After sifting through the events and images and the range of opinions coming out of Egypt the last few weeks, I keep coming back to a strong feeling of hope. But when you come down to it, what do I know? Here I sit, safe and sound, in my American home watching my uncensored television and surfing on a free-and-clear Internet, having never been to this Middle Eastern country filled with passionate people rising up and having their say.
A revolution, indeed.
So in an effort to get a taste of the vibe at the center, I tapped into the thoughts of young people who either call Egypt their home or who count the country as a significant part of their future plans. These are people who will enthusiastically help shape that nation’s future.
Question One: What would you like the rest of the world to know about what has been happening in Egypt the last few weeks?
“I need the rest of the world [to] know that there is always an end to every corrupt and oppressive leader,” Farahat Gomaa – who is doing his medical school residency at Alexandria University – said via e-mail. “So I need people everywhere to try to free themselves. Don’t close your mouth again. No, speak … loud [and let] your voice … be heard. This is the time of freedom.”
Having been part of the demonstrations in Alexandria, Gomaa is proud that Egyptians “wrote a new history here in Egypt after 30 years of control by [an] unjust and oppressive system.”
“I want the world to know we are not the giving up hope,” said Eman Khader, an Egyptian currently spending the academic year at Middlebury in Vermont. “We always wanted freedom and we tried our best to achieve it, but everything we did didn’t work so we had to break the silence and do whatever it takes to achieve it ( peacefully of course). If you just look at the photos from Tahrir you will see how amazing, smart and kind the Egyptian people are.”
“Although I still respect our last president, [Hosni] Mubarak … it’s time for another good one to help us in being a good democratic developed country,” said Ahmed Sabry, who is finishing his undergrad work at Alexandria University. “I predict a good coming period for all of the Egyptians but I say that this change will not come immediately unless we can do our best and get rid of those elements that corrupted this country.”
Stephanie Wiseman is a George Washington University student who was in Alexandria during the uprising and had to be evacuated. A Middle Eastern studies major, she was on a charter plane that took off from Alexandria at 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 31. This prematurely ended her year at the C.V. Starr-Middlebury School in the Middle East at Alexandria University, as she had just finished her third week of the spring semester.
“For decades people had grown apathetic, feeling that nothing was ever going to change, because nothing ever did,” Wiseman said. “Then … Tunisia happened and this idea sprouted that maybe, just maybe, if they worked together as a people and were willing to make the sacrifice, they could shape a better future for themselves and their children. The pride as a people, always so present in the private sphere, suddenly burst into the public domain. Men and women, Muslim and Christian, young and old, all took to the streets to demand what people in the States take for granted: the right for your voice to be heard. They protected and supported one another and showed a strength of character and community that demands respect and admiration.”
“It’s genuine,” said Jack Spencer, currently finishing his undergraduate work at George Washington studying political science and international affairs. “It’s a mix of a people with true national pride, a cathartic release after 30 [years] of police brutality and a response to the popular ethos that Egypt had degenerated. I think that the last factor … the ethos, will be the most important factor going forward. I can’t tell you how many Egyptian songs, movies and books play on the motif that Egypt was once great, and despite the quality of the Egyptian people, their society, infrastructure and institutions have degenerated around them.
“I’ve had hundreds of conversations with taxi drivers and shop owners; they rightly blame the government for the modus vivendi in Egypt. They wanted to be afforded the chance to better their country, but the government would never allow it … Now Egyptians, for the first time in some 6,000 years, have the opportunity to express that national pride and dispel all notions that Egypt is inferior to Europe, East Asia or the Americas. They want to show the world their quality as a people, and I personally don’t think that they will disappoint.”
Dominique DeAngelo, a junior at George Washington double majoring in Middle Eastern studies and history, is an American of half Egyptian and half Italian descent. Her strong interest in the region stems from having family there as well as it being a central part of her studies.
“Egyptians and Arabs in general are traditionally a politically passive people, whether it is from authoritarian regimes or their culture,” DeAngelo said. “This revolution was unprecedented and entirely organic in origin. Even Egyptians, like my cousins and my Coptic Arabic professor, who had doubts about the success of the revolution and who feared for the hijacking … of the revolution by extremist groups, are now proclaiming with great joy ‘Egypt is finally free!’ I am moved to tears when I watch footage from Egypt or the surge of songs and different artistic pieces that are now flowing out of that country with pride in a freedom and democracy that they won for themselves.”
Question Two: As a young person planning your life, how does this affect the way you perceive your personal future?
Gomaa, “a young doctor starting his real life,” spoke of how disconcerting it has been that internship salaries are so low that “many doctors try to find any way to travel either to Arab countries or [the United States] or European countries” because they feel “underestimated here and [are] also seeking a good, happy life.”
“I love my country and I will do everything to help my people,” Gomaa said. “I feel that I am playing a major role now … Everyone here feels that in the past the corruption was everywhere but now we are fighting it … We need a country [whose] bases are justice, respect of freedoms and good government and, I promise you, within 10 or 20 years we will be one of the high power leaders in this world in every field as we were in the past. This is the future I need. This is the life I want for all my people.”
“This changes a lot and makes me want to go back to Egypt and try my best to make this country strong and great again,” said Khader. “Before I just wanted a good job, but now I want to help more in different places in life.”
For Wiseman, it is about waiting and watching.
“I have dedicated my education to the Middle East, so it is exciting … to see the developments taking place in this region,” Wiseman said. “I am proud of the accomplishments of my friends and colleagues in Egypt and wait in anticipation to see what else … can be achieved by sheer strength and will.”
Spencer has had to rethink his post-graduation plans, which had certainly included Egypt as his destination. Plan A was a year of language study at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (through the University of Texas), but if not accepted, Plan B was working and living in Cairo as an expatriate and then re-applying the next year.
“The recent turmoil makes the idea of living as an expatriate unaffiliated with any organization much more precarious,” Spencer said. “Egypt is going through an unprecedented phase, and even though I speak the language, I don’t know if I want to be there, especially in light of the fact that my taxes have been supplying the tear gas and nightsticks with which the police have brutalized their people for 30 years, and even the legendary hospitality and warmth of the Egyptian people is not enough to convince me that I would be entirely safe there were certain demagogues and fear-mongers to take power. I have a lot of faith in the Egyptian people, and I will be in Egypt in the near future, but they need to settle their power balance before Americans will feel reassured enough to return en masse.”
DeAngelo, too, will be eagerly gauging events from afar with an eye toward returning to the country she has visited and loves.
“I plan on devoting a significant amount of time in Egypt studying and learning in the future, and I just couldn’t imagine it not being available to me or my fellow students anymore,” DeAngelo said. “But looking forward, I have so much hope for what Egypt will become. Although it has always been a historical treasure and rich in archeological and cultural wonders, Egypt now has the potential to modernize in ways that were never before possible. The people will have their voices heard in FAIR elections, they will be protected by a much more honest and accountable government, and they will be given much greater opportunities for employment and upward mobility.
“It is my hope that the culture will not rest on religious taboos and stigmas as it has been tainted with in the past, but moving forward, girls will be given greater opportunities for education and jobs, and gender segregation will be a thing of the past. If Egypt could find a way to balance its love and appreciation for Islam with human rights, I believe it will be a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. I am excited to see how this unfolds.”
Hope abounds. I guess I was right after all.