July 1, 2011

EGYPT: Post-revolutionary old-age blues

CAIRO, Egypt / Al-Ahram Weekly / June 30 - July 6, 2011

Youthful in spirit and execution, the Egyptian revolution has sometimes aroused emotions of fear and concern amongst the elderly, writes Hanan Radwan

The 25 January Revolution seems to have exacerbated certain symptoms of old age amongst Egypt's senior population, with feelings of depression and anxiety spreading among some elderly people in the aftermath of the revolution and leading to feelings of confusion or alarm.

One case concerns 74-year-old Bahiga Hassanein, who has suffered from symptoms ranging from acute insomnia, loss of appetite and fear of the future since the outbreak of the revolution. Her blood pressure and diabetes have worsened, forcing her to take stronger medication, and her anxiety levels peak when her daughter leaves the house for work or on errands. She is only barely reassured when her daughter calls her every 15 minutes or so on her mobile phone when she is out.

Once an active person, Hassanein now spends most of her time watching the television news and commentaries, having lost the desire to leave the house or regain her social life. In some ways, her condition typifies the state of disenchantment prevalent among some elderly people over the past four months and following the revolution. The strikes and demonstrations, the increasing incidents of crime and deteriorating economic conditions have dampened the spirits of Egyptians in general, with those above the age of 65 appearing to be among the hardest hit.

"Some nights, I leave my family sitting in the living room, lock myself in my bedroom and cry," confesses Emam Moussa, 63, a retired army officer. "I've sacrificed a lot for this country, and I fought in the October 1973 War. I felt very happy and optimistic when the 25 January Revolution broke out, but now I feel that things are collapsing, and it breaks my heart," he said.

Accustomed to decades of relative political and economic stability, the elderly find today's rapid turn of events and volatile political situation particularly unsettling. "Every day we hear of a new strike or demonstration," says 65-year-old Roxanne Hashem. "Even the doctors are now abandoning their patients in order to go on strike. What do all these demonstrators want? Do they expect all their wishes to come true in a matter of weeks? Why don't they leave the army and the government to do their jobs in peace, instead of coming up with new demands every Friday," she asks.

The proliferation of satellite television news channels and the fierce debates and commentaries aired and repeated several times during the day seem to have accentuated feelings of anxiety amongst older viewers. Bassima El-Gamal, 67, concedes that excessive exposure to news and heated television discussions has left her emotionally drained.

"There are so many news channels these days, and because the competition between them is so fierce each channel tries to put out sensational news and host controversial figures." Most of the time, she adds, the programme guests shout and insult one another while pretending to be having a debate. Even if the slightest accident happens in a remote alley, you see it covered on television as though it were a national catastrophe.

"What is worse, some of the news turns out to be rumours. I don't know whom or what to believe anymore," El-Gamal says.

Even more confusing for the elderly is the escalation of crime and inadequate police protection that have taken place since the revolution. Recalling days in her youth when apartment doors were kept open all day and never locked at night, Hassanein now hears of thugs kidnapping children in broad daylight in return for ransoms and other crimes that she would never have imagined could ever take place in Egypt.

"If the policemen, who are supposed to protect us, get assaulted or killed, how are we expected to feel safe," she asks.

A common fear amongst the elderly today is the new appearance of unfamiliar and unpredictable dangers. This age category bore the brunt of upheavals such as the 1952 Revolution and the wars of 1967 and 1973. Yet, as Moussa puts it, "back then, we knew who our enemy was and could predict when that enemy would try to strike against us. Now, we don't know who is a patriot and who is trying to destroy the country. We feel we can't trust anyone anymore."

Such feelings of malaise are not uncommon amongst Egyptians of all ages. Yet, old-age blues seem to have rendered the four months of post-revolutionary Egypt especially difficult for senior citizens, who may feel that their sense of peace and safety has been jeopardised.

As people get older, their need for security increases, explains Ahmed Shawqi, a professor of psychiatry at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Citing worldwide studies, Shawqi adds that approximately 30 per cent of those above the age of 65 experience varying degrees of arterial sclerosis, an age-related disease that prevents blood from reaching important organs like the brain in adequate quantities. As a result, older people can be more prone to bouts of anger, weeping and depression.

"Under normal circumstances, an older person is easily susceptible to worry and distress, so it is understandable that such people may consider an event like a revolution as something similar to the Day of Judgement," says Shawqi.

The principles and goals of the revolution have been espoused by young and old alike. Yet, as Mohamed Eid, 80, a retired first undersecretary at the Ministry of Petroleum, comments, "we welcomed the revolution in the hope that it would rebuild our country, which we seemed to have lost for more than 30 years. But now all I see is chaos, and people destroying instead of rebuilding."

Thoughts like these have caused Eid and others from his generation who lived under the stringent rule of the army under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser to become apprehensive about the future. "If the young continue to provoke the army with their demands and the army decides to take matters more firmly in its hands, this country will suffer the harshness of military rule," Eid says.

Moussa, Hashem and Hassanein concur, acknowledging this as one of their greatest fears.

However, Shawqi responds to such views in a positive light. "The fact that older people are thinking about and debating these issues means that their minds are working actively and are being stimulated," he says. "Even though their thoughts may be negative, this is better than a situation in which they have nothing to stimulate them or take no interest in what is happening around them."

The elderly do not enjoy battling daily fears or trying to keep up with the rapid momentum of events. For many, stability can only be achieved when the strikes and demonstrations are halted and the ruling Higher Council of the Armed Forces and interim government are provided with enough elbow room and time to prosecute suspected criminals and corrupt former officials, restore order, and revive the country's ailing economy.

Yet, with the likelihood of political and economic instability persisting for some time to come, Egypt's older citizens may find themselves paying a higher price than some for the sake of change. Summing up the sentiments of those of her generation, El-Gamal says, "I wake up and go to bed not knowing what will happen next. I have never felt so insecure before. It's very hard for me to spend the last years of my life like this."

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