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Comic explores a changed Cairo

By Ronnie Khalil, Special to CNN
  • Watching revolution on television was a rollercoaster of emotions
  • My 69-year old dad spent countless nights standing guard to protect our apartment from looters
  • As I arrived in Cairo, things didn't seem all that different

Ronnie Khalil is an Egyptian-American comedian and writer, and co-Founder of the Middle Eastern Comedy Festival in Los Angeles. He stars in the first major stand-up comedy show in Cairo since the Revolution on July 6.

Two weeks before the revolution, I was visiting family in Cairo. While in a taxi, the driver complained, "Mubarak, he's ruining this country! But what can we do?" In typical Egyptian fashion, he followed his complaint with a Mubarak joke. I can't remember the joke exactly but, judging by the driver's uproarious laughter, he certainly thought it was "Tonight Show" ready.

To me, this exemplifies your typical Egyptian: light-hearted, friendly and unfortunately filled with a sense of powerlessness and political apathy. After enduring 30 years of a so-called democracy, one in which their voices were rarely, if ever, heard, could one really blame them for feeling this way?

So you can imagine my surprise when, on January 25, I turned on my television in Los Angeles and saw protestors gathering in Tahrir Square.

The next few weeks for me were a rollercoaster of emotions. I felt pride in the way the protestors handled themselves with dignity and restraint. I also felt fear and disgust as I watched hired thugs wield swords at unarmed protestors; and helplessness, as I couldn't reach my loved ones, having heard my 69-year old dad spent countless nights standing guard at our apartment entrance to protect it from looters.

Then things ended. Mubarak was gone. And the news virtually stopped about Egypt, focusing more on courtroom drama and sex scandals. But what really happens after a revolution?

I knew the revolution would change things, but in which way? For better or worse?
--Ronnie Khalil
Egypt's struggling tourism
  • Egypt
  • Arab Spring
  • Stand-up Comedy

My last visit to Cairo was two weeks before the protests, where I performed stand-up comedy in an underground club, talking about taboo subjects which would never fly in a public venue. The standard rule is no politics, no sex, and no religion. A comedian's dream. I knew the revolution would change things, but in which way? For better or worse?

So, as the plane touched down in Cairo, I was surprised that things really didn't seem all that different. Its true that the streets were chaotic but Egypt always functioned in chaos -- with four lanes of cars occupying a street barely meant for two.

There was one difference, however, from the revolution that was portrayed on television. In Tahrir, there was a clear, unified voice of the people, demanding the removal of Mubarak. When he left, this unified voice became a million scattered voices, all wanting a better life but with no clear plan as to how to achieve it.

Luckily, the military stepped in, ensuring stability. Make no mistake; the military is not a democracy. It dictates the rules, pushes its agenda, and even issued a decree on political rights the day before a major conference meant to discuss said rights. But in the short term, it appears people are okay with this arrangement, assuming this is the best way to ensure a fair election.

I was pleased to learn that many civic leaders are working to build liberal and open-minded political parties; and equally disappointed to learn that there are far more extreme groups than the Muslim Brotherhood, known as the Salifiyeen, who are destroying churches and trying to create a rift among the religions.

The country is filled with rumors and hearsay -- some of which I may have unwittingly spread now as fact in this article. Information is sparse, the military still operates in secret, and the current "government leaders" -- whoever they are this week -- seem hesitant to make any actual decisions for fear of angering the public.

There are also political casualties in a revolution. My dad, who moved to Egypt several years ago to help start Nile University, the only not-for-profit research university in Egypt, was given land by the previous government. Now they are in a bitter dispute to hold on to those lands, despite the fact that the university is one of the few great things to come out of the country in the last three decades -- a classic example of emotion superseding logic regardless of long-term benefit.

Things aren't perfect -- far from it. But as I look at other countries like Libya and Syria, still riddled with chaos, I'm thankful for how things have turned out so far. And when one considers the long road America took after its own revolution, and voting problems the U.S. faces even today (from hanging chads, to lobbyists and grandma death panels), I'm proud of what Egyptians have done and how they've done it.

Sure, in this Egypt, jokes aren't told as often, and the friendliness is sprinkled with distrust; but the powerlessness and apathy, which I once viewed as the country's biggest weakness, has slowly faded.

If the Egyptian people can continue the trend towards democracy and self-empowerment while holding on to the qualities that made them great - like mutual respect and a strong sense of morality - the future should be bright. At least that's the rumor.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ronnie Khalil.

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