The Egyptian men in this picture are waiting and hoping for some construction work. The photo was taken about two weeks prior to the current period of unrest. These workers likely earn no more than 100 Egyptian Pounds per month, probably less. This is about $20.00 for an entire month of back breaking labor.
As I watch the coverage of Egypt it sounds like many pundits and politicians are saying that the demonstrations in Egypt are a result of religion or religious extremism. When I was there, I did not see any evidence of this. Most Egyptians I met are proud to be Egyptian, proud of their heritage, and accepting of religious differences. For example, a bomb killed many people attending New Years eve Mass at al-Qiddisin Coptic Church in Alexandria, Egypt. The Egyptian Government reported that the bomb was set by external Muslim terrorists. Perhaps it was external terrorists but equally and arguably more important was the fact that the next day, thousands of Muslims (many of them members of the Islamic Brotherhood) demonstrated support of the Coptic Christian Community.
The Egyptians I met are more concerned about feeding their families than they are about religious differences. One friend earns about 600 Egyptian Pounds (EGP) per month, or around $100. He and his wife, his two sons and his daughter live in an apartment not much bigger than the hotel room where I sit writing this note.
Most Egyptians love America and Americans. But they don't understand why the US and other Western democracies have supported the dictatorship of Mubarak. They wonder why we support a man who would be reviled if he lived in the US simply because it suits our national interests. They are envious of our freedom and prosperity and they want a chance to achieve the same. They are hungry for the chance to build a modern, multiracial, multicultural, religiously tolerant nation.
While it is true that extremists of all kinds exploit poverty and social unrest, it is important to remember that hunger and a lack of hope open the door to radical ideas and beliefs. I am worried that many in the news and on Capitol Hill are screaming that Egypt's troubles are a result of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Some say the Islamic Brotherhood is a terrorist group despite the fact that Al Qaeda hates the Islamic Brotherhood for its push for democracy - something that Al Qaeda and many other terrorists believe is anti-Muslim. Blaming Egypt's problems on religious differences is a lie. The unrest is not about an effort to spread Sharia law, it is about not having enough to eat and not having the right of self-governance without outside interference. I hope we keep our eyes on the facts and are not swayed by those who want to exploit our fears for their own personal power and gain.
I hope we keep our focus on the Egyptian people and how we can help them, rather than dwelling on our own political motives and fears. If we help the Egyptian people achieve freedom we will establish a solid foundation for a long term relationship. If we continue backing Mubarak against the will of the people, or attempt to cloud the issue with our own fears of terrorism, Al Qaeda and other groups like it will win. They will win without lifting a finger as we run away from a people seeking the same liberties that we run the risk of sacrificing due to our fear of terrorists.