Students get out of Egypt just before riots

By on February 2, 2011

On Jan. 25, less than 10 days after 18 Quinnipiac students returned from a trip to Egypt for their QU 301 class, the country erupted into mass protest during what some organizers called “The Day of Anger.”

The demonstrations, which coincided with Egypt’s National Police Day, were focused on perceived injustices committed by President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

Professor Janet Bahgat, who taught the class, said, “I think this is a response to the outrageous prices, unemployment, and this regime that just seems to be out of touch.”

Bahgat has been shuttling back and forth between Egypt and the United States for 30 years, since she was hired to teach American culture and English language at the American University in Cairo.

While she insisted that she is politically neutral, she said she believed that Mubarak’s days as president are numbered.

“[The protesters] want a clean regime, they don’t want any traces of that old way of looking at things,” she said.

There were many factors that contributed to the widespread outburst against Mubarak, including a stagnant economy and a lack of political freedoms. He has served as president since assuming power after Anwar El-Sadat’s assassination in 1981.

“Emergency Law”  has been in effect in Egypt since 1967, except for an 18-month break which ended when Sadat was murdered. Emergency Law entails more power for the police, the legalization of censorship, and reduced openness of the political process. While there are still elections, opposition groups have been crippled to the point that they stand little chance.

Demonstrators have clashed with the police every day since Jan. 25, with roughly 300 deaths so far, according to the United Nations. The opposition to Mubarak has come from diverse groups, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the April 6 Youth Movement, made up mostly of students who organize using tools like Facebook.

The leader of the opposition at this point seems to be Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel prize winner and the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

David Ives, executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute, briefly spoke with ElBaradei at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Japan this past November.

“I asked him whether or not he would be willing to be president,” Ives said. “He said that he’d be willing to do anything he could to promote democracy in Egypt.”

One of the reasons that the death toll has been relatively low thus far is that the military has been very reluctant to commit violence against Egyptian citizens. The police have not shown that that same reluctance, however. After the Associated Press posted a video that showed a protester being shot dead by a police sniper, the Egyptian government cut off essentially all Internet and mobile communication across the country. It has since returned, but there have been sporadic shutdowns.

Bahgat said it is no surprise that the military seem to be siding with the people, while the police side with the regime.

Egypt has a conscription-based military, which results in it being very representative of the people, Bahgat said, going as far as to call them “the voice of the people.”

The police, on the other hand, swear allegiance to Mubarak and the government. “They’re there to be his guys,” Bahgat said.

Junior Andrew McDermott, a member of the class that traveled to Egypt, said that while he was not surprised that the people were protesting, he was surprised by the massive scale of the protests. He said that in his experience, the police weren’t bad people.

“The citizens are upset against the government, and the police are just following orders,” he said.

Baghat said that she thought that there was little risk of extremists filling the power vacuum in Egypt after Mubarak is gone.

“Their women are very educated,” she said. “Their women are university educated as well. There is no way that they are going to become an Islamic state, from what I understand.”

She was very hopeful that the violence in Egypt would end soon.

“They just want to get back to work and get things rolling,” she said. “People are beautiful wherever you go, it’s the governments that make a mess of things.”

Photo credit: Jennifer Griffin

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