By: Stephan Isaac
Seminarian, Pre-Theology I
While studying Political Science and International Studies at American University, I spent a semester abroad in Cairo, Egypt during the Fall of 2009. I continued my studies in Middle Eastern politics and Arabic at the American University of Cairo (AUC) and it was some of the best four months of my young life.
When the news broke in late January that the Egyptian people were rising up in massive numbers for the first time against the brutal authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak, my heart was hopeful because I had seen first hand in many ways how the regime abused and neglected its own people. One thing that fascinated me while I was there was that no matter who you talked to outside of AUC, Egyptians on the street would not openly discuss anything about domestic politics or the Mubarak regime, presumably out of fear of persecution and imprisonment. I was even scolded once by one of my Egyptian friends for publicly cracking a joke about Hosni Mubarak!
Egyptians outside of the confines of AUC would be so eager to talk about American, international, or Middle Eastern politics, but you would never hear them criticize Hosni Mubarak or discuss their country’s political situation in any open and meaningful way. Under Mubarak, there was absolutely no freedom of speech, especially political speech, in terms of publicly challenging or criticizing the regime in a serious manner. There was also a noticeable fear among the people of the Egyptian police force, which was essentially the “hammer-hand” of the Mubarak regime. Since 1981, the U.S. government and many international human rights groups have catalogued the many instances of unjust imprisonment, torture, and execution of hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and opponents of the regime.
My friends and I even witnessed an incident of police corruption on our way to a resort on the Mediterranean coast an hour west of Alexandria. While we were on our way to Porta Marina, the police stopped our van and demanded that our Egyptian driver and friend step out of the car and pay them over 200 Egyptian pounds (which is a lot of money in Egypt). They claimed that it was a travel fee, but our driver and friend said that there is no such thing in Egypt and told us it was simply an act of police corruption, which according to many of my Egyptian friends was rampant in the country under the Mubarak regime.
What was also sad is that I noticed that the Egyptian government and its police would treat foreign tourists much better than their own people! For example, we went with one of our Egyptian friends to a FIFA World Cup U20 match between Egypt and Costa Rica in downtown Cairo. The line of people trying to get into the stadium was immense. Our Egyptian friend told a police guard outside of the line that he had Americans with him. The police guard immediately shuffled us past hundreds of people, all Egyptians, in order to get into the stadium. Not only did the police bypass the hundreds of Egyptians waiting patiently in line to get us into the stadium, but once we entered, we were placed in “first-class” seating, which we didn’t even pay for! Given the vital relationship between the U.S. and Egypt at the time, it was in Egypt’s political interests to make sure Americans residing in and visiting Egypt were not only well-protected, but well-treated. It was frankly a very troubling experience for us Americans.
That’s why I was overjoyed when I heard the news that the Egyptian people were peacefully rising up against the Mubarak regime in massive numbers for the first time since the dictator assumed control of the country in 1981. It’s important for Americans to know that the Egyptian revolution of 2011 was not an “anti-American” or extreme Islamic revolution like the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which led to the taking of American hostages and the attack on the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Anyone watching the protests in Cairo saw that Egyptians were demonstrating peacefully for their God-given human rights, calling for an end to a brutal dictatorship, and demanding a pluralistic democracy. Unlike the regressive Iranian revolution of 1979, the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 was a progressive, democratic revolution, fueled by the products of modernity: Facebook, Twitter, and the use of cell phones. Muslims and Christians joined together in calling for fundamental democratic change; the protesters weren’t burning American flags or denouncing the U.S. or Israel, but rather courageously standing up for their God-given rights and for a new era of genuine freedom and justice for all. The 2011 Egyptian revolution was truly historic.
Due to my limited access to Facebook here at the Seminary, I tried my best to keep in touch with my Egyptian friends during the upheaval and to make sure they and their families were safe. One of my friends, a Coptic Christian, sent me a long Facebook message describing the revolution from her perspective. Here is an excerpt of what she wrote to me:
After just two weeks of battle, the voice of truth and love won! Young people who truly love this country decided that they will either live with dignity or die trying…Also, if you look at Tahrir [square], a different spirit was there...a spirit of selflessness, of honesty, of generosity, of purity, of sacrificial love…It’s otherwise known as the Holy Spirit…What a battle it was! A very fierce spiritual battle! But the Egyptian people didn’t give in to Satan’s lies such as fanaticism (the divide between Muslims and Christians)…or even despair! Today, Egypt is being cleaned up. Corrupt officials are constantly being taken to court…and the Egyptian youth have been doing all they can to build this country (by cleaning up, packing food for underprivileged families, donating, etc.) It’s really beautiful here!
It is my hopeful prayer that the world’s most populous Arab country will one day become the most populous Arab democracy, built on justice, prosperity, and authentic freedom. I pray that the Egyptian people will forge a government that respects the basic human rights of all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian, and pursues peaceful and productive relations with all nation-states. Tyranny should never replace tyranny in times of political upheaval and given the oppressive nature of Egypt’s political history, it’s difficult to foresee the Egyptian people freely and deliberately replacing one repressive regime with another sometime in the future.