By Julia Hanweck
Egypt’s now infamous January 25, 2011 “Day of Anger—Youm El Ghadab” demonstration against the 30-year Mubarak regime had originally been planned to last from only 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. No one expected such a mass movement to gain such momentum from Facebook posts and Twitter “Tweets” fueled by an internet and technologically-savvy generation living in a country where close to 50% of the citizens live in poverty.
Mr. Adel, a physician from Cairo, described how the peaceful Egyptian protestors had a real-life experience of the adage, “There is safety in numbers.”
“It seems that when the people went outside in mass numbers after 30 years of oppression, all the people who were scared to talk began to break this siege of fear and started to talk,” said Adel, who is also a writer. “Once the people were released from this fear and started to voice their opinions, nobody can stop them, and this is actually what is happening here.”
Annually, the U.S. provides close to $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt. Also, according to major news sources and analysis by Middle East experts–in the U.S. and abroad–the Mubarak family has built up fortunes that could reach $70 billion. Explaining to readers and viewers why the tensions in Egypt erupted into what many refer to as a revolution, the articles and broadcasts reported that much of this fortune has been acquired by corruption and the stifling of Egyptian public resources for personal gain. With Egypt’s current poverty rate hovering at 50% and a growing and obvious desparity between the rich and the poor, this wealth does not trickle down to the majority of the population.
Close to one year ago, on the night of Jan. 27, 2010, I walked around Cairo’s Tahrir Square—the epicenter of the 2011 Egyptian demonstrations–with an employee of the Cairo-based organization, the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies. Andalus’ office is a short walk from Tahrir Square. We had just spent the afternoon and evening with other employees and human rights advocates at the Andalus Institute discussing current women’s issues in Egypt and America, pluralism, tolerance, human rights, and the promotion of democracy.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is one of the Andalus Institute’s several partners. The Andalus Institute confirms its commitment to the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, proclaimed and signed by the member states of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) on 16 November 1995, and all international declarations, covenants, treaties, and bills pertaining to the subject of human rights issued by the U.N. (United Nations) or any of its sub-organizations.
In Jan. and Feb. 2010, I was struck by the strength, courage and determination of the employees I had met who advocate non-violence. When I walked through the doors at Cairo’s Andalus Institute, one of the prominent framed posters hanging on the wall of the reception area was from American history dated 1962. It was a photo of three bathrooms: “LADIES,” “MEN,” and “COLORED.” The quote beneath the photo of the three bathrooms stated, “You cannot know where you are going, until you know where you have been.”
The other framed poster in the Andalus Institute’s reception area that caught my eye was also related to the American Civil Rights Movement: a blown-up photo from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963 with a sea of people in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The quote beneath this photo read, “When one person stands up, he is often not noticed; but when thousands stand up together they cannot be overlooked.”
This poster of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and the accompanying quote symbolize the current events and demonstrations throughout Egypt. Chills cover my body as I look back at the photos I took of these framed posters a little over a year ago.
As I talk to friends and acquaintances, watch various TV news programs, and read news articles about the Egyptian demonstrations, I understand that some people fear that this movement could turn Egypt into another Iran.
My close Egyptian-American friends of many years, who invited me on this trip to Cairo in Jan. 2010 for a wedding, began the chain of friendships and connections that I have with Egyptian citizens. Most people outside of Egypt and tourists to Egypt have not had the experiences that I have been fortunate enough to have with Egyptians who are longing for freedom and democracy.
I was invited to and attended a round table in Cairo at the Andalus Institute where the topic, “What the Media Can Do to Protect Freedom of Religion,” was presented. This round table was organized by the Media Diversity Institute, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Andalus Institute. Presentations were delivered by experts with follow-up questions and anwers, open discussions and participation.
I have heard, first-hand, the individual voices of Egyptian citizens and have had personal interactions and friendships with these people who are fighting oppression and searching for peaceful ways to better their lives and the future generations to come.
Eman Hashim, a 29-year-old pediatric ophthalmologist working with special needs children in Cairo, has been demonstrating at Tahrir Square since Jan. 25, 2011. She explained to me from Tahrir Square—via her cell phone—that this is absolutely not a religious fundamentalist movement; on the contrary, it is a revolution for freedom, democracy, dignity and human rights.
“Christians and Muslims of all ages are united together as humans. We sleep on the pavement freezing every night, we share food, people are cleaning the streets, singing and playing football,” said Hashim, who is also a feminist blogger. “It’s our country and we are doing everything for it. We are proud that we are part of the Revolution, and the end of a 30-year regime.”
Poverty is rampant, unemployment is high even among the population with university degrees, and people feel hopeless. As food and commodity prices rise, it is difficult for people to afford to feed themselves and their families. The illiteracy rate is estimated to be around 30%. Tens of thousands of Egyptians—many from impoverished families—work in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries spending years abroad to earn money and traveling by ship to return home. Many feel that the elections in November 2010 were rigged by the Mubarak regime to position his son as the next president and continue the regime.
They are fed up with the corruption, bribery and human rights violations. The younger generations are internet-savvy and connected to a world outside of Egypt–including cell phones. They use Facebook, Twitter, MSN, Google, Yahoo and other social networks. They write and/or follow blogs and surf the internet on a daily basis.
Ms. Mahmoud, an Egyptian writer and artist, explained that from her point of view, the Egyptian citizens want to live in a democracy where they don’t have to suffer from bribery at every turn and have freedom of speech and freedom of the press without fear of being arrested and possibly tortured. They want to earn a livable wage where they can afford to feed their families.
“We just hear and read about democracy, but we have never experienced it in our lives. We want democracy as it is defined in the books,” said Mahmoud. “They [the Mubarak regime] just disconnected us from the internet for over a week like a bunch of rats, and the whole world was connected but us. We returned to the cave ages during that time.”
As Americans watch these events in Egypt unfold, it is vital to remember our own history including the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, movements for the rights of Native Americans, workers rights movements and the plethora of other movements involving human rights. Some people were scared of what the results could be in these movements, but if these had not occurred, we would not have the freedom and democracy that we cherish as Americans. Women may not be voting, working or earning university degrees. Bathrooms, neighborhoods, schools, restaurants, water fountains, and seats on buses might still be segregated, all crushing the dignity of our fellow humans. This list goes on and on…
There are Egyptians who look to our American Civil Rights Movement and history for guidance. I met, talked, and engaged in discussions with them. I continue to communicate with many of the people I met in Cairo in 2010 and cultivate friendships. I am in the process of writing a book with one of them about international women’s issues and human rights. They desire the same freedoms that we enjoy—and sometimes take for granted because we are used to having them— every day in America.
Americans have reached breaking points throughout our history. The Egyptians have finally reached their own.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Julia Hanweck, All Rights Reserved.