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04/08/11

FROM UMD TO CAIRO: BEING IN THE MIDDLE OF AN UPRISING

By Fariba Amini (source: University of Maryland)

Two people from UMD speak about their experience while in Egypt.

The Nile, Pharaohs and now Tahrir Square evoke iconic symbols representing the fascinating country of Egypt which, like many of its neighbors, is going through major upheaval. When young people came to Tahrir Square and demanded change, no one could have predicted that in a few weeks Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, ruler for 32 years, would be forced to leave and so quickly.

Tahrir means liberation in Arabic, and the square became the scene of daily protests by ordinary citizens who demanded liberation from authoritarian rule. Many Americans, including UMD alumni and professors, were near the uprising as it unfolded.

Despite its appearance on the map, Egypt is a rather small country, confined as it is to the Nile valley where all of its 80 million people are clustered together. It has few resources other than tourism, some oil and the Suez Canal whose control was a major dispute between the world powers in the 1950’s. It is one of the poorer countries in the Middle East with 20% of Egyptians living under the poverty line and a 9.7% unemployment rate.

Cairo, Egypt’s capital, is a bustling cosmopolitan city visited by millions of foreigners as tourists, educators and scholars.

Among those living and working in Cairo is UMD alumnus Robert Stolz. A graduate of government and politics, he also studied Arabic through which he completed the Arabic Flagship Program earning a certificate after obtaining a 2.5 level proficiency rating on the ILR scale.

After graduating he went back to Egypt where he teaches English at an American high school. In Cairo he feels secure, whereas in Northwest D.C. he was once robbed at gunpoint.

“Cairo is still safe, even despite the circumstances,” said Stolz. “Never mind the excitement of it all.”

He saw with his own eyes, how Egyptians took to the streets, first in protest and then in celebration, sweeping and cleaning the public spaces.

“Never before in my 2 1/2 years of living in Egypt have I seen anything like what I saw around TahrirSquare,” Stolz said. “There were Egyptians from all socioeconomic backgrounds celebrating as far as the eye could see, but more significant to me was the army of youth, armed with brooms and trash bags cleaning the city.”

In Egypt and especially in Cairo, littering is a real problem. People throw garbage onto the streets without mercy. But things changed drastically after the uprising.

“Egyptians tell me throwing trash in the streets is symbolic of the people's attitude toward their government,” explained Stolz. Egyptians keep the inside of their homes clean, but the street, that belonged to the government-a government they despised.”

More surprising to him was to see that women, both young and old, were sweeping the streets, something that has traditionally been a man’s job.

Having knowledge of the language and being able to speak and hold a mature conversation has been a real asset to Stolz in his day-to-day encounters.

“Knowing Arabic makes life ten times easier. But more important than the convenience factor, it has enabled me to learn so much more about the people and their culture than ever would have been possible,” Stolz said. “When I have a great conversation with an intelligent person who speaks no English, it is very rewarding to know it never could have happened otherwise.”

We also had a chance to catch up with UMD assistant professor of Middle Eastern history, Peter Wien, who was also in Cairo with his family on a research trip when the uprising broke out. He decided to leave and returned to the U.S. on February 11. Wien is the author of “Iraqi Arab Nationalism: Authoritarian, Totalitarian and Pro-Fascist Inclinations.”


Below is an excerpt of our conversation with Dr. Wien:
Q: What was the nature of your research?

Professor Wien: I was doing a research project funded by UMD and our history department, part of a larger book project on the history of Arab nationalism from its cultural perspectives. Part of my research emphasizes on the world of museums in the national consciousness, in particular the museums of Cairo. I had a special interest in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, which is one of the leading museums of its kind in the world and has a fairly large collection.

Q: Did you witness any of the events?

Professor Wien: I was living in an apartment less than a mile from Tahrir Square with my family. It was close to many government buildings and the Ministry of Interior. During the first two days from January 28 - 29, I witnessed large-scale violence. From our apartment and our balcony, we could see young people attacking blockades that were protecting the ministries. Stones were thrown. You could see tear gas and hear rubber bullets being fired. It was pretty violent for a number of days.

Q: Did you fear for your life?

Professor Wien: Yes and no. I never felt personally in danger but there were moments when I was seriously worried. For a few days there were constant shootings around the building. There was an army helicopter flying over our apartment while some looting was taking place on our street on the very first day. There were also rumors about thugs and gangs going through individual apartments. I have to say like most other foreigners I was not involved. At times it felt depressing.

For Egyptians and the few foreigners who participated, it was exciting, fearsome and an enthusiastic experience.

Q: As a historian would you say this was coming? Were you surprised?

Professor Wien: These are two different questions.I can definitely say it was coming. It was long overdue. If I say the opposite I would envision the Middle Eastern people or the Arab people as passive and submissive under totalitarian rule but I don’t think this is the case. As an analyst, a historian and someone who follows political discourse, I would argue that it was something that was about to happen especially in the case of Egypt a society where its political climate experienced a lot of frustration and oppression, but a fairly lively public sphere and an active civil society and political activism. The pressure had been mounting and it was not de-politicized and totally oppressed population. Before the uprising nobody was predicting that it would happen at that time. After what happened in Tunisia in early January, many of the foreigners I had been speaking to said it is not going to happen in Egypt. Egypt is a totally different case. There is no strong tradition of street protest in Egypt and Egyptians are more passive. Of course, they were proven wrong.

Q: Is Egypt on the road to democratization? Or is that wishful thinking in the West especially among the many analysts and commentators?

Professor Wien: It depends on the time range.In the long run it is. What is most definite is that it cannot go back to the status quo. The old regime is gone and with it the Mubarak family and the small circle that were pulling the strings. But do we have a quick transition to democracy? No. What we believe in the Western hemisphere-pluralistic society, security and respect for the rule of law-won’t happen right away. It will take a while for institutions to gain legitimacy, for elections, for political processes to run smoothly. There are still many obstacles. In the short term, the most important is the upcoming elections. A referendum and public vote on the modification of the Constitution have already taken place. But there is a military regime in place which can manipulate, control and slow down the process of democratization. There is likelihood that we will see the regime moving to authoritarian oversight. After the elections, freedom of press, freedom of public discourse will have to play in. Most definitely, it cannot go back to what it was before.

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