Jimmy Abdelhady Worries Over the Future of His Native Land
By Kevin Foley
The revolution in Egypt that toppled long-standing leader Hosni Mubarak a few weeks ago mesmerized the world as the turmoil in Libya and other Arab countries now does. The highly charged crowds and insistent demands spoke loudly of a long-suppressed desire for democracy and personal opportunity among millions of people living under authoritarian rule. But once the despised leader is deposed what happens then? How do collective desire and personal aspiration get translated into meaningful change? What are the chances anything good and lasting will occur?
Cold Spring businessman Hussein M. Abdelhady, better known as Jimmy, owner of the Silver Spoon restaurant and bar on Main Street, wonders about these questions every day. The Egyptian-born immigrant has followed events in his native land closely on television, the Internet and on the phone, speaking with relatives daily. As much as he is pleased about the possibility for genuine change, he is highly skeptical and worried about the days ahead. “There is no way I thought Mubarak would fall,” he said in a recent interview. “When I saw the kids in the streets I thought, it won’t work. I was as surprised as anyone at what happened.” Abdelhady admits to affection for Mubarak from the time he still lived in Egypt but not for the people Mubarak surrounded himself with. “The problems in Egypt go back a long way, before Mubarak, before Sadat,” he said, referring to the assassinated leader, famous for making peace with Israel. “Now I am scared about what happens tomorrow, what replaces Mubarak; maybe it will be worse.”
Abdelhady thinks the demonstrators should have accepted Mubarak’s offer to resign after the September elections to give the country time to organize political parties and new institutions to handle political changes and keep things moving in a positive direction. “Things are worse now, schools and businesses are closed. Who is going to give people money, who’s going to support people? I wouldn’t recommend visiting there at this time,” he said. He acknowledged that he and his wife and three children have traveled to Egypt frequently over the 22 years since he first came to America, more so since he established his successful business six years ago.
For Abdelhady there must be street-level change in the way Egyptians operate before real opportunity can be created for the average citizen. “In Egypt everything is who you know and who you are. Otherwise you have to pay to get anything, a passing grade in school, a driver’s license, or to get on a soccer team; there is corruption at every level,” he said. Police are especially abusive, always demanding privileges and threatening people with jail, according to Abdelhady, who recalled a simple traffic incident, which would have resulted in his arrest and possible imprisonment, were it not for his American passport.
The “100 percent Muslim” man smiles at the memory of being sworn in as a citizen a month after the 9/11 tragedy and having the judge say how happy she was to do it. Except for a couple of minor exceptions, Abdelhady said he experienced mainly friendly, supportive reactions to his presence in the community in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan. “I love America,” he said, as he swept his right arm up from the table to take in his restaurant. “This is everything I dreamed of. This country and the people have been very good to me. Here, there is fairness, compared to Egypt. Here everyone is treated the same. If a cop stops you and asks for your license, it’s the same for everybody. You know how you will be treated. It is the same in my restaurant; everybody is treated the same. Not in Egypt.”
Abdelhady’s view of his adopted country isn’t romanticized. He worked long hours, “eight days a week,” when he first arrived in New Jersey from the small town of Sheiben el Kohom, a one-hour drive south of Cairo. He cleaned dishes and bussed tables, eventually moving to restaurants in the Poughkeepsie Galleria where the manager of the Fishkill Holiday Inn saw a hard worker and offered him a job. He said he worked there in all aspects of the business for 15 years, never receiving raises, sometimes feeling exploited, but also meeting many nice people and learning many things before his savings and loans from friends enabled him to open his business.
The American businessman, who has invested in three condos in Egypt, also points out that Egypt has terrible widespread poverty without the American safety nets of unemployment benefits, food stamps, Medicaid or Social Security. “Here the government takes care of its people, not there,” he said. He relates stories of encountering someone he knows who hadn’t seen a chicken in a year, a man who wept when he dropped a watermelon during an argument because his kids had been asking for one for so long, or another man who struggled just to obtain water so his family could shower.
As Egyptians of all social strata wrestle with questions about an appropriate political system and, perhaps more importantly, an invigorated economy, Abdelhady offers basic prescriptions for reform. “They should get the money back from all the big government people who stole and not worry about sending them to jail. Use the money to open factories so people can work, so kids have a chance to do better. Egypt has a lot of money but the government people take it for themselves.” Abdelhady thinks the Egyptian work ethic could also stand some improvement. “The kids in Egypt look to America for the clothes, the music, the lifestyle. They don’t see all the American kids who work when they are teen-agers. They need to learn to go out and do something to make things better.”
Politically, he would like to see a two-term limitation on the president’s office similar to the U.S. provision. But more importantly, he believes Egypt needs to embrace the idea that government officeholders are supposed to help the people. Above all, Abdelhady counsels patience as change unfolds in Egypt. He knows that will be hard. “People have to be calm as things work out. They have to learn to respect each other so there can be fairness for everyone,” he said. “I hope before I die Egypt will be a better place; it’s a beautiful country,” said the 47-year old entrepreneur who is making plans to open additional restaurants in America.
Meanwhile, as he watches events in Egypt unfold, Jimmy Abdelhady basks in the warm embrace of his neighbors and patrons. “I love Cold Spring; people have checked with me, asking about my family, wanting to know if they are safe. It’s great.”