A revolution in our time

Rowan lecture addresses overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Much changed for the people of Egypt February 11 when Hosni Mubarak was forced from the presidency, his 30-year reign suddenly brought to a halt.

Mubarak, an ally to the U.S. as well as to Israel, was also considered by many to be a dictator so reviled by his own people that hundreds of thousands took to the streets from late January to early February to demand he go.

Though hardly a bloodless coup – more than 300 people are thought to have died in the uprising – Egypt’s revolution was markedly less violent than it might have been thanks in large measure to a decision by the Army not to fire on its own people.

On Feb. 14, members of the Rowan community heard a first-person account of the uprising from a graduate student who was there, on the ground, compiling data for his doctoral dissertation.

Speaker Eric Trager, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, said the protesters started with simpler demands.

“In the beginning they were not really calling for the toppling of Hosni Mubarak,” said Trager, who is writing a dissertation on Egyptian opposition leaders. “The crowds wanted three things – the resignation of the Interior Minister, higher wages and social justice.”

Trager, who’d spent part of the last year interviewing more than 100 Egyptian opposition leaders for his paper, said he feared for his life during the first few days of the uprising as police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the protesters and the protesters returned fire with rocks and stones.

“It was a harrowing experience,” said Trager, who’d fled Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, the epicenter of the protests and an increasingly violent scene.

He said one of the most frightening moments occurred Jan. 28 when a large protest was planned.

“At the same moment that the mosques started releasing worshippers into the street, the police blanketed the streets with tear gas,” Trager said. “Cairo is a very busy, very loud city,” he said. “But on that day it was like high noon in an old Western movie.”

He said when protesters did eventually emerge they were prepared – with extra layers of clothes to protect against rubber bullets and bottles of Coke and Pepsi (the high acid content of the soda is believed to neutralize the effects of the tear gas.)

Trager fled the normally tranquil downtown area where police and thugs believed to be hired by the Mubarak regime attacked the protesters at will.

“It was a war zone,” he said. “A very, very bloody day. And on this day the protesters’ demands ended – from the Interior Minister must go, higher wages and better living conditions to the regime must end. Mubarak must go.”

He told some 100 students, staff and faculty members gathered in Education Hall that civil order in the city quickly broke down – ATMs were broken, food became scarce, thugs looted openly and the Internet, the lifeline to the outside world, went blank.

“When Mubarak finally left I wasn’t surprised,” said Trager, who escaped the city and returned to the U.S. that first week. “We thought either he was going to go or there would be a massacre. Many of us thought he may have given that order but we’ll never know.”

The future of Egypt

Trager, like many Middle East analysts and academics, said with Mubarak’s ouster democracy could finally come to the ancient nation but he’s not overly optimistic. After all, the military is now in control, Egyptians by and large are religious, and certain influential parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood favor a theocracy – possibly like the one ruling Iran.

“There’s no way to know,” he said. “Five weeks ago I thought I’d be studying stable authoritarian governance.”

Rowan professor Khaled Amer, who was born and raised in Egypt and still has family there, said he’s hopeful a representative democracy will take root and thrive in his homeland but remains anxious.

“I would love very much to see true democracy and freedom,” said Dr. Amer, an assistant professor of math and computer science. The military claims they will have free and fair elections and that is what I hope for.”

Dr. Amer, who was born in the Nile delta region and later moved with his family to Giza, an area near the pyramids and Cairo University, said the revolution, while necessary, was painful to watch unfold.

“One killed is too many,” he said. “It wasn’t the fault of the people revolting, it was the fault of the thuggish regime. The protestors were peaceful but if people are shooting at you, you have the right to throw back some stones.”

Scott Morschauser, an Egyptologist and professor of ancient history at Rowan, said he too hopes for democracy in the region but remains, for now, pessimistic.

“I would suspect the military will hold onto its control,” Prof. Morschauser said. “I’m also worried that there might be enough instability that you could have Islamists gaining more and more control. The only thing I’m optimistic about is the military announced it will honor Egypt’s peace treaties with Israel. We’ll have to wait and see.”

 Homepage image courtesy of Reuters