Today I received two emails from a friend. Together they make for an interesting commentary on the divided psyche of the American-Egyptian community.
The first is a flyer for an event sponsored by The Egyptian American Medical Society, Egyptian American Professional Society, Egyptian American Business Association, Egyptian American Group, and the American Muslim Union.
I laud the efforts made by the community to form organizations that seek to enrich our lives in the United States of America. It makes me proud to be an American-Egyptian. One of the greatest privileges we enjoy in this country is the freedom to participate in civic life without government interference. It is a privilege we should never take for granted and always jealously guard.
Yet my pleasure at seeing such civic engagement was tempered by a factual error in the email. You see the event is intended to honor the Ambassador Sherif el Kholy who happens to be a nice man. The only problem is that as far as I can tell he is not the Ambassador. Nabil Fahmy is the Egyptian Ambassador to the United States.
This minor detail matters immensely. As an American-Egyptian I fret that our propensity to use titles that glorify figures of authority has been carried to our adopted country. Has this mindset, I asked myself, already become entrenched in our civic organizations here in the United States? Didn’t many of us come to the United States and achieve our success as immigrants precisely because we believed in America as a meritocracy?
Why use a title that hasn’t been earned?
Nor am I entirely sure why so many Egyptian-Americans are honoring the representative of a repressive police state that has become notorious throughout the world for torturing its own citizens. Again, this has nothing to do with Sherif El-Kholy, the private citizen. As I indicated earlier he is a perfectly nice man.
But it has everything to do with Sherif El-Kholy as the official representative of a government that has neglected the well-being of its people and is regarded as a repressive regime by large sectors of the population.
Nor is it altogether clear why the ’’Ambassador’’ was chosen instead of a prominent American-Egyptian who has served the community and contributed to its well-being. What are the criteria for deciding such matters?
This brings me to the second email I received. It is a Youtube video by a fellow named Amr Adeeb who laments a sycophantic birthday greeting for the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak even as he alludes to the gains made during his rule. Mubarak has been in power since 1981 following the assassination of former president Sadat.
This birthday greeting appears in a state-controlled newspaper and constitutes what he characterized as a literature of praise for sultans. Adeeb, for all his concessions to a morally bankrupt regime, lamented the tendency to turn the ruler into a God, to overlook the simple fact that he is a human being and to use a national newspaper as a forum for personal praise. Therein lies our tendency to resent the praise of sultans and to simultaneously honor figures of authority regardless of how often we vent our frustration. In the small clip that I saw Amr Adeeb failed to mention the food riots in Egypt.
By the same token our community constantly circulates videos that protest the excesses of the Egyptian regime. It is not unusual to hear people complaining bitterly about the lack of democratic rule in Egypt. Yet these same people have no qualms about attending events that honor the official representatives of this very regime, often for reasons that are unfathomable and for achievements that appear quite nebulous to the general membership.
So like Adeeb I find myself asking a similar question; namely, why are so many American-Egyptian professional associations providing a forum for foreign diplomats or dare I say personal friends?
Now, it is common knowledge that this is something of a going away party for the ‘’ Ambassador’’. So why not host a party for him in one of those fancy Mcmansions favored by our community?
Such a state of affairs can be deeply demoralizing. It reinforces the notion that communal life is still dominated by the big man cult and a coterie of adoring minions. Together they tango, or belly dance at the end of every event, to reproduce authoritarian patterns of behavior and create what are often prohibitively expensive events. The Egyptian American Medical Society, for instance, often sponsors dinners accompanied by live entertainment that cost 200 dollars per couple.
At times, then, it becomes difficult to discern whether these are associations meant to benefit the public or private clubs intended first and foremost to entertain the self-designated communal elites and to curry favor with the powerful.
Is it déjà vu all over again? New Jersey as Masr al jadida? Or should I say el-kadama? I for one don’t wish to become a cynical spectator and fear that we may be building institutions that mirror our worst autocratic traditions.
Some traditions are worth preserving. Others, such as the obeisance to authority figures, threaten to impoverish our civic life and turn us into passive spectators. The gnawing cynicism can erode our faith in civic engagement altogether.
I know we can do better. We must. But not if we suspend our critical judgment and allow our budding associations to be run by non-democratic principles. Transparency is essential. The rulers aren’t always the only obstacle to participatory democracy. We are equally responsible for how our associations are run. Democracy is not simply a matter of rhetoric but also of practice.
It takes slaves to reproduce tyrants and sheep to keep the shepherds running the show.
Now will the real Ambassador please stand up ya Basha….
The only problem is we may not have an appropriate title with which to address him. Unless, of course, we revert to the regal one of your majesty.
Gharib is the pseudonym of the Egyptian-American author.