My bag – with my suit and interview needs – was sent to the wrong airport. As soon as I got to the home of a friend I called the airline to complain and told them that if my bag didn’t arrive by the next day, I would buy a new suit that they would reimburse me for. The airline representative agreed and assured me my bag would be sent to my friend’s home as soon as it arrived at Kennedy airport.
It came the next morning at 6 am.
I remembered this when my father and I returned to Cairo airport to claim my suitcases after they arrived from Rome. As we waited in the airline office, I heard the representative ask someone on the phone if she had entered the country on her Egyptian passport or her American one.
I seethed with humiliation. If the airline representative in New York had asked me this I would have had the right to sue her company for discrimination.
Earlier, I had asked the airline representative in Cairo why foreigners and Egyptians were treated differently.
“These are customs regulations that have been in place for years. I know they don’t make any sense. They don’t want the foreigners to lose any love for Egypt so they deliver their bags,” she told me.
“What about Egyptians? I am the daughter of this country – doesn’t my love for it matter?” I asked.
Every Egyptian at the airport whom I asked to explain this reverse racism told me they shared my humiliation and anger. The young man who got my bags from the store room told me simply “it really upsets me that Egyptians are treated like this”.
The other young man who kept a log of missing luggage told me simply “Egyptians have no rights. Nothing works in our country. These kinds of rules can only be changed from the top”.
The other young man at customs who searched my bags told me simply “They care more about foreigners because they’re scared the foreigners will sue or complain to their embassy. But what can Egyptians do?”
Another customs official answered that question a day earlier when I first landed in Cairo. As I wheeled my handbag through customs and showed him my Egyptian passport, I told him that I had arrived from America, where I lived.
“Don’t you have that cute little blue passport yet? You should get one,” he said.
In other words, I would be better off as a foreigner in my own country.
It matters little that Egyptians will choose from 10 presidential candidates on Wednesday when so many of us feel like second-class citizens in our own country.
Democracy is not just ink on paper. Democracy is not pictures of the candidates on the evening news.
The day the ordinary man and ordinary woman are treated with respect in the Arab world is the day we can say we have democracy.