Opinion: A hub of trade and culture, San Antonio has much in common with Cairo
As Cairo adjusts to a revolt now surging through the Middle East, the uprising takes on new perspective from San Antonio – for both Cairo and San Antonio, Egypt and Texas, have more in common than it may appear.
Cairo is the crossroads of the Middle East, and, through Suez, of world trade. San Antonio is the crossroads of Texas and the southern tier, and through I-35 and I-10, of trade for North America.
Texas is two-thirds the size of Egypt, but the Egyptian desert limits habitable land to a slender ribbon along the Nile.
Though segregated by faith, Cairo for hundreds of years has embraced Muslims, Christians, and, still, a few Jews. A basement crypt in one Cairo church concealed Jesus, Mary and Joseph when they fled the sword of Herod.
Today, even in crisis, “We are all Egyptians,” said the young Moslem man who supervised the desk in the Cairo hotel where we stayed in Janary.
Like Cairo, San Antonio is a centuries-old refuge for trade and cultural exchange between Native peoples, Europeans, Latinos, blacks and whites – even as this city, too, remains segregated.
The high plateau overlooking Cairo is commanded by the military that tipped against its former general, the deposed former president Hosni Mubarak. Before he resigned, Mubarak tried to save his regime by naming a vice president who was, first, a spy.
San Antonio – once home to former U.S. Army officer Dwight D. Eisenhower who trained soldiers at Camp Stanley – has the second largest concentration of federal personnel in the United States, most of them defense-related, with military bases that dominate large parts of the city.
Camp Stanley is home to a secret CIA installation. The military and CIA may not command San Antonio, but they exert substantial economic, social, and civic influence.
If Cairo is crossroads of the Middle East, the El Fishawy tea house (in the Khan el Khalili market) remains the crossroads of Cairo.
We paused there to sip mint tea New Year’s Eve, engaging with our next-table neighbor, a former Saudi military officer enjoying a tea house shi-sha pipe. He’d stopped in Cairo for a couple days’ R&R en route home, and chatted in excellent English – that he perfected at Lackland Air Force Base.
Yet there are more similarities, and some contrasts:
• A sense of solidarity is as palpable in Egypt as rugged individualism is in the Lone Star State. Five times a day, minarets echo the call to prayer, a ritual reinforcing communal humility. Yet, solidarity grew in a different way, when 28-year-old businessman Khaled Said, reportedly holding evidence of police corruption, was pulled out of an Internet café last spring and murdered in the street by Egyptian police. Within days, that news fed unrest through Facebook: “We Are All Khaled Said.”
• Oppressive as the Mubarak regime had been, it began investing in public higher education 20 years ago, and improved educational attainment as the only durable good that may permanently lift the economy. In contrast, while the SA2020 report wants education improved in San Antonio, the state of Texas is about to ax support for education, when Texas already ranks near the nation’s bottom.
• Mubarak ruled by decree for 30 years in a land of banana cultivation. In elections two months before the protests broke out, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, whose members had held 20 percent of parliament, mysteriously found themselves with no seats, even as their popular support had grown. In parallel, Texas has been notorious for vote theft since Lyndon Johnson. Yet Americans found themselves called a “banana republic” only in 2000, when the Supreme Court decided the presidency by one vote, before the count found Al Gore beat George Bush by a half-million votes.
• If Egyptians demanded the end to oppression and having little political voice, consider the first major act of the Texas Legislature this year: passing a Voter ID law, which some argue aims to shut out Democratic-leaning Latino voters.
• In Egypt, police and some of the military are so poorly paid that our guides urged us not to approach them, for concern they’d offer to snap photos of us in order to extort tips. Yet, according to the CIA World Factbook, the “Gini index” of economic inequality (0 notes perfect equality; 100, perfect inequality) in Egypt is 34; in the United States, it’s 45. In other words, there’s 30 percent more inequality in the United States than in Egypt.
• The truth is: we were safe in Egypt, treated fairly and politely, welcomed at banks, stores, cafés and hotels. In fact, we were ripped off only after we returned home to San Antonio: our wallets and IDs stolen from our locked vehicle in broad daylight in Olmos Basin Park, our credit cards used within an hour to charge up thousands. And why not? When the king of ponzi schemes, Bernard Madoff, reports from prison that banks and hedge funds profited on a grand scale by keeping silent about his scheme for years, even as big banks benefited from a taxpayer bailout – why wouldn’t others, at a micro level, rip-off random folks like us?
In the United States, from the scale clear from the news and detailed in the movie “Inside Job,” larceny is just business as usual in the land of the free, the home of the brave.
As Cairo and the Middle East show, the focus on political repression and inequality spilling through social media into the streets are destabilizing the Mubaraks of the region. With the contradictions and inequalities in our own back yard, could we be far behind in San Antonio, in Texas, and in the United States?
Photos by Eileen Breslin and Bill Isreal