Speakers put protests in perspective; Prof says Mubarak is ‘finished,’ student questions U.S. response

Students heard two of the College’s Middle East experts during a forum on the Egyptian protests last Wednesday. (Delisa O’Brien / Staff Photographer)

Thousands of Egyptians took to the streets on Saturday, Jan. 25, to call for President Hosni Mubarak’s immediate resignation. Mubarak’s 30-year rule has been described as “long and heavy-handed” by The New York Times.

Three days after Mubarak announced he would not seek re-election in September but would not step down immediately, on Wednesday, Feb. 2, the College held a forum about events in Egypt.

Professors Miriam Lowi and Manar Darwish spoke about the protests. Both have ties to the Middle East.

“I lived in Egypt for two years, and I learned Arabic in Egypt,” said Lowi, professor of political science and international studies. “It was there that I discovered Arabic culture, which has become such a big part of my life.”

Darwish, an Egyptian native, teaches Arabic at the College. She came to the U.S. in 1986, five years after Mubarak became president.

Lowi and Darwish dedicated approximately 15 minutes each to discuss the recent uprisings. After speaking, they fielded questions from an audience of approximately 100 students, faculty and guests.

Lowi began with a confession.

“I hoped I would come here and offer a post-mortem of the Mubarak regime,” Lowi said.

She couldn’t, though, as Mubarak still reigned, “in total defiance of the will of the vast majority of his people,” she said.

“Mubarak still has power, so long as he can command the military,” Lowi said, “but he no longer has unchallenged authority.”

Protests have materialized in the Egyptian cities of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, according to Middle Eastern news network Al Jazeera, but media coverage has centered on those in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square in Cairo.

Lowi spoke of the “celebratory mood” in Tahrir Square, where an “incipient revolutionary movement, inspired by the Tunisian example,” was growing.

“President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled with an iron fist for 23 years, fled like a thief in the night after a few days of massive demonstrations,” Lowi said, describing Tunisia’s recent Violet Revolution.

She also spoke of Mubarak’s attempts to quash the protestors’ efforts.

Mubarak sent police into the crowd, Lowi said, and attempted to “de-legitimize the protests” by suggesting Islamist political group the Muslim Brotherhood was behind the movement.

“He insisted that his people were being manipulated by political forces that would ultimately do them harm,” Lowi said. “The Muslim Brotherhood did not play a pronounced role in these demonstrations … If you looked closely at the crowd, it was not a particularly religious crowd. But Mubarak wanted to sow fear.”

In the end, Lowi said, “Fear-mongering is nothing more than that — to deny legitimacy to the voice of the people.”

She read several tweets New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof had written that morning. Kristof has been reporting from Tahrir Square since Sunday, Jan. 30.

“I saw some people who were motionless and seemed badly injured,” Lowi read. “Hard to know casualties, but they’re adding up. In my part of Tahrir, pro-Mubarak mobs

Dozens of students gathered in Roscoe West Hall last week to voice their thoughts, ask questions and hear speakers on the youth-driven political uprising in Egypt. (Delisa O’Brien / Staff Photographer)

arrived in buses, armed with machetes, straight-razors and clubs, very menacing. Mubarak seems to be trying to stage a crackdown not with police or army, but with thugs. They are armed and brutal.”

Lowi expressed concern that these “armed thugs” would perpetuate more than additional unrest.

“Mubarak is finished, but he will hurt and maim and destroy and kill as he goes down,” Lowi said.

Kristof described the mood in the city before Mubarak’s forces came in as “giddy,” a sentiment Lowi echoed. She maintained that the crowds in Egypt were peaceful, despite “ad nauseum” reports by several U.S. media services to the contrary.

Lowi also spoke of the U.S.’s tepid response to the crisis.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the hesitancy of Obama to come out in full support of the movement is partly (due to) a possible Muslim element in a post-Mubarak Egypt. I’m certain that if all political persuasions are allowed a voice, and a podium to express that voice, the Islamists will become one voice among many,” Lowi said. “We’re at a watershed in the history of the Middle East. We need to stand with the people, I believe. They’re fighting the good fight — for freedom and dignity, the very things we value.”

Darwish, an Egyptian national, introduced the audience to the country she knew through a slide show of pictures of Cairo.

“One of my first observations (upon coming to America) was the news here is very parochial,” said Darwish, who listened to BBC radio regularly in Egypt. She currently lives in Philadelphia, where she says that the news is more regionally than internationally centered.

“Now, suddenly, Egypt is all over the news, but it is a bad time. Here is Egypt when things were not so bad,” she said, before showing pictures of the Tower of Cairo and of golf clubs, opera houses, marketplaces, movie theaters and McDonald’s.

She took questions from the audience about life in Egypt.

Junior biology major Teresa Askander asked what life in Egypt was like under Mubarak’s regime.

“When Mubarak came to power, people were hopeful. That was 1981,” said Darwish, who was in sixth grade at the time. “Now that he’s an older man, he’s 81, there were rumors that when he died, his son would take power. People were very, very dismayed by that. We’re not a monarchy.”

One student asked why the U.S. hadn’t strengthened its resolve.

“There were a few things I think were weighing on the Obama administration,” Lowi said. “One was the fear of the unknown. Mubarak has been a fairly loyal ally, both to the U.S. and Israel. Obama wants to make sure there are leaders in the region who they can rely on and with whom they could do business. The Obama Administration was very torn, because Obama, in his heart, really wanted to side with the people.”

During Sunday’s Super Bowl pregame show, Obama told Bill O’Reilly he hoped Egyptian political groups would meet to discuss the country’s future.

“What we’ve said is let’s make sure you get all the groups together in Egypt. Let the Egyptian people make a determination of what’s the process for an orderly transition, one that is a meaningful transition,” Obama said in the Fox News broadcast.

Newly appointed Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman did just that on Sunday. Suleiman gathered six opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to discuss where the country should go from here.

“I hope that this ends up soon, and well, insha’Allah,” said Darwish, using a popular Arabic expression meaning “God willing.”

Emily Brill can be reached at brill3@tcnj.edu.