Egyptian students comment on protests in their home country

Katherine Marcheski

It takes one event to make history.

Cairo, Egypt, a city whose name was once associated more than 7,000 years of history, now has a violent connotation. A reputation that has been darkened with an illegitimate government and frustrated citizens at home and abroad.

Abd Elhamid Azzaz is watching from Ames.

“It’s a normal life, very peaceful. Quiet — as quiet as it can be with 15 million people living there — but it was a safe place,” said Azzaz, former president of the Egyptian Student Association and graduate in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology.

Azzaz lived in Cairo for 24 years until leaving for Iowa State. He and his family moved west across the Nile River to a place called 6th of October City, where his family has resided safely since the recent upheaval.

“Everyone is safe and well,” Azzaz said of his family still at home. “I just spoke to my mother the other day and she was out going to the market. It is safe.”

However, Azzaz said the media added an overly dramatized version of the recent situation in Egypt. The news is promoting that looting has become a crisis, but Azzaz said it wasn’t really that severe.

“The police retreated Jan. 28 because they were defeated by the mass protesters,” he said. “And that is when the looters started attacking supermarkets and setting fires. Officers were not at the police stations so criminals escaped, and there are about 17,000 escaped prisoners throughout the country now.”

Azzaz related this incident to the 9/11 event that plagued New York and the rest of the country. Mayhem flooded the streets and people took advantage of whatever they could.

“People are really stepping up though. My brother and father grabbed sticks to patrol the neighborhood, because there were not police there. But the looting has ended,” Azzaz said.

Disconnection of Internet Service Provider further complicated the situation.

“People were pissed [when the Internet and phone services were disconnected],” Azzaz said. “It started when a group on Facebook was formed to start protests in solidarity for a man who was beaten to death because he refused to show is ID when confronted by police at an Internet cafe.”

Land lines were still connected, but cell phones and Internet services were shut down in an effort to stop people from organizing against the government.

“They first tried to shut down Facebook and Twitter, but people were able to breach through the system and still use it, so they just shut down it all,” Azzaz said.

This was an effort to delay protesters and uprisings but it actually caused more damage than it did good, he said.

“Without Internet the trade is affected; the stock market lost 60 billion Egyptian pounds in two days,” Azzaz said.

In October of 1981, Hosni Mubarak came into presidency after the former president was assassinated. Mubarak has been infamous during the years for not promoting democracy, and creating relations between the prime minister of Israel.

“The people do not want to be involved [with Israel],” Azzaz said.

Currently there are 24 different political parties in Egypt. However, the parties are always at war with each other.

“We call them ‘puppet parties’ because they are all controlled by the police and they feed the feuding, they want them against each other,” Azzaz said.

The protesting has not only caused fear within Egypt, but internationally. Oil prices increased, the stock market is changing and international relationships are being tested.

“[Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton said at first that we should remain peaceful, and now [Vice President] Joe Biden is putting his sense in but they are not what we need,” Azzaz said.

Tuesday night, President Mubarak gave a televised speech that touched on his future plans for his presidency. Mubarak said he would not run after his term ended in September, and planned to stay in Egypt and offered provisions to the constitution.

“He gave orders to the parliament to change article 76, which states that his son would take over his presidency,” said Anwar Mohamed, president of the Egyptian Student Association and graduate in political science.

Mohamed, originally from Beni Sweif — 150 miles south of Cairo — moved to Iowa in August 2009. Three of his brothers currently live in Cairo, and has been in contact with them daily.

“Everybody is safe, and we are able to keep in contact,” Mohamed said.

Although this speech is seen as progress for Mubarak and for the Egyptian people, it is still not the response the people were looking for.

“People were exhausted. And they are disappointed to hear he was not resigning,” Mohamed said. 

Wednesday morning more chaos broke out when anti-protesters showed up on camels and horses and beat people in the crowd of protesters to show their opposition to their opposition. 

“The big leaders from [the democratic leaders] ruling the party hired thugs, criminals, and outlaws to carry signs and say they are pro-Mubarak. They thought they could display the desire for stability, and stability comes from staying with Mubarak,” Mohamed said.

The chaos isn’t just coming from protesters and government-hired supporters, but from other common folk. There have been reports of burnings and theft from the Egyptian museum in Cairo, and other local fires and looting.

Although there have been a lot of devastating and destructive demonstrations, most, if not all, have been centralized to the Tahir Square in Cairo.

“The protesters have the upper hand now. The army and government at first was very passive not neutral, and now it is chaos,” Mohamed said.

Phone services have been turned back on, but many streets are blocked, and there are still no police forces. With the lack of organization from the police departments and government, the people have stepped up and shown their determination for the situation.

“This Friday people have been communicating for a march of the people through the Tahir Square right to the feet of Mubarak to prove their point that he needs to step down,” Mohamed said.

The protests began eight days ago, and have resulted in more than 200 deaths. Mubarak’s term is scheduled to end in September, but Mohamed said that it is pivotal for him to step down now.

“People are irritated and cannot look at him for the next six to seven months, and they see it as a revenge to him, to make him step down early,” Mohamed said. “Any step back, less than stepping down, means that the revolution has not achieved its goal.”

Mohamed also pointed out that the best case scenario for Egypt would be for Mubarak to step down and have Vice President Omar Suleiman take over until September when a new president can be elected. During the next few months candidates could promote themselves and the goals for the country so the people could fairly make an informed and legitimate decision.

“If the next president is from the Muslim Brotherhood, a war is to be expected with Israel,” Mohamed said.

Egypt has had an intricate role in the Middle East for years, but for the past few decades it has lost their historical role of being a central and important figure to the Middle East, to more of a peace keeping relationship with Israel.

“Egypt was very soft with Israel. They [Egypt and Israel] are in a sort of political marriage, trying to manage relations with Israel, to keep us safe and stable,” Mohamed said.

Mubarak has put the welfare of his party and political ties above his fellow Egyptians for far too long, and the citizens are refusing to let this continue, by protesting.

“I think Mubarak has lost all the power. The situation is pretty much controlled by the people,” Mohamed said. “Their motivation is fueled. The revolution is not going to fail, he has lost control.”

Azzaz said it is just a matter of time before Mubarak steps down, because he has no other choice. Egyptians will not continue to support him until September, and other nations are watching.

“The Obama administration has tried to promote traditional democratic values [with Egypt] during this time of democratic reform for their country,” said James McCormick, professor of political science at Iowa State.

The United States wants Egypt to be peaceful and stable, McCormick said, but the country can only help through quiet diplomacy and through behind the scenes work.

“The most positive thing that can happen is a peaceful and orderly transition between Mubarak and the new leader. Nobody has come out and said it but the U.S. is obviously for a democratic reform and that would be the most ideal situation,” McCormick said.

Mohamed, like many other Egyptians, feel optimistic about the future for Egypt. The protests these past days have shown that whoever the next leader is, they can never do the unjust deeds that Mubarak did and get away with it.

“The protests were a little late, yes; they should have happened years ago. What happened in Tunisia gave us hope. But, like you Americans say, ‘Better late than never,'” Mohamed said.