The lessons I learned in Cairo

Ian, from the George Washington University, participated in the Spring 2011 semester in Cairo.  A junior at the time, Ian shared his observations in the opinion section of his school’s newspaper.

From the balcony of my apartment, I could hear chants and gunshots. I saw the thick black smoke rising from the ruling party’s national headquarters. I could feel the peppery burn of tear gas in my nostrils.

There have been massive demonstrations in every major city in Egypt. In Cairo, protesters overwhelmed the police forces. The riots were so powerful that the police virtually disappeared from the streets after being replaced by the Egyptian military.

Despite a reshuffling of the cabinet and the appointment of a vice president, despite curfews in every major city, despite the deaths of more than 300 demonstrators, and despite the shuttering of the Internet and mobile phone networks, tens of thousands of protesters have taken over downtown Cairo.

But how did this happen? It seemed like the general consensus among analysts in the West was that what happened in Tunisia would not spread to Egypt. The countries were just too different. And they may prove to be right – the Egyptian military and security apparatus is much more advanced and extensive than that of Tunisia. This may make it impossible for protesters to successfully topple the regime.

The media in Tunisia was also highly censored relative to Egypt’s media, which angered Tunisians and fueled the demonstrations.

Some differences, however, may prove favorable to the opposition in Egypt. Media censorship is not as prominent as it was in Tunisia, so more Egyptians understand the reality of the political situation. They have greater access to accurate information. Knowledge is power.

Also, inequality is much more extensive in Egypt than in Tunisia. Indeed, it was the self-immolation of an unemployed graduate that started the events in Tunisia. And since then, at least 12 desperate Egyptians have set themselves on fire in a similar way.

If people do not have access to food, the most basic of human needs, then they have nothing to lose, and will be willing to do whatever it takes to survive – even if that means overthrowing a regime.

While some are saying dictators learn from unrest, they should not forget that activists learn, too. Yes, President Honsi Mubarak has been crushing protests for decades, but that means that an opposition movement has existed for the same amount of time. The opposition has learned each time its protest was crushed. And I’m not talking about the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, these demonstrations are decidedly non-religious; many Christians have been protecting mosques from police in the same way Muslims protected Coptic churches after the bombing in Alexandria, Egypt, earlier this month.

I have heard about the dire economic situation, political repression, inspiration from Tunisia and buzz about Facebook and Twitter as reasons for the Egyptians’ need to revolt. But maybe it goes deeper than all that. Maybe the network of Egyptian activists that has been growing for decades is finally starting to organize and modernize.

What happened in Tunisia seems to have sparked the unprecedented number of Egyptians in the streets, but it may not have happened without the organizational foundation that activists have been laying for decades.

Even if the protests don’t result in a revolution, they could produce a secular opposition movement able to stand up to both the regime and the Brotherhood. An opposition that strong may be the one thing Egypt needs to begin its transition to real democracy. Make no mistake – this is the beginning of the end for the Mubarak regime.

Saturday night, I watched the scenes unfold from my balcony. In the absence of police, and without enough soldiers to protect the city, ordinary Egyptians had to protect their homes from looters who had taken advantage of the chaos. One group of armed looters stole an ambulance and drove through my neighborhood, shooting at the civilian patrol group that tried to stop them. As I watched our building’s doorman shoot back, I thought about the one lesson I hope the Obama administration will learn from all of this: Regimes come and go. If we want to continue our critical partnership with Egypt, we need to be on the side of the people.

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Filed under 2011, Egypt, Politics, Spring 2011

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