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Egypt, Tunisia riots hit close to home


Published: Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 15:02

Although thousands of miles lie between Poughkeepsie, New York and Cairo, Egypt, the two places are not without their connections. The speeding progress of technology along with a few opportune factors have driven recent developments in the Muslim world. While for most people at Vassar this struggle for popular economic and political power seems light years away from their relatively sleepy life in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for others, these revolts have hit closer to home.

Language Fellow Amira Hegazy has been a resident of Alexandria, Egypt since she was a small child. "Last year," she began, when asked about the public sentiment in Egypt that led to these revolts, "there was a young man who was put into jail for no apparent reason. It was like the policemen went on patrol and they just took that guy, put him into jail and beat him. And he eventually died; all of this occurred for no particular reason. In Egypt, the police slogan is ‘The Police Serve the People.' By doing this, they abolished this slogan. It took away their credibility. When revolution in Tunisia occurred, everyone thought, ‘Oh, we can do this.' And I believe that this made everything stir, and this made everyone optimistic."

Although she was unable to personally participate in the protests, she noted that her brother did.

As described during the Feb. 11 Teach-In, events in Tunisia began with vendor Mohammed Bouazizi's suicide last December. Frustrated with unemployment and the general lack of opportunity afforded to him, Bouazizi lit himself ablaze after being questioned by police for running an illegal produce stand. This sparked a wave of protests and popular revolts throughout Tunisia, which ultimately culminated in President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's resignation and consequential flight from the country on Jan. 14.

"Everyone thought Tunisia was where things were going right," began Mellon Post Doctorate Fellow for Africana Studies Mouannes Hojairi. "On the surface, economic indicators were showing that things were good. As a country, Tunisia did not have stability issues and the president at the time had one of the most sophisticated and sturdiest regimes, so no one imagined it would be toppled like that. But the fact that they forced him through a popular uprising to actually run away—this is the first Arab dictator who was removed from office in this manner. It was sort of the example, or the precedent, that showed people that it could be done. That's when we went from believing it could be done to knowing it could be done." With the success of the popular revolts in Tunisia as an example, the protests then spread to Egypt by Jan. 25. On Feb. 5, the National Democratic Party (NDP) resigned from parliament en masse. Despite a number of initial clashes between the protestors and President Hosni Mubarak's police force in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Mubarak eventually yielded to the people's demands and stepped down from office on Feb. 11. In terms of the emerging power of the people's will, one of the defining events of the Egyptian revolts came when the decision was made for the army not to shoot the protestors.

As Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies Ismail Rashid noted, "It was one of the crucial moments where the balance was tipped on the side of the protestors. It took a long time for the consequences of that decision to be apparent, but it proved to be crucial. It meant that the protestors could keep the momentum of the protest."

"This is just a symptom of the range of repressions of the government by not allowing Egyptians to participate really and properly in Egyptian political parties," said Rashid. "For the past few decades, Egyptians, who were very active, were not allowed to write political policies and have political expression. But economically, Egypt has the second largest population in Africa, and there is unemployment. Just as in Tunisia, you have a generation that comes of age that wants more. Not only in political and social power, but economically as well."

"I know it is giving everyone hope," said Hegazy. "It is like it is inviting everyone to take a stand and start questioning the regime and challenging the constitution that they have. And although they may have a constitution that is very good, it needs to be updated." While it is too soon to tell what the revolutions will bring to these countries, Hegazy hopes that in Egypt's case, a democratic government will eventually be established. "With the different means of media, like social media and the Internet, people are more expressive and more aware of other systems. Now they can understand what is happening in other places, and I believe that it will be really difficult to shut the people up if there is no democracy."

And with the successes of these popular protests demonstrating the strength of the people's will, it remains a possibility.

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