Calls to protest in Egypt reach Egyptian students in United States

By: Jonathan Simmons / Contributing Writer

The message caught sophomore Kirollos Habib by surprise. Born in Shobra, Egypt, he and his parents had lived in the US since 2001.

But on Jan. 22, Habib opened his inbox to find a message sent through Facebook, inviting him to a protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo.

Habib, a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, had heard about the uprising in Egypt through his church. But with the call to action in his inbox, Habib became one of thousands of young Egyptians, some living a continent or an ocean away from Egypt, invited to participate in the mass movement that would in 18 days demolish the regime of a despot who had ruled for 30 years.

Habib was surprised by the message, but not by the uprising. Egypt had needed a revolution, he said, and it was about time it got one.

And Egypt’s history had given Habib reason to hope that the protestors in Tahrir Square would be successful. “In 1919,” Habib said, “there was another revolution, and that was successful.”

In 1919, Egyptian nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul petitioned the colonial British to recognize Egypt’s independence. The colonial administration jailed him and his compatriots, igniting massive strikes across the country.

Men and women, merchants and students, Christians and Muslims poured into the streets and the British government caved. Egypt won its independence from Great Britain in 1922.

Habib felt that a nation whose people had so boldly rebelled against the oppression of British colonialism should have the strength to end an autocracy led by one of its own sons. The precedent was clear.

But Mubarak’s government, virtually unchallenged for 30 years, was not a foreign colonial power; if there were to be a revolution in Egypt, something needed to dramatically upset the regional status quo. And that, said Habib, was exactly what nearby Tunisia did.

“[The protestors] were definitely motivated by Tunisia,” Habib said, “It was the last straw.” But there was a sense of agitated tension in Egypt, he said, and in the wider Middle East before the revolt in Tunisia that ended the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Professor Charles MacDonald, a Middle East expert who has written extensively on uprisings and armed conflicts in the region, drew a parallel between the circumstances in Egypt and those in Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution that swept the shah from power.

Both uprisings, MacDonald said, were preceded by “a revolution of rising expectations … that created a feeling of being cheated, of being wronged – which is a very powerful source of unrest.”

In pre-revolutionary Iran, many were angered by the shah’s public extravagance while much of the country languished in poverty.

In the Arab world today, families with TVs and computers consume pixelated images of wealth, luxury, political and social freedom, that is generally denied to them.

Financial crisis hit the region, the middle class slid towards poverty and the poor towards desperation. The people watched on TV as the wealth of their nations were poured into the designer homes, cars and personal wardrobes of rulers who called themselves guardians of the people’s interests.

Finally, something snapped.

In Tunisia, the authorities confiscated the pushcart of a young man who supported his family selling fruit and vegetables off his wooden cart by the roadside.  Publicly humiliated by the police, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi walked to the street in front of the local municipality building, poured fuel over his body and set himself on fire.

In this act of anger and despair, Bouazizi gave voice to the ire of many across the region frustrated by poverty and government corruption.

His message resonated in Egypt.

“There wasn’t enough money, not enough jobs,” Habib said. “[Mubarak] was stealing all the money for himself – there was just an explosion of emotion. All of a sudden, everyone wanted to overthrow the regime – because they were fed up.”

But for Habib, the revolution really began earlier in Alexandria.  “On New Year’s Day,” Habib said, “there was a suicide bombing, in front of a church.”

Extremists had bombed the Two Saints Church in Alexandria during a mass. 21 people died.

And Habib said there was widespread anger at the Mubarak government as a result of the attack.

Radical groups, he said, had been threatening Egypt’s Christians for months before the bombing, and “… the government knew about it, and didn’t do anything. Basically, this event sparked major controversy. Before the protests all over the country, there were protests about this event – about the lack of ability to secure the Christian areas in Egypt.”

Protests in the Christian communities started immediately. AP reports from the time recount angry protestors chanting, “Mubarak, the Copts’ blood is boiling!” and attacking policemen. The police responded with clubs and tear gas.

There was a seething anger at a security force which had abused the populace under the pretext of security and then failed to provide it when it was needed most.

“The government said the bombing was committed by foreigners,” Habib said, “but meanwhile, the country’s police were terrorizing their own people.”

MacDonald pointed to Egypt’s long-standing emergency laws as a source of great anger at the regime. “The emergency laws which existed in Egypt,” he said, “had just gone on way too long,” and the wide powers they granted the Egyptian government were often abused.

The laws, enacted after the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, had been in power as long as Hosni Mubarak – and were just as deeply resented.

The Coptic Christians’ anger at the government security forces after the bombing fed into a wider discontent with the conduct of the Mubarak government.

“It’s not just an issue that the government completely ignores or neglects Christians,” said Habib. “It’s the whole people – everyone is affected because the government is so corrupt.  It’s the youth that were suffering most from the bad conditions – the corruption, the unemployment.”

Though Habib had supported the uprising and watched it progress with faith that the protestors in Tahrir Square would succeed, he was unprepared for the moment that Hosni Mubarak left the country. “I couldn’t believe it at first,” Habib said.  “Then I started being concerned about what’s going to happen after.”

“My major concern,” Habib said, “is that the Muslim Brotherhood takes over.”

Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood is also its most powerful opposition force. Its members were often jailed for opposing the Mubarak government. But the Brotherhood in Egypt is a social and political movement, not an armed movement. Analysts are divided as to what role it will play in a post-Mubarak Egypt.

“The Muslim Brotherhood,” MacDonald said, “are going to be a significant influence.” But he added that predicting the group’s behavior in revolutionary Egypt is difficult.  “To what degree,” he said, “will the Muslim Brotherhood be responsible as they have in the past? Or will they be more demanding for social justice – for their view of social justice?”

Habib said he suspected that a Muslim Brotherhood-led government would devolve into the kind of authoritarian regime protestors across the Arab world were revolting against.

Such a government, he said, would be detrimental in other ways as well. “It would be probably 10 times worse for the Christians in Egypt,” he said. “Second, there’s going to be major problems with Israel. [The Muslim Brotherhood] will not honor the peace treaty.”

The Muslim Brothers are far from alone in their opposition to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. For many, the fall of Mubarak represented a hope that Egypt would scrap the treaty and perhaps even join the “resistance axis” made up of Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

But for Habib, the revolt in Egypt was about Egypt, not Palestine or Israel. Habib thought that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty should be upheld, and said that though many Egyptians may sympathize with the Palestinians, he didn’t feel that a significant number of the protestors in Tahrir square would be willing to annul the treaty and face another war with Israel as a result.

“It is beneficial to have relations [with Israel],” Habib said, “There’s not a positive aspect to anything other than peace.  We can try to solve the problem with Palestine – but not through war; war isn’t going to make that happen.”

MacDonald was more cautious in his assessment of the future of the peace treaty.

“Mob rule acts on emotions, not on reason,” MacDonald said. “There’s an underlying resentment towards Israel throughout the Arab Middle East, and this can be exacerbated by various types of radicals. When you have people in the streets, people can change the direction of a protest very easily. With the military controlling the situation, there’s not likely to be much radical change. But the military could go with the flow in terms of hostility to Israel in order to consolidate their power. It’s just unclear what’s going to happen.”

Habib hoped that the Egyptian military, which has promised to hold elections within six months, would safeguard the goals of the uprising and prevent the kind of chaos that could be exploited by extremists.

“I think it’s a positive development,” Habib said of the formation of the military council, which has taken control of the country. “It gives people the time to elect the right person, and for other political parties to form. I just know that whoever’s going to lead Egypt is going to think twice before he makes any decision that would hurt the country. Because everyone witnessed what the people are capable of.”

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