Despite growing up to witness the turn of a millennium, history’s single-bloodiest attack on American soil, and the election of the first black president, it took me nearly twenty years and oceans away from home to truly take part in my first collective moment of baited breath—countdown, crowded room, grainy television and all.
Having arrived in Alexandria on Wednesday as part of Georgetown’s intensive summer Arabic program, my last few days have perversely revolved around a single political announcement in a country in which I’ve yet to spend a week (and whose street dialect, far removed from the standard Arabic I’ve learned, is almost entirely inaccessible). My parents succeeded in begging me to scrap my planned election-time Cairene adventures in favor of Jordan’s relative quiescence; some paranoid Harvard bureau has been pounding my inbox on the daily just in case I happen not to be reading any news at all.
I settled into our hotel to find a dozen and a half other Middle East news junkies, our walks the harbor and first five-hour Arabic classes seething with the anxiety of a generalized concern for international events made suddenly material. Whatever the outcome—Morsi victory and a military coup, Shafiq victory and a revolutionary reprise—our director promised an ‘interesting experience’, surely full of the threat-induced bonding that organizers of new groups eagerly seek out.
Let out of class early, ferried across town in chilled, padded taxis, and summarily forbidden from leaving the hotel, we congregated in front of the TV set at 2:30 over falafel, fuul, and shwarma. Macbooks aglow, Twitter pages refreshing, rumors from Al-Ahram, Jerusalem Post, and Russian state news abuzz. A mild verbal dig when I, forming a distinct minority, announced my reluctant preference for Shafiq. To no one’s surprise, forty minutes of extra wait time. And yet when the head of the election commission finally appeared on Al-Jazeera, replacing the frenzied whir of Tahrir Square feeds with the soul-crushing staidness of state election commissions. As zero-hour drew near, even my much-ballyhooed heart, not too keen on either candidate, found itself beating hard at the prospect of Egypt’s democratic moment.
Some time after 4, Muslim Brotherhood standard-bearer Mohamed Morsi was finally crowned the runoff winner of the first free presidential election in Egyptian history. Despite what was suggested by early vote tallies released last week, most Egyptians I spoke to were convinced that the election would be called in favor of Ahmed Shafiq, a prime minister under Mubarak and the evident favorite of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. Regardless of whether a Morsi victory bodes well for Egypt’s future, it’s at least clear that the election was decided legitimately—if SCAF had blatantly intervened, it would have surely have been in favor of Shafiq.
For the last six hours, downtown Alexandria’s streets have hummed with the honking of car horns and billowed with the waving of Egyptian flags. As I finish this sentence, the Corniche—Alexandria’s main seaside drag—has swollen with the ranks of tens of thousands of celebratory Egyptians, whose masses have slowed the city’s notoriously pedestrian-unconscious cars to a slow grind. The human electricity outside our balcony, wedged between city and sea into a single stream of current, is hard to turn away from. In hysterical, human moments like these, it is easier to get swept away than ever.
In trying to be a good realist, I will try not to. Much of this will entail spelling out worst-case scenarios over the next few weeks, tracking such possibilities as an implacably hardline Muslim Brotherhood, an outright SCAF takeover, and a resurgence of political violence in the midst of all the exuberance. But amid Arabic homework and the second half of Infinite Jest, I won’t forget to keep abreast of hopeful indicators from the streets of Egypt’s Mediterranean port.
Look forward to a rollicking seven weeks.