Egypt in Turmoil: A Hungry Nation’s Revolution
Al-Talib meets with Noora Kamel, an Egyptian-American senior at UCLA, to talk about life in a nation ruled by Hosni Mubarak. Having lived there for five years and recently returned to the United States, Kamel shares her experiences about a hungry nation on the brink of revolt.
A-T: Describe the social, political situation that led to the protests. Why are people out there? What’s going on?
Kamel: I think the main reason is that food prices went up really quickly in a short amount of time. Just from what I’ve heard from my friends, after the Swine flu epidemic, the whole meat industry plunged. Meat became extremely expensive, even by our standards. It cost $30 for a pound or something crazy like that.
No one can afford to pay for the basics of life, so I don’t even know what the poor are doing because they were struggling when I left [Egypt] and it wasn’t as bad back then. I think basically what started this revolution is that people need food. People need to eat.
A-T: You have family and friends in Egypt right now, is this turmoil touching all corners of society or are they a bit removed from it?
Kamel: It’s affected them loosely. Most of my family and friends are pretty well off, and even they don’t eat meat anymore or there are things that you can’t get because it’s so expensive.
And the job market is really bad there. One of my friends works in IBM, but she told me her boss wouldn’t pay her the first five months there. Whenever it was time for her paycheck she had to fight for weeks to get it because they’re just not paying people. Either it’s corruption in the company or they don’t have enough money to pay all of their workers.
A-T: Has your family been involved in the protests? Have you been able to contact with them at all?
Kamel: I actually don’t know because I haven’t been able to contact them. I usually talk through Skype and since the Internet has been cut I don’t really know what’s going on.
A-T: A lot of people are talking about democracy in Egypt, what was it like politically when you were there?
Kamel: People didn’t talk about the president that often. You weren’t supposed to say your real views unless you were in private among people you knew. Anything criticizing Hosni Mubarak had to be in secret. I heard this story where a little boy wrote “the president’s a donkey” on a piece of paper and left it at school. His teacher found it and reported it and his parents got thrown in jail. So it was a big deal.
And every classroom had to have a picture of the president over the chalkboard. Unless you were a private American, French, or German school, then they wouldn’t make you do that.
But there was a nickname they’d call [Mubarak], there’s a brand of cheese called “Lavash Kiri” that has a laughing cow on it. That was his nickname. It was like “oh, it’s Lavash Kiri.”
A-T: So do you think that people are now releasing all of that tension and frustration?
Kamel: Yeah. It definitely felt really suppressed. No one really has rights. Whoever is stronger gets the upper hand.
If you go to the ministries to do paperwork it could take several weeks. It was such a headache because no one did their job and you got cheated and tricked and you had to bribe people. All kinds of awful weird stuff goes on.
I got the feeling the system was set up to exhaust you so at the end of the day you didn’t have any time to think about improving the situation of your family or your country. As long as you can get enough food for today or get home from work in one piece, it’s good. You can keep going.