Egyptians cheer Rami Malek's Oscar win but wonder: Could he have done it here?

Monday, February 25, 2019

CAIRO -- When Rami Malek on Sunday became the first Egyptian American to win a best actor Oscar, Nesma Nasr experienced an unfamiliar jolt of inspiration. She felt that she, too, could succeed -- if she left her homeland.

"His winning made me feel like I have a hope," said Nasr, a 28-year-old designer. "If one day I traveled outside Egypt, I could accomplish something on my own because I have been crushed in all ways here, and I still can't see a ray of light."

Egypt, the Arab world's most-populous country, is grappling with an economy buckling under painful austerity measures, persistent corruption and growing political repression. Tourism, a pillar of the country's economy and foreign currency reserves, remains anemic, undermined by terrorist attacks and the government's authoritarian practices.

Against this backdrop, Malek's victory provides a rare boost for the country's image, especially because the "Bohemian Rhapsody" star acknowledged his Egyptian roots in his Oscar acceptance speech. State media in Egypt reported his Oscar win widely, proudly noting how his father kept his U.S.-born son connected to Egyptian culture and his extended family in the town of Samalut, 250 miles south of the capital, Cairo. Malek's family belongs to Egypt's Coptic minority.

Yet Malek's success in the United States is also a reminder to many Egyptians, especially its young people, of the lack of opportunities in their homeland, as well as the social restrictions prevailing in the largely conservative society.

In a Facebook post, blogger and activist Wael Eskandar wrote that "the true value" of Malek and Mohamed Salah, Egypt's best-known soccer star, who plays for the Liverpool club in Britain, "is that they represent hope."

"They prove what we've believed deep in our hearts that we are capable of better, that we deserve better but are bogged down by our rulers and governments," Eskandar wrote. "The real value of Rami Malek's win is possibilities, that even if we're held back by all the forces that tell us we can't do anything, it's possible that we can do better when given a chance."

Many Egyptians, though, don't believe they will get such a chance in today's climate.

"Had Rami Malek been here, he would have been working in an Internet cafe. Oh God, let us immigrate," tweeted a person who went by the name Ghada.

Others noted that if Malek had played the flamboyant and openly gay Queen singer Freddie Mercury in an Egyptian film, the actor would probably have been arrested and imprisoned by President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi's government, which has persecuted gay people. In January, an Egyptian television journalist was handed a 12-month prison sentence merely for interviewing a gay man on his show.

"Freddie died almost 30 years ago and what is left of him is beautiful (his music) and he deserves to be known for it," tweeted Breathing Art in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. "And Rami, had he played this role in Egypt, he would have been jailed and humiliated."

Other Egyptians went even further: "If he were still in this country, he would have been a tuktuk driver or be hanging from a rope," Hamed Kabbara tweeted.

Still, some older Egyptians held out hope that Malek's win would help Egypt.

"Of course, his winning is impressive and inspiring for us," said Ayman Abulhassan, a 59-year-old doctor. "It certainly will post a very good image of Egypt. His roots are Egyptian. And Egypt is the root of civilization, even if it is passing through a dark time now."

Nasr, who is from the same governorate where Malek's relatives live, said she came to Cairo to earn a master's degree. Today, she works two jobs but notes: "My income is not even covering my expenses. The economic situation here crushed any possibility for anyone to start a small business."

She said she hopes that Malek's win "changes how others see Egyptians and that it will stop many from thinking that Egyptians are failures."