N.Va. cafe becomes destination for gossip and debate over Egypt's fate

Brothers Ahmed Awad and Mohamed Ibrahim moved to Virginia from Egypt over a decade ago. One way they keep connected to their home country, and the current uprising, is the Cairo Cafe in Alexandria.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 10:31 PM

For days, people have been congratulating Eman Lotfy, a 24-year-old immigrant from Egypt, on her homeland's uprising.

"I hope your revolution never ends," declared a Sudanese woman who came in to Lotfy's family-owned establishment, the Cairo Cafe, in Alexandria (Virginia, not Egypt).

The cafe's television has been on constantly, flipping between Arabic-language news stations as rapt patrons from across the Arab world sucked on hookahs and excitedly debated whether their own country would be next.

"We are thrilled to see what's going on in Egypt," Basel Alchaar, 50, an Annandale resident from Syria, said as he played cards and watched television Tuesday night. "We want this to happen all across the Middle East."

But it's one thing to cheer a revolution from the sidelines. It's something else to have the flames licking at your front door.

For Lotfy, whose family moved here from Egypt more than a decade ago, the chaos has been more frightening than inspiring.

"Everyone's depressed. People are crying, seeing Cairo on fire," she said. "Alexandria is a disaster. . . . I have people saying 'Congratulations on your country,' which really amazes me. What are you congratulating me on? My country's on fire, and you come to congratulate me?"

Although no Egyptians at the cafe expressed sympathy for longtime President Hosni Mubarak, many said they feared that the instability could bring harder times for the country. Coptic Christians said their families are planning to leave if Islamists take control of the government. Muslims, too, said they were concerned about that possibility.

"It's scary, because we really don't know what the future will hold," said Mohamed Ibrahim, 29, who had come to the cafe with his brother, Ahmed Awad. "We don't have a firm government to take over in case the current government resigns."

The brothers, who moved here 11 years ago, told of an uncle in Cairo who has parked himself in the street to protect his neighborhood from looters.

"The bottom line is, it's bad," said Awad, 30. "My mom is scared about her family. We call every day. Politics, we're not really involved with it. I'm against the revolution. It's really against everything I believe in. But I can understand why it happened . . . [Mubarak's] ego kind of overtook him."

While some lamented the uprising and others celebrated it, the Cairo Cafe has been a place to connect over the extraordinary events back home. It is the main topic of discussion as people play backgammon or komkan, a Middle Eastern card game: Will Mubarak stay or will he go? What is happening in Jordan and Yemen? What does it mean for the rest of the region?

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