As Egypt‘s younger generation mount million-strong demonstrations
for “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice” — as one protester’s sign
read — the shock waves from the uprising have reverberated through the
government of Hosni Mubarak, the White House, and the digital
tentacles of students and other pro-democracy sympathizers in every corner of
February 7 & 8, 2011, NYU Wagner and its Research Center for
Leadership in Action (RCLA) launched public discussions illuminating
some of the less-visible aspects of the revolt, its better-known causes, and
where this history-changing moment may lead.
In the first of these two events, which drew nearly 150
students altogether, Natasha Iskander, assistant professor
of public policy, and Waad El-Hadidy,
senior associate for RCLA, began by showing photos and YouTube videos capturing
the good cheer and thoroughly Egyptian-style humor on display
on the streets of downtown Cairo — such as many makeshift hats worn by demonstrators,
fashioned from chunks of asphalt or plastic water bottles, and fastened with
Another video showed a young Egyptian woman’s impassioned
plea for reform of the country’s political process.
Remarkable, said Iskander, was the nonviolent nature of the
demonstrations, a feature she called “historic in its own right,”
especially given the distributive, leaderless character of the protests.
“The protesters are everybody,” she said.
And the issues animating them transcend lines of religion,
class, and generation, Prof. Iskander and El-Hadidy said. Even in the wake of
the Mubarak government’s unleashing of thugs on camels and horses to storm the
crowds, the police kidnap and detention of journalists and activists, and the
sewing of civilian chaos to erode the movement’s public support, the protesters
as a whole appeared free of bitterness toward the Egyptian authorities. It’s a
reflection of the socially intimate nature of life in Egypt, a place,
said Iskander, where police and army personnel live as neighbors with the
people now taking to the streets, and their families.
“This is a real turning point in the history of Egypt,”
said Iskander, speaking of the spontaneous mass movement, although she
cautioned that knotty issues will require negotiators to emerge, and
negotiation, such as election reform. These matters go beyond the immediate
question of Mubarak’s hold on power, and are more complex.
Still, the uprising beginning Jan. 25 ” took the world
by surprise, it took the people of Egypt by surprise, it also took the
demonstrators by surprise,” said El-Hadidy.
On Feb. 8, the second discussion, moderated by El-Hadidy,
featured: Mona Eltahawy, a frequent CNN guest analyst on Arab
and Muslim issues; Karim Tartoussieh, who is writing his dissertation at NYU on
digital disobedience, culture and citizenship in Egypt; Omar Youssef Cheta, a
PhD candidate in the joint program in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, and
History at NYU; and Rania Salem, a doctoral candidate at Princeton. Joining
Wagner and RCLA in sponsoring the panel discussion was the John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Program
at the College of
Arts and Science at NYU.
The day’s speakers described the sparks precipitating the
protests, ranging from the government’s growing use of summary arrests and
police brutality, to the lack of good prospects for younger people, who
represent a third of the population, to the Tunisian revolt that toppled that
country’s longtime ruler. Facebook and YouTube, too, brought people out to the
streets, and Eltahawy noted that Egypt’s release of Google
executive Wael Ghonim, a key figure behind the Facebook and YouTube push,
was galvanizing the movement as she was speaking.
He’s a 30 year old who scared the crap out of a 30 year old
regime,” Eltahawy said, predicting Ghonim could become one of the
pro-democracy movement’s most important representatives in the tense and
uncertain days to come.