The Egyptian Existential Syndrome

by Sandy Chamoun, Cairo, 2009

What is it all about?

This life we are living?

How many times I have asked myself this exhausting question. It seems to have been the leitmotif of my entire post-pubescent life. All of my questions and introspections would eventually lead to it, and almost all my thoughts seemed to be tinted by it, as it was constantly lurking in the shadows.

When I heard that Mubarak had stepped down, I was in shock. I was ecstatic. I had goose bumps and tears in my eyes. I would burst out in laughter, jump up and down, then watch the news some more, refresh my twitter feed and all the other pages I was following, then burst out and scream again. I went out on the balcony and all I wanted to do was scream at the top of my lungs. The fact that I live in a little quiet neighborhood populated mostly by senior citizens and children stopped me from doing so. I still want to scream. My friend looks at me and says “If this is how you feel, can you imagine how they feel?” I can’t. I simply cannot imagine how they felt at that moment.

I have always thought of people as fundamentally selfish beings. I believed it to be the underlying principle of humanity, as the only commonality that unites us. Everything we do is motivated by self-preservation and furthering our own well-being. Even our seemingly benevolent and selfless actions are rooted in our own desires to feel better about ourselves, or to alleviate some of our guilt over being better off than the ones we try to help.

I don’t think I can believe this anymore. The actions of the Egyptians we have been following for the past few weeks were anything but selfish. Sure, they did this for their own well being, they forced out a dictator they did not want. But the lengths they went to were anything but selfish. They put themselves out there, literally. They were on the streets for weeks, living, eating, praying, many even sleeping, outside, in the cold, with bloodied bandages on their heads, for days at a time. Living off the momentum they had created, the energy that had engulfed them, and the generosity of their neighbors. They went out there, every day, knowing full well (especially in the first few days) that they could very easily be shot at, gassed, beaten up, arrested, tortured, or even killed, at any given moment. And so many were. Yet not only did they keep going out there, every single day, but they became fiercer and more numerous as time went by. Of course they were not fearless. I am sure most of them were very afraid. People saw their friends being killed. They could be next. But what are true bravery and selflessness if not doing something despite the fact that the risk is enormous, despite the fact that you are afraid?

The man who burned himself alive was anything but selfish. How can selfishness have any presence in a soul who ends his life for a chance, just a chance, at a better future for those who surround him? Mohamed Bouazizi has played a big part in changing the world as we know it, by igniting the Tunisian revolution, and setting an example for the others who did the same, in hopes for similar outcomes. They ended their lives for their people. They did not risk their lives, as soldiers do, but they purposely, consciously and resolutely decided to end their lives to make a statement. To try to make a change. And they were fully aware that they would never know whether or not they succeeded, and that they would never experience any praise or glory if they did succeed. The act of self-immolation is selflessness in perhaps its purest form. If only they could know what they have done. If only they could see what their actions have set in motion. It is baffling that we will never be able to tell them, or thank them for what they have given to the world.

I have never in my life seen such determination and selflessness as I have in the past couple of months. It has pushed me to rethink some of my fundamental beliefs about human beings. It gives me hope. For once, the news was uplifting. The news did not depress me as it usually does. The people won. The truth prevailed, despite many botched attempts to muffle and strangle it. I now have some faith in this godforsaken world we live in. And in the people that populate it.

Throughout these 18 days, I lived and breathed Egypt. I was excited for them, scared for them, nervous for them, happy for them, and so damn proud. They were on my mind almost all of my waking hours, and even made their way to my dreams occasionally. Everything else that was going on became trivial. From Lebanese politics, to devastating floods, to the Palestine Papers, to my own personal issues. Everything paled in comparison.

Egypt was all.

I will never come close to knowing what they felt. The only thing I have experienced which can compare in magnitude is when my nephew was born. I looked at him, and I knew, that this is what it’s all about.Nothing else matters. This is what is real, the only thing that is real. This is what life is about. Life. A new life. And this is how I feel about Egypt. A new nation is born. The better part of 80 million people has just been reborn.

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