Difficult times encourage patriotism, hope

First-hand observations from Egypt in turmoil

During the many hours I spent in Cairo following the recent protests, the appearance and the opinions of the protestors surprised me more than anything else. Citizens of Cairo are generally very down-to-earth, easygoing people with a great sense of humor, and this mood was evident during the protests, despite the harsh conditions. I was also surprised at the lack of animosity the protestors displayed towards the United States in light of the support and aid the U.S. has given to Hosni Mubarak’s regime in the past. Every time I got into a taxi, the driver could not wait to give me his opinion of American politics — which generally boiled down to “Bush: Bad, Carter: Good” — and assure me that he still liked America and wanted to travel to or live here someday.

This general feeling extended to the protestors as well. Whenever my nationality came up in conversation with protestors, they would express their excitement that Americans were present and in support of their movement. Due to the regime’s tendency to violently suppress protests in the past, the initial protest on Jan. 25 was such an unusual occurrence for Egyptians that they weren’t sure what it would become or whether they were doing the right thing. The presence of foreigners reassured them and gave them confidence.

As the protests grew, the protestors gained confidence and began to coalesce into a more coherent group from which goals and purposes began to emerge. At this point, it was fairly clear to me that many of the West’s fears of a post-Mubarak Egypt were unfounded: the Muslim Brotherhood did not have the widespread support required to control a new government, the protestors did not seek alienation from the West, and there was little risk of the new Egyptian government acting in a highly hostile manner to the United States.

As I neared Tahrir Square and entered the much smaller Talaat Harb Square, the column of protestors thinned and I saw a black mob of riot police flanked by large military trucks waiting for us, obviously intending to disperse the crowd. A couple of Egyptians that I had met turned to me and told me that if the police got violent, I should hold up my American passport as high as I could and run away with them. While they didn’t explicitly say it, I suspected they thought the passport would protect all of us. They recognized that the police would not attack foreigners during this early stage of the protests for fear of negative publicity. About thirty seconds later, the riot police advanced on the small crowd of marchers with batons raised. I did exactly as I had been told and ran with my passport held high for all to see. I emerged from that skirmish unharmed, yet some of my Egyptian friends were not as lucky. Once we reached Tahrir Square later that night, the crowds were larger and I had more of an opportunity to speak with the protestors and get to know their opinions. I spoke with over fifty different Egyptians and pressed them for their opinions on domestic Egyptian issues, as well as their wider world-views. The overarching opinion in Tahrir that night was that the United States has good intentions and does good across the globe, but that the actions or policies of the government — like supporting Mubarak — occasionally have unintended consequences. Those whom I spoke with had a fairly strong knowledge of U.S. foreign policy in their region and understood that support for Mubarak was intended to encourage peace with Israel. While they didn’t support this policy, they understood it. Many suggested that one of their primary hopes for the protests was to attract the attention of policy makers, such as President Barack Obama, and compel them to rescind their support of Mubarak’s regime.

Additionally, they made it very clear that this was a secular movement and that the West’s fear of a repeat of 1979 was unfounded. At points, I felt that the entire protests were a show put on by Egyptians for the world media.

The protestors’ attitudes towards religion were also interesting. On the first day, the call for evening prayer sounded while the mob was gathered in Tahrir Square. The crowd began to reorganize itself into clear lines and a man who was obviously recognized as a high-ranking Imam made his way to the front of the crowd. I expected the vast majority of the protestors to join in prayer, yet in the end, less than a third of the assembled Egyptians took part in the religious expression. When I later asked a friend of mine who is very religious why he didn’t take part, he responded that the day was about Egypt, not about Islam. This separation of Islam from this nationalist movement was confirmed by the celebration of the masses upon the pseudo-retirement announcement by President Mubarak. The first cheers that arose from a small section of the square consisted mainly of “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), but they were almost immediately drowned out by chants of “Masr” (Egypt), and those who started the initial chant were rebuked. Islam clearly had no place in the celebrations, and likely will not hold a central role in a post-Mubarak Egypt.

Now that I have returned to the U.S. and am following the events via CNN and other news outlets, I am disappointed by the poor quality of the reporting and the heavy editorializing of the events. It is clear to any unbiased individual on the ground in Cairo that this is in no way an anti-American movement, nor do the people of Egypt have any desire for Islamic governance.

Cody Zoschak is a sophomore in Course XVIII.