The joke among my friends is that I’m Masra-keya, the American who after 10 years here qualifies as an honorary Egyptian. And for this Masra-keya, few things annoy me more than when a person who has never been to Egypt asks me, “Is it safe?” Given that the person asking is almost invariably an American basing his views on US media, I’m never quite sure whether he thinks I’m in danger from a terrorist attack or a minion of Hollywood’s Scorpion King.
For the past decade, my answer to “Is Egypt safe?” has been “absolutely.” I’ve found that living in Cairo is as safe as, and in many ways safer than, living in many major US cities. Unlike many foreigners, I live in a middle-class Egyptian neighborhood because it’s close to a market street that pushes me to constantly practice my Arabic. I’ve lived there more than five years and am a familiar face to my neighbors and the shopkeepers.
During the days of curfew, I tried to get out every day to buy supplies from the area’s many small stores. On February 4, I was carrying home groceries when I was hailed by a middle-aged gentleman walking with his young son. In polite but inexpert English, he told me that it was not safe for me to be walking right now because pro-government people “know foreigners are for the protesters.”
This man was not threatening me; on the contrary, he offered to walk with me to make sure I got home safely. He seemed genuinely concerned that someone might try to attack me because I’m foreign. That, for me, was the most disturbing moment of this civil unrest.
In 10 years, I have never been told that I might be attacked for being foreign. I’ve never even felt threatened. That’s saying a lot, since American foreign policy has inspired plenty of protests on Egyptian streets, for example, the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and US support (tacit and open) of Israel in its invasions of Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008. Through it all, Egyptians have always distinguished between a people and their government. “Americans good,” the taxi drivers would say, giving me the thumbs-up sign, “George Bush bad.”
What had happened to make foreigners a target in an uprising that had nothing to do with foreigners?
On February 3, former vice president Omar Suleiman made a speech claiming “foreign elements” were manipulating events in Tahrir Square. And literally overnight, the world outside the square became a scary place for the foreigners, especially if Mubarak supporters suspected you were a journalist.
Overall, I didn’t spend a lot of time in Tahrir during the uprising; I was more interested in informally getting the views of people living outside the media spotlight. After my neighbor’s warning, I limited my excursions to areas I knew well and was much more wary of ‘practicing my Arabic’ with people on the street.
Fortunately, the xenophobia was short-lived. In the post-resignation days, Egyptians I’ve talked to seem to appreciate the foreigners who didn’t flee the country.
Disturbed as I was by the warning, I was far more impressed by how caring my neighbors are. It’s not only that the neighborhood watch was up all night to protect the street I live on. It’s not just because my landlady was more worried about me covering my personal expenses than about getting her rent money. It’s because people like that gentleman and his son are concerned for the welfare of a person they’ve never met before.
That sense of community is why I live in my neighborhood and one of the main reasons I’ve stayed in Egypt. And if someone asks me today “Is Egypt safe?” I can honestly say that I feel safer than ever.