RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Mubarak is Gone; Coke Stays

Every now and then, I think I should read more fiction. I should pick up a John Grisham novel or the latest Harry Potter or something in the vampire genre. Just to keep a finger in the action, you know.

Then something amazing happens like the Cairo Revolution or Coup, whatever history may call it, and I remember that, yeah, truth is stranger.

Here’s the plot: The most powerful government in the world, maybe even an empire, sends one big check after another to an ally in a strange place to pay (the Superpower would think) for some kind of information and security for the government and its friends in the region. Then, under the leadership of unarmed, geeky, but very smart youngsters, the alien kids communicate by a secret technology, meet in the most important and historic venue and, with only the most archaic weapons — rocks and voices, and that strange technology, achieve a regime change that baffles the powerful world. Good versus evil? Hidden puppeteers? Stay tuned!

We were snowed in the entire week all this started, so we got our news via the TV rather than the written press. But that, today, means we were watching BBC, Al Jazeera, France 24 and PBS. And, oh yeah, the standard bearers for US fiction — ABC, NBC and CBS.

After the first couple of days, when the US showed its cluelessness, all the media pretty much agreed on the plot, but the images were riveting. We knew the kids had won the second the police pulled out the water cannons: Bad TV, reminiscent of the US Civil Rights movement. Boo! Then came the rock throwing. Biblical.

And the guy on the galloping camel. Cool and gawky! Another Yay! Bring on the horses! Cue Joshua and the trumpeteers … where are they?

And, finally, the cleaners. In this detail, the Egyptian kids showed their differences. We can’t even get American kids to pick up their rooms, use the trash barrels on Earth Day, or take their blankets home from a rock concert in the park. The cleaners got my vote as the most interesting detail of the entire week.

So the show was like reality TV organized by Disney, but some of the images are troubling. Take, for example, the huge Coca Cola sign on the hill behind Christiane Amanpour’s balcony. Amanpour won the Sunday morning pundocracy hands down with a program on Feb. 6 that took viewers onto the streets and into the government offices to deliver interviews from all sides. It was a terrific show, but when the crew filmed her being reportorial on the hotel balcony, there was a huge Coca Cola sign on the hill behind her.

So, the government changed — maybe. At least the protestors have left the square, which is what the government wanted. So there’s been an understanding. But do the kids see the messages behind the American logos? Coca Cola bottlers use huge amounts of water and deliver cavities, diabetes and obesity with their sugary drinks. Is this a problem in an arid and impoverished land?

If Amanpour had moved just a few feet, or hung a curtain behind her, or picked a different balcony, we would never have thought about American corporations in Egypt. But that sign made us look for others. Sure enough, there was an Avis sign on the street and some of the fighting was caught by cameras in front of McDonald’s. McDonald’s and Avis are probably necessities in a country that depends on tourism, but how do they impact the national identity? How do American food companies impact Egypt’s self-sufficiency?

It depends, of course, on what the Cairo kids want to achieve. These are, after all, Egyptians with degrees from American colleges. They wanted to end the Mubarak administration with its torture and lack of democracy. Done. And they wanted to put themselves in charge. After that, the demands get fuzzy and there’s as much dissent as agreement among the winners.

But that huge Coca Cola sign, like a huge Big Brother on the hill, makes us wonder whether government really matters. Or whether it matters the way we thought, with We The People voting and making policy. Government depends more on belief in government than on the reality. The real policy makers can be Coca Cola, Avis and Mickey D’s. In fact, those symbols can seem like freedom if they run the correct advertisements. Even if they just hold the gate open for the next round of imports.

Egypt is, we have heard, the second-largest recipient of American aid. This aid went to Mubarak, the guy that’s now out of power. But, as long as American corporations benefit, the lobbyists will be lined up for new trade agreements. And that’s something you never see in fiction.

Margot McMillen farms and teaches English in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2011

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