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“The plane might have fallen, but Egypt will never fall,” declared famous Egyptian actor Hussein Fahmy at the opening ceremony of the 37th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) on Nov. 11, alluding to Metrojet Flight 9268, which had crashed 12 days earlier after departing from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Little did he know that terrorism would again be the main topic at the festival, when only two days later news alerts began popping up on people’s cell phones about the horrors of the Paris attacks. Among French nationals in attendance worrying about friends and family at home were producer Anne-Dominique Toussaint, Cannes head of PR Christine Aime and journalist Frederic Ponsard.
There was an official minute of silence at a gala screening on Saturday for the victims in Paris and a deadly bombing in Beirut one day prior, but the attacks were a subject most at the festival avoided discussing. The festival was already on high terrorist alert, with metal detectors, police and canine units at every hotel and venue. With tourism in Egypt — a vital source of the country’s income — at a historic low even before the plane bombing, there is a sense of quiet perseverance.
When asked though, Egyptians were open in their condemnation for the terrorists and solidarity with the victims.
“Culture and civilization is the only way to preserve humanity,” says festival president Magda Wassef, whose connection with CIFF dates back to 1985, when she became its Paris representative. “This is a war not between Islam and Christianity, but between civilization and barbarity.”
Wassef, who says that the daughter of personal friends was among the victims at the Bataclan concert hall, also shows sympathy for a renewed focus on border-safety in Europe: “I think it’s very difficult to [keep] open all the borders. I think that the Schengen agreement [that created a borderless EU] must be revoked,” adding that she hopes that Syrian refugees will still be accepted.
Director Bassam Chekhes (To All Naked Men), who is originally from Syria but has been living in the Netherlands for the last 25 years, agrees: “National security and personal freedom are two important issues. What do we have to do to secure our borders? But does the end justify the means? If you believed that those [refugees] who cross the sea should be saved, those are your values. If that’s still what you believe, the next question is: who is responsible for such an act? But to say just because what happened in Paris, we are not going to help anymore — that is a very strange way of reasoning, at least in my opinion.”
Others, like actress Dalia Elbehiry, share these sentiments but have more confrontational opinions when it comes to the origins of the Paris attacks: “The British and the Americans are sending dollars to support [ISIS],” she says, equating Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s opposition forces with the Islamic State and questioning why the deadly bombing in Beirut just one day prior went almost unnoticed by the international media. Ending her interview by calling president Obama “the biggest terrorist on earth,” she echoed a sentiment some hold that American and western interventionism in Arab countries is to blame for the terror “blowback” now hitting France.
More sympathetic reactions came from young Egyptians like Sarah Bessada, who was educated in Cairo’s French community and now works for an American company in Cairo. “There is a difference between terrorists and innocent people — even though it might be hard to distinguish between them,” she says. “But I understand that [Europeans] want to protect their countries.”
Karim Eid, a 25-year-old graduate student working as a jury-coordinator at the festival, concurs. When asked about Europe’s reaction to the attack, including closed borders, a stepped up bombing campaign in Syria and closer supervision of Muslim communities, he says with more than a hint of regret in his voice: “Europe’s reaction? I think it’s right.”
Behind these sentiments is the fear that there is more to come, most directly expressed by 22-year-old director Kawthar Younis, whose feature-length debut A Present from the Past got her a special screening at the festival. “I think it’s going to be a World War III. Now that it’s going to Europe, I think terrorism is going to spread out even more,” she says. “All the little attacks are part of a bigger picture. In Egypt it’s normal to have these attacks. We’ve become dulled to this. But when it’s a country somewhat more civilized than a third world country, there is a difference.”
She adds: “I see this going to happen to another [European] country in the coming months.” Asked about the high number of civilian casualties expected from increased efforts to bomb ISIS, she responds with candid resignation: “For me as an Egyptian, I’ve been feeling numbed to this. Because lots of innocent people die every day.”
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