In Egypt, the Lure of Leaving


Ayman and one of his daughters on the roof of their apartment building in CairoThe first time I met Ayman, he insisted on picking me up in his shiny black Chevrolet sedan outside the King of Shrimp, a popular fish restaurant in the Cairo neighborhood of Shobra. It was April, and he had just returned from Berlin, where he attended a conference on tourism (“the world’s biggest”) for his job. A brand new “I Love Berlin” key chain dangled from his rearview mirror. Also dangling was a small metallic cross, along with “I Love London” and, of course, “I Love New York.” As a procurement manager at a multinational company, he travels a great deal. “I have a busy passport,” he told me during that first meeting, handing me his overfull visa pages to inspect.
A youthful-looking 43, Ayman has worked his way up various ladders at a number of multinationals and makes an exceptional salary — by Egyptian standards anyway — of several thousand dollars a month. He is movie-star handsome and works out regularly at a fancy gym called Pro. He has memberships at three recreation clubs, and his wife, Enas, who is 37, collects designer perfumes and laughs like a girl half her age. (They asked me not to use their last name to help protect their privacy.) His children — three strenuously color-coordinated girls named Joly, Jomana and Jassy — are learning English in their convent school. (“Say ‘how are you’ in English,” Ayman often tells them.) Their apartment, small but abundantly furnished, is filled with familiar markers of a modern, middle-class Egyptian life, from an unused treadmill to a very-wide-screen TV. Ayman’s bedside reading includes many books in English on marketing, along with a handful of pocket romances. Until recently, they had planned a family diving trip to the Red Sea.

“We didn’t see this coming,” Enas, a soft and pretty woman who wears sparkly tops and figure-hugging jeans, told me one day in May. She was speaking about the demonstrations that swept Egypt on Jan. 25 and the revolution that followed. “In the first days, they said there were foreigners, from Switzerland and Israel, giving people money in Tahrir Square — in euros — and Kentucky Fried Chicken,” she said. “They said they were having sex and taking drugs. I believed such things.”

By the end of January, Ayman joined the demonstrations with work colleagues. “I would fight with him,” Enas said. “I was scared. I didn’t want him to go, but he insisted.”

Ayman was visibly proud when he talked about his defense of the revolution against Hosni Mubarak’s henchmen. “I was helping to take care of the prison in the square, to hold all the thugs,” he said. And then, the unthinkable happened: during sunset prayers on Feb. 11, a defamed and disgraced Mubarak stepped down, and like many Egyptians, Ayman and his family celebrated. The streets of Cairo were buzzing with songs and music. “It was a happy day,” Enas said.

Over the next several weeks, Ayman and Enas took to voraciously consuming newspapers — neither had followed the news much previously — rehashing the paper’s most alarming details to each other: the police were in disarray, jailbreaks were abundant, hospitals were being robbed. Above all, they lingered over stories of churches and their parishioners under threat from radical Salafists who, they heard, described churches as mafias harboring weapons and sinners. Other Salafists, so the rumors went, were calling for acid to be thrown in the faces of unveiled women. (Salafist leaders later denied this.) But many Copts worried that the democratic ideals that triumphed in Tahrir Square would be lost and Egypt might turn into an Islamic republic like Iran. “We never even heard the word ‘Salafist’ before the revolution,” Ayman told me.

By March, Ayman’s fears had grown, and he began to reach out to Egyptian friends who live in America, asking them about their lives there. Never before had Ayman thought seriously about “leaving our country,” he said, but now he was asking friends how they had managed to emigrate and how he might go about moving his family out of Egypt if he needed to.

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