Saturday,20 January, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Saturday,20 January, 2018
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s persons of the year

Egypt’s people comprehended what they were facing in 2017, and they have acted accordingly, writes Amina Khairy

Towards the end of 2017 Time magazine chose “the Silence Breakers” to be its “Person of the Year”. These then moved from being a hashtag to a movement and finally a demand for large-scale social change fully deserving of the title. 

In Egypt, the title of “Persons of the Year” must go to Egyptian citizens in the year that has just ended and probably also in the one that has just begun. “The Hardship Bearers,” “the Terrorism Facers,” “the Absurdities Digesters,” “the Tolerators of Grievances” and “the Comprehenders of Priorities” are just some of the titles that could entitle Egyptian citizens to be Egypt’s Persons of the Year.

From economic upheavals to specific terrorist incidents and a dazzling ability to re-prioritise a permanent wish list, as well as an extraordinary capacity to tolerate pain, grievance and unfairness, the Egyptians demonstrated them all in 2017. 

The year started with the “pain before gain” aftershocks of the devaluation of the Egyptian pound. Rising inflation at some 30 per cent, falling living standards and harsher day-to-day problems could easily have led to unrest. But despite the constant grievances of people lining up to buy metro tickets, or settling down to await the arrival of a public bus, there was always a smile, if a pale one, and a prayer for better days. 

These better days, something that millions of Egyptians dream about, are still far away. 2017 was the Year of the Rooster, according to traditional Chinese astrology, which says that such years are rarely boring. They always see a lot of action. If there was a single word to describe the past year in Egypt, it is that this year saw plenty of action, in fact rather too much action. 

The incidents of terrorism in 2017 made Egyptians tougher and of course also gloomier. The year that did not end without a terrorist attack on a church in Helwan will have its name engraved alongside those of hundreds of Egyptians who lost their lives not because they were Christians, Muslims or just passers-by, but because they were simply Egyptians. 

Attacking people in the name of religion, let alone members of the security services, opened Egyptians’ eyes to what terrorism really means. In each and every house in Egypt some sort of readjustment has been made. Whether people have been vocal about it, or have kept it to themselves, is not the point. The point is that Egyptians have comprehended what they were facing in 2017, and they have acted accordingly.

According to a survey conducted by the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research, a survey organisation, a few days before the end of 2017, almost 15 per cent of those surveyed said they were either unable or unwilling to make any special wishes for the New Year. While this might shed light on signs of depression or the fading away of hope, it might also say something about a list of priorities that has been revisited in recent years. The majority wished for more job opportunities, better education for their kids, and better living conditions, but this wish list was also directed towards pragmatism. 

Pragmatically speaking, 2017 made Egyptians smarter and more “no nonsense” in their attitudes, if not necessarily more productive or less fahlawi (shrewd). The Year of the Rooster, representing confidence and intelligence, proved that Egyptians were one, two or even three steps ahead of the media, loyal to the political system, or claiming to be independent. 

Some said they were independent of any allegiance to any particular ideology, despite the major differences in the social, economic and educational standards of those surveyed. Many Egyptians have come to the conclusion that they should not take the media for granted. They might watch or listen to it, but their opinions have become more independent. 

The words of one Cairo taxi-driver in his mid-fifties echo in my ears. “I have decided not to believe anything that I have not seen with my own eyes,” he said. “If I have not seen it for myself, I ask my heart for a fatwa [religious opinion]”. The driver went on to mention examples of a lack of information, the distortion of facts, and fantasy-based analysis from Egyptian state-owned and independent TV channels as well as from those owned by British, US and Russian concerns. “I might have to digest absurdities, but I don’t chew over them first,” he said.

Chewing over absurdities and even attempts at sabotaging public opinion marked the year that has just departed. With departures often come tears and fears that what lies ahead might be even harsher and rougher than what has gone before. However, Egyptians have bid farewell to 2017 by carrying a virtual ola (a traditional clay drinking container), hoping to break it (an old belief) with the departure of the year and thereby signalling their desire not to see anything similar in the future. 

However, there are always exceptions. One scene that will be remembered throughout 2018 and probably for many more years to come is that of the Egyptian citizen am (uncle) Salah. This kiosk owner intervened to frustrate the terrorists who carried out the end-of-year attack on the church in Helwan, and his example will remain in Egyptians’ hearts and minds throughout the New Year. With nothing but his will and belief in what was right, he took control of an injured, though still heavily armed terrorist, amid cheers from those who witnessed the scene.

This man is our Man of the Year, or rather we are all Persons of the Year, at least as far as the Egyptian people are concerned.


The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.

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