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

By Tara Bahrampour
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?

"Once one Middle Eastern government gets involved, all others get involved," said Laurene Ghaleb, 24, a Lebanese woman who lives not far from the cafe. "Middle Eastern people in general, they all stand by each other. Everyone in Lebanon is concerned about what consequences it brings to our government."

And, she added, "they want to make sure that the Egyptians really do overthrow their government."

Mohammad Mehdi, 37, an Iraqi journalist living in Alexandria, looked up from his backgammon board with a big grin. "We are very happy to see all these dominoes fall," he said, "starting with Tunisia," where President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was swept from power a few weeks ago by mass demonstrations.

Even among Egyptians here, Awad and Ibrahim admit they are a minority. Most of their Egyptian friends here are elated, they said, and the fierce arguments they've had have led to "a dead end."

Now, sipping Nescafe and puffing on a guava-flavored hookah, Awad said he just wants it to be over "so people don't die."

Across the United States, Egyptians described a range of emotions. Patricia Mechael, an international affairs professor at Columbia University, has been in daily contact with relatives holed up in their apartment one block from Tahrir Square, the center of the uprising.

While Mechael said she is excited for Egypt, her relatives' experience has been "petrifying."

"One of my cousins' cars was lit on fire," she said, adding that food was running out and banks were being robbed. "My cousin is saying, 'We haven't showered in days, we're glued to the TV, we're looking out the window to see what is happening.' "

Mechael said her family, which is Christian, fears a takeover by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and is considering leaving the country. "It depends on the process, on if they feel they have a voice or not," she said.

Others longed to head to Egypt, not flee it.

Karim Chrobog, 32, an Egyptian German documentary filmmaker who lives in the District, said several of his friends there are taking part in the demonstrations. He and other ex-pats are envious.

"If we had a chance just to be there, to be part of it," Chrobog said. "But it's a pipe dream - most of the flights are canceled. It's history in the making, so you'd like to be there."

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