In downtown Providence last weekend, protesters raised their voices for Egypt: “From the Nile to the sea, Egyptian people will be free,” they chanted. But the campaign to end Hosni Mubarak’s rule didn’t start here. And really, it didn’t even start in Egypt.
Fares Horchani, a Tunisian college student currently in Boston, says the message of protest spread across online networks in Tunisia before spilling outside the country’s borders.
“Television and newspapers didn’t show us what was going on down the street, they were controlled by the government,” he says. “So all the anti-government protests started online. And people shared videos, notes…so everyone in Tunisia and abroad could see what was happening, exactly.”
After the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s government, similar protests erupted in Yemen, Jordan, and, of course, Egypt.
“As soon as Bin-Ali in Tunisia was ousted, we knew it was gonna happen,” says Ray Mohamed, an Egyptian-American student at UMass Amherst. “As soon as we saw Tunisia on the news, it was just a matter of time, and when we saw the protests on TV for the first time, on CNN, we knew it was beginning.”
When he first saw chatter about an uprising online, Mohamed thought it was just kids playing around. But as he and the rest of the world soon saw, the demonstrators in Cairo, Alexandria, and all across the country meant business. Shaun Joseph, one of the organizers of yesterday’s protest, says the political unrest will effect a shockwave of change.
“What’s going on in Egypt now,” he told the protest attendees, “is going to change the course of not just U.S. policy, but world history from here on in.”
Mohamed says he has mixed feelings about the protests because they lack a leader or a clear direction moving forward.
“I’m happy that change is occurring, but the price that Egypt is going to have to pay is very high,” he says. “This is only the beginning, I think, of a very, very long and arduous road for them to become a democratic country, if it happens. I’m a bit pessimistic, unfortunately. Even if the president leaves power, and the people get what they want, the true struggle is going to come when the time has come to decide who’s going to be the leader.”
That may be true, but for one local Egyptian-American, any change is probably good. Community College of Rhode Island professor Naglaa Gaafar lived in Egypt until she was 27, and speaks of Mubarak as a longtime deceiver of his people.
“It’s sad, although Egypt is advertised as a republic, a democratic republic, there’s a huge difference between the democracy that we enjoy over here, in the United States, and the democracy under Mubarak,” she says. “I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a democracy, it’s a dictatorship in a democratic cloak.”
Gaafar adds that over the past 30 years, the Mubarak regime psychologically enslaved its citizens.
“I’m feeling that they’ve convinced the Egyptian people that they are worthless for the longest time, and they [the people] believed them,” Gaafar says. “But right now, they feel like they’re making history, and they’re free–they had eight days of freedom! And they like it. And they want it, forever.”
Another local student saw first-hand the difference between freedom and terror. Amanda Labora studies history at Brown University and flew to Egypt in early January for a study abroad program in Arabic and cultural immersion. She says Americans take for granted their freedoms and access to an accountable government.
“It’s hard to understand, I’m sure, from the States if you haven’t been there, what it must feel like to be afraid of the police, to be afraid of the government,” Labora says. “Here, you can call 911, and someone will come and help you. I was never afraid of ordinary Egyptians, in fact they were the people that protected me in the civilian militias and ensured my safety. I was terrified of the Egyptian police.”
However, Labora is quick to point out that her eyewitness experience only counts for so much.
“What is important for us now is to be listening to what Egyptians are asking for. I was there, I was a witness and I saw this happen, but I think it doesn’t really matter what I think happens. I think we need, as Americans, to be looking to what the Egyptian people are asking for, and that’s a very difficult question to answer.”
It may be a long slog ahead, but overall, Professor Gaafar says the Egyptians are asking for something very simple: their own freedom.
“I’ve lived here for 13 years, and I didn’t really know the meaning of democracy until I came here,” she says. “It gave me a great sense of self. I’ve always been saddened that they don’t have that in Egypt. You know, my friends and my family, my nieces, the older kids are not going to grow up with that, so I’m really proud of what’s happening right now. But I don’t want anything less for my people. This is not a revolution calling for, or a protest against, a foreign policy that they don’t like. They are protesting for their own livelihood, for their own way of living, and their dignity. And their request is simple: we want democracy and we want it now. And I think they deserve it.”
The only thing we know is that we don’t know what’s next for Egypt and all the other Arab countries currently in revolt. For those of us thousands of miles away here in New England, all we can do is watch, wait, and hope.
Gillian Chu contributed to this report.