Shama, from Rutgers, studied abroad in Egypt and Morocco in the Spring 2011 semester. While in Egypt she witnessed the Egyptian Revolution firsthand and wrote about it in the opinion section of her university’s newspaper.
When I came to study abroad in Cairo, I did not expect to find myself in the center of the largest revolution Egypt has seen in decades, a movement that may very well change the future of the country and its role in the world. I could not have chosen a more momentous time to learn about key issues in Egypt and witness the beginning of a vital regime change.
We were told, on Jan. 25, that Egyptians would hold demonstrations on the streets inspired by the overthrow of the government in Tunisia. We had no idea this day would lead to thousands of people gathering in the streets to demand the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak who has been in office for 27 years. And what was expected to be a single day of rallying turned into over a week of revolts with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathering day after day. Egyptians captured the headlines of every major news network and turned the heads of people all around the world.
Most of the demonstrations in Cairo are taking place downtown in Tahrir Square — or Liberation Square — which is two metro stops away from, Dokki, where I lived.
Dokki was far less chaotic but even so, protestors and looters passed through our streets, military fighter jets roared above our balconies and we were falling asleep to the sounds of tear gas and gunfire erupting all around the city. Gunshots reverberated on our sidewalks and at times we could not even have our lights on as a safety precaution.
It was difficult being under house arrest for four straight days, uncertain of what would happen next and cut off from communication with the outside world. We had no access to the Internet at all or even our cell phones at times. The television at least worked and we spent the days camped out in front of Al-Jazeera. We watched protesters set fire to government buildings and police cars, were beat up by police, shot by rubber bullets and smothered with tear gas.
Any political activity that involves more than five people is illegal in Egypt and we were prohibited from participating in the demonstrations or even leaving our apartments. Our program coordinator Salma told us, “This is not your fight,” and she is right. As Americans, we could only watch and express our support for the protesters who are fighting so courageously to end the dictatorship of Mubarak. The kind of solidarity that Egyptians displayed is something Americans can only hope to achieve one day. After the Egyptian police deserted their posts and looters began scavenging the streets, ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to protect their neighbors by guarding the roads. Women took to directing traffic during the day. Our doormen stayed up all night with rifles, machetes and swords. Can you imagine Americans doing that for one another? I have never seen such national unity in my life, not even after 9/11.
Egyptians were not lead by an individual or a party. They gathered out of popular anti-government expression and kept growing in numbers. They were not divided by religion. Egyptian Christians attended juma prayers and vowed to protect Muslims from the police. Egyptians around the world have shown their support for their people by holding their own protests in front of Egyptian embassies. It is a movement of solidarity. The only defining identity is they are all Egyptian and fighting for the country they love.
Mubarak addressed the nation and announced that he refuses to step down until the next election but is replacing the current government. But in Egypt, public power is concentrated in the president and until he is gone, they will not see real reform. Mubarak stated that the protests took place because of the political freedom in Egypt — a blatant lie. Hundreds have been arrested, more than 150 Egyptians are dead, media has been censored, citizens and journalists have been beat up, communications were shut off and the government set curfews to keep people off the streets. The army was given the order on Jan. 30 to open fire on protesters. This is not political freedom — it’s political oppression. It’s governmental terrorism.
It’s time for the United States to make some tough calls and decide which side of history it will stand on. Mubarak has been a longtime ally but the United States needs to stick up for the values it preaches, including free and fair elections and basic human rights. These do not exist in Egypt and we can’t continue to support a regime that ignores the needs of its people and refuses to move forward. President Barack Obama’s election is the perfect example of what is achievable when citizens come together and demand change. This is Egypt’s “Yes we can” moment. It’s time for Obama to live up to his words. No Muslim has forgotten the powerful speech he gave when he first visited Cairo as president about improving relations with the Muslim world. Now is the time to do just that.
It has been amazing to witness the uprising of Egypt firsthand. The fact that people all over the globe have been voicing their support for Egyptians shows the magnitude of what is happening right now and what can happen when people come together to demand change. In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”