Egyptians struggle for democracy against President Hosni Mubarak
Published: Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Updated: Saturday, February 12, 2011 12:02
Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi's whole life has been spent struggling to provide for his five siblings, mother and uncle. Government officials made this task even more difficult by routinely shutting down his fruit kiosk on a whim. It was the final time, when he was slapped and spat upon, that sent him over the edge. He walked to the governor's office, and when he was refused an audience, he set himself on fire. It was his self-immolation that ignited a wave of unrest and protest in his native Tunisia, and then in Egypt.
The protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak began on Jan. 25. The "Day of Revolution" had been loosely organized on Facebook by pro-democracy and opposition groups, who described it as a protest against unemployment, poverty, corruption and torture. The protest initially started out small, but swelled to large numbers throughout the week, topping a million on Jan. 28.
"After the revolution in Tunisia happened, they immediately started the Facebook event. I was thinking that it was something that they were trying to emulate; it wasn't something genuine. I thought it would be something small and it would pass. But we were surprised, when they showed the number of people protesting on TV... It was amazing," said Sarah El Massery, an exchange student from Egypt.
"Egyptians saw, through Tunisia and other historical events, that change won't just come around if you wait. The youth in Egypt have become more empowered and they unofficially organized a protest that turned into a massive Egyptian voice," said Sana Saiyed '12, who was studying abroad in Egypt and had to leave prematurely due to the protests.
"My Egyptian friends were right in Tahrir Square and Mohandeseen, protesting with their fellow Egyptians. These were people that I've been living with and around for five months, fighting for their fundamental rights that we as Americans should consider inherent...[They] were forced to protect their families and neighborhoods because the police abandoned their people," she continued.
The protests had been mostly free of large-scale violence until Feb. 2, when pro-Mubarak supporters, arriving in buses and on camels, began fighting the protesters as well as foreign journalists in Tahrir Square. Their uniformity, weapons and sudden appearance has led people to believe that the supporters are actually forces hired by Mubarak to intimidate the protestors.
Previously, the government had shut down Internet service in Egypt for almost a week, restoring access on Feb. 2. Cell phone service was also shut down for almost a weekend and the government had used its emergency powers to force cell phone companies like Vodafone to send text messages to customers asking "honest and loyal men to confront the traitors and criminals and protect our people and honor."
"It was awful knowing that my extended family members were potentially unsafe and that there was no way of reaching them," said Mona Elminyawi '14. "I finally got an email response a couple days ago from my cousin in Egypt saying that she's just ‘really tired,' but thankfully okay."
Rania Mamdouh Abdel Naeem, an exchange student, had family and friends in Egypt who were participating in the protests. "It was very hard because I wasn't in contact with them for more than a week. I was unable to reach them by any means," she said.
The communications block did not achieve the desired result, however.
"[It] had no effect on the protests themselves. That's how powerful the Egyptian voice is," Saiyed said.
The 30-year reign of Mubarak, who succeeded Anwar Sadat after his assassination, has been marred by corruption, injustice and poverty. Nearly 20 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line, and another 20 percent live close to it. Food prices have gone up amidst rampant inflation and a shortage of fuel.
Another point of contention is Mubarak's institution of emergency law, which has allowed the government to arrest and detain people without any charges.
"No one was feeling safe lately," said El Massery. "A lot of people were being tortured in the last couple of months."
A terrorist bombing in Alexandria on New Year's Day had also unsettled Egyptians.
"People were angry at our government that they allow such kinds of terrorist attacks to happen. It wasn't the first terrorist attack to happen in Egypt. There was another one in 2009," said Rania.
Adding to the tension were Egypt's fraudulent elections in November, where the President's party won nearly all of the 500 seats in Parliament, leaving less than 20 for the opposition party.
"The people have been angry for 30 years, really. It is not something new for us to be angry with him," said Sarah. "After the last elections, the National Democratic Party, which is the party that Mubarak is from, was able to carry out a fraudulent election. It was one of the highest percentages for any party in the world to win an election; it wasn't realistic whatsoever."
Mubarak has tried to pacify the protesters, by appointing a vice president, firing his cabinet, and promising not to run for election in September.
The members of the Steering Committee of the General Secretariat, the highest decision-making body of Mubarak's political party, including his son, Gamal Mubarak – who some believe was poised to take over after his father – have resigned as well. Such reassurances have done little to appease the protesters, however. The protesters want Mubarak to leave immediately.
"The Egyptians... want their dignity, their respect and their right to be governed by a government that they consent to and that is not imposed upon them in the current form of dictatorship. They want their basic and universal human rights," said Dana Al-Jawamis '14.
As the protests aren't organized, there aren't any leaders poised to take over if Mubarak resigns. Both Mubarak and President Obama are offering Vice President Omar Suleiman as a choice. On Sunday Feb. 6, Suleiman met major opposition groups and agreed to allow freedom of the press, release the people who had been detained since the protests started and also end emergency powers as soon as possible. He also endorsed a plan creating a committee to study constitutional amendments that would institute term limits on the presidency, and also allow more candidates to run for the office.