Egypt Uprising in Focus, in Two Parts
As Egypt's younger generation mount million-strong demonstrations for "Bread, Freedom and Social Justice" -- as one protester's sign read -- the shockwaves 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 the globe.
On 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 scarves.
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 & 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.