Legacy Bureaucrats

One of the most common problems with revolutions which overthrow dictatorships is that many corrupt officials from the previous regime are able to slip into new positions or maintain their previous posts. When the Czechoslovakia broke the yoke of communism, one of the first demands was to disband the despised and abusive secret police force. These agents were then immediately hired by the state run electricity monopoly for its own security. The activists who risked uncontrolled torture to overthrow the old totalitarian regime would face these same (now minimally controlled) state security agents when they protested the completion of nuclear power plants after the revolution.

Recently, Egypt my host and I faced a similar situation. Before the revolution, the head of the local police prevented westerners and other critics of the Mubarek regime from speaking at the university in Qena (Southern Valley University). After the revolution this corrupt bureaucrat was removed from his job, only to be hired by the president of the university (a strong Mubarek supporter) to run security for the school. So when I showed up at the gates, with my presentation having been approved in advance, we were informed I was not being permitted to speak. I have to admit I was flattered to be considered as a threat to these still corrupt elements of the state.

And just as the activists in Tahrir Square found dozens of ways to slip from the grasp of the corrupt security apparatus, my hosts nibble friends moved the talk out of the university and into a nearby off campus dorm. These dormitories were built by the Muslim Brotherhood for students who could not afford on campus housing. Unfortunately, because the dorms are single sexed, this move meant we lost all the female participants to my talk, which I did not discover until near the end of the talk.

The hope for Egypt (and me)

We spoke for three hours, both alternating translation and alternating questions. They wanted to know as much about me as I was curious about them. Before the talk my host encouraged me to ask the hardest questions I could image – “Ask them about jihad and killing infidels” he suggested, “ask them about Islamic law and the rights of women”, “Ask them everything you want”. The conversation was animated and revealing. I found myself repeatedly explaining and apologizing for US foreign policy. They kept surprising me with their commitment to social justice and equity, non-interventionist foreign policy, religious tolerance and the evolution of tribal customs towards fairness (and away from arranged marriages and revenge killings) because of increased education. [More on all of these topics in a pending blog post]. In the end, I had to leave to catch my train, our conversation was far from complete and they encouraged me to return. I have several new Facebook friends whose names I cant read.

In the last hour I brought up Twin Oaks and promptly lost my ability to ask them questions because of the flood of excitement and inquires that came from these young members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups. “This is just what we need to be doing!” One student exclaimed as I described our sharing systems. He had studied English for 4 years at SVU and ours was the first conversation he had ever had with a native speaker, in part because of the efforts of this corrupt bureaucrat. But things are changing in Egypt and I am quite sure this will not be his last.