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Egypt’s Marathon

This week, Nadia El-Awady draws comparisons between running a marathon and the Egyptian quest for democracy.

Three days ago I ran a 10-kilometer race here in the UK where I’m based for a few weeks. This was my second race ever. The day before the race, I was glued to my laptop all day long watching the mass demonstrations that were going on in Cairo that Friday. I was very upset by the goings-on in Egypt. The country seemed to be dividing into ‘the Islamists’ and ‘everyone else’. The language used by many on either side was offensive and divisive. The messages relayed pointed to there being an “us” and “them”, while each “us” claimed to have truth and justice on their side. Egypt looked like it was crumbling.

Protests in front of Cairo University
Protests in Tahrir

Everything I saw that Friday demotivated me. And this was reflected in my 10 km race the next day. After running well and strong for one kilometer, I just suddenly gave up. The feelings I had about the race were the same I had about my country: It’s over. This is too hard. I can’t do this anymore. I won’t do this anymore.

I was in the middle of a forest. The trail the race followed took us through this forest twice. In the beginning, middle, and end of the race we ran through the racetrack of a sports center. I had given up, but I had no choice but to move forward until I reached the sports center some four kilometers away.

Instead of jogging, I walked. Slowly. Coughing. I was exhausted. It was a mental exhaustion. My body was fine. But my willpower to push forward was gone.

A large group of runners passed me. They were the fit group. Watching them run by all able-bodied and energetic just demotivated me more. I’d never be as fit as that. I’d never be as good as them.

Then other, slower, less-fit people started passing me. One woman, overweight and probably just a bit older than me, looked at me as she passed by and asked if I was OK. I nodded my head but could not even smile. She continued forward at her slow pace.

I dragged my feet along the forest trail, not looking at people as they passed, thinking how useless it was for me to get out of bed this morning and into the cold, sub-zero temperature air. Then I saw two women jog very slowly beside me. They were a bit younger than me. It was obvious this was their first race. They were both gorgeous women but were clearly not regular joggers. They were both panting. One said to the other, “Come on. We can do this.”

Something woke up inside of me upon hearing this. These two women were not athletes. They were not particularly fit. They were struggling. But they kept with each other, they encouraged each other, and they continued on at the slow pace they were able to hold.

I decided I’d try to jog in their general vicinity and try to keep pace with them. They were determined to move along even if they were very slow and were struggling. I should be able to at least make an effort to try to do what they were doing.

I started jogging again, very slowly at first. But then I picked up my pace ever so slightly and passed the two women. I noticed an Asian man who was quite overweight just ahead of me. I wouldn’t have taken him for a jogger or someone who even goes to the gym. But this man, probably in his 30s, was looking forward, his music in his ears, and kept moving his legs, up and down, up and down. I thought, “I’ll try to keep pace with this man. If I can just manage to keep the distance between us and follow him, maybe I’ll be able to do this.” Every time I felt like giving up, I’d look up at the Asian man ahead of me. He was still going. He wasn’t giving up. “Well, then I won’t…yet,” I thought. I continued to hear the two women a bit behind me and I had this man ahead of me. As long as I had them around me I felt safe. I felt like I might be able to do this.

Eventually I felt myself get a second wind. I was able to pick up my pace. I passed the Asian man. Then I passed the man and woman who were jogging while holding each other’s hands and while wearing Santa hats. It looked like the man was jogging beside his wife to encourage her to keep going. All this time, I had seen two women far ahead of me. They were both jogging solo. The blonde was well ahead of the brunette who was well ahead of me. I picked up my pace. Eventually I passed the brunette. The blonde was jogging slowly but steadily. She was my target. If I could just reach her or keep up with her from a short distance… She moved steadily forward. And then she started walking as we reached an incline. I did too. I can’t jog up inclines. They are too hard. So I walked as quickly as my legs would take me. The ground eventually leveled. The blonde woman began jogging again and so did I. I eventually caught up with her just as she had begun walking again. I grabbed her arm and said, “No. You keep going! You can do this! You’ve been my motivation!” She laughed and acquiesced. We jogged together for a bit as we neared the end of the race. She eventually said she needed to slow down and for me to go ahead. I did, feeling guilty that I was unable to push this woman who so motivated me throughout much of the race.

She wasn’t the only one. Halfway through the race I saw a 50-something-year-old man limping by. He was way ahead of me. He was leaving the stadium for the second 5 kilometers just as I was entering it. It looked as if he had a stroke at some stage in his life. It wasn’t holding him back. I also saw a 70-something-year old woman who was running the race. She was way behind me, running at a slow pace. She seemed not to care about her pace. She just kept moving along. And the overweight woman who asked if I was all right at the beginning of the race. We were jogging in opposite directions almost halfway through the race; she had finished one part that I was just starting. She recognized me jogging along, smiled at me, and said, “Great job! You can do this!”

I crossed the finish line that day. I was nauseated from the physical effort. But I did it with the help of so many people who were completely unaware that they helped me. And I learned many lessons.

I see this race as being symbolic for what is happening in my country, Egypt. The Egyptian people started out strong with what we felt was a successful revolution. We toppled a dictator in 18 days! Shit, we were good! We were going to have a great country that we could be proud of. Everything would be all right now. We were young. We were strong. We were ambitious. Nothing could hold us back from making Egypt the country we always longed for.

Then things started getting hard. Very hard. The political situation was becoming very difficult to understand. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t understand what was happening and why. Countries all over the world have created democracies. What do the U.S. and Europe have over us? We can sure as hell keep up with those guys! Yet we weren’t. We were falling back. And back again. And back once more. It has been so demotivating to the point that I’ve given up many times.

After my race, I now realize that democracy was never the easy option for my country. We had never trained hard enough for democracy. We never really had the chance to train for it. We hadn’t built up the endurance or the stamina for it.

If I want to be able to jog up inclines, I need to start training for them. I need to suck it up, grit on my teeth, and just do it day after day after day until I get better and better at it. It’s hard. I’ll hate doing it. But if that’s what I want to be able to do, there’s no way around the pain.

Democracy cannot happen in Egypt unless the people are willing to endure the pain of training for democracy. It’s hard. Many of us will hate doing it. But it’s the only way to get there. We just need to keep motivated despite the hardships. We need to stop looking at the athletes. We need to stop thinking: “We’ll never be as good as the Americans or the Europeans at the pace we’re going.” This is something we need to do at our own pace. We need to look at countries around us that are going through very difficult times. We need to remember the people who died for our country to become a better place. We need to look at neighboring Arab countries that have been struggling for their freedom; some for months and others for more than six decades. And when I lose hope, I need you to grab my arm, look me in the eye, and tell me, “You had better keep going, Nadia. We can do this. We can do this together.” This is the only way for Egyptians to cross the finish line.