The Egyptian Revolution: Princeton in the Nation’s Service and in Harm’s Way.

By Matt Sanyour ‘11

As the chaotic events in Cairo approach some semblance of resolution, with the military guaranteeing elections in six months, one may finally take a moment to look back a few short weeks to the origins of this movement that toppled President Hosni Mubarak after thirty years in power. While the successful example of the army-backed revolt in Tunisia played no small part in the Egyptian uprising, how and why this happened to Egypt in particular, and the appropriateness of the American response, will remain burning questions in the world of foreign policy until the intentions of the new Egyptian government become clear after the election. For the time being, the military has maintained the country’s close ties with the US despite American ambivalence during the revolution. One aspect of these historic events hit very close to home, as Princeton had five students studying in Cairo during the first week of the crisis when the capital city was shut down by protests. Fortunately, all five were able to get safely out of the country and the Tory had the opportunity to interview one of them upon his return, Michael Gibbs ’12, before he departed the US once more to resume his semester abroad elsewhere.

While these events were unique in the histories of Tunisia and Egypt, neither of which have a strong tradition of successful popular movements, the impetus for democratic reform in the Arab world has borne a striking resemblance to the Color Revolutions that rocked the post-Soviet bloc states in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Beginning with the 1989 Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia, the Yugoslavian Bulldozer Revolution in 2000, the Rose Revolution of Georgia in 2003, and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, these movements swept away corrupt authoritarian dictatorships in largely nonviolent expressions of popular discontent with the unresponsive regimes that succeeded with complicity of the military. As the radically different results of popular demonstrations in the Eastern bloc in 1989 compared with the Tiananmen Square massacre in China in the same year illustrate, the willingness of the military to suppress dissidents, or lack thereof, is hugely important in determining the fate of a nonviolent, pro-democratic overthrow, also known as a “soft” coup.

Despite frequent sweeping statements by some commentators, Egypt is not the first incidence of a soft coup in the Muslim world. The Central Asian post-Soviet regime of Kyrgyzstan fell to popular outrage in the Tulip Revolution, and Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution against Syrian influence in 2005 established some precedent for this kind of political event within the Middle East. However, neither could be taken as typical examples of the color revolution phenomenon; the Kyrgyz uprising unfortunately devolved into a more violent and less democratic outcome as the crisis unfolded, and the Lebanese case is complicated by that country’s diverse and often fraught ethnic and religious background.  Nevertheless, like the post-Soviet regimes that fell to similar uprisings, the Mubarak regime was to some extent a relic of Cold War politics in the Middle East.

Hosni Mubarak succeeded President Anwar El Sadat after Sadat’s assassination in 1981. Sadat had forged the unpopular peace with Israel and the alliance with the United States through the Camp David Accords of 1978. The contrast between the reception of these policies among the international community, and among the Egyptian citizenry, is striking. His conciliatory stance toward Israel earned him both a Nobel Peace Prize and a fatwa calling for his death, issued by militant Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and two closely related organizations, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group), and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a radical splinter faction of the Muslim Brotherhood that had broken with the main organization some years before. The fatwa was carried out by Khalid Islambouli, a traitorous lieutenant in the Egyptian Army, and a group of likeminded soldiers under his command. Islambouli was subsequently executed for his crimes, and has been officially venerated as a martyr in Iran for his role in the assassination plot. More commonly known as the “The Blind Sheik”, Omar Abdel-Rahman was convicted by Egyptian authorities but subsequently released, and managed to enter the United States under a tourist visa, during which time he participated in the planning of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. American authorities caught and convicted him for the act of terrorism, and he is currently serving a life sentence in federal prison. This historical association of the opposition with radical Islam was one of the reasons pessimistic observers of the anti-Mubarak protests initially feared a rebel regime would abandon the treaty with Israel. However, this now appears highly unlikely, at least in the short term, given the public assurances to the contrary offered by the Egyptian Army.

The culmination of the events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square is only tells part of the story of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. For a sense of how it all began, Michael Gibbs offered his own perspective on the situation during the week he and his fellow Princetonian were there, from when the protests began on Tuesday, January 25 to their departure from the country on January 30.

Gibbs was housed with other students in the outlying residential district of Dokki (also spelled Doqqi), a middle-class neighborhood bounded in the east by the Nile that was far from the tumult in central Cairo. The area was first laid out and developed in the 1920’s and 30’s by Oswald J. Finney, a prominent British businessman involved in the booming Anglo-Egyptian cotton trade and publisher of several Egyptian newspapers. One of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares still bears his name. The students’ landlord was also a general in the Egyptian police force and, according to Gibbs, did not appear overly perturbed by the protests at first. While protestors passed through the district on their way to Tahrir, neither the local Egyptians nor Gibbs’ fellow students at the American University of Cairo perceived it to be a meaningful event. While Mubarak had held an iron grip on power for the last thirty years, he was no totalitarian; periodic expressions of discontent were not uncommon under his reign and rarely amounted to anything. During the course of that day, Gibbs and his fellow students saw first a group of protestors carrying signs marching in the direction of the center of the city, and subsequently saw a troop of policemen on patrol a few blocks behind them turn suddenly off in another direction. It was unclear as to whether the police had been explicitly ordered to avoid confrontations, were doing so on their own initiative, or had merely be called away to a higher priority incident than tailing the group of dissidents. In any case, consistent with events elsewhere in Cairo that day, there was little in the way of clashes between police and protestors.

The middle class Egyptians of Dokki were neither favored elites of the Mubarak regime nor the suffering underclass, and regarded the protests with ambivalence. While Mubarak was not popular among the Egyptians he spoke with, Gibbs recalled that there was little interest in actively participating in the protest. By the middle of the week, while the protests downtown continued, Gibbs’ neighbors became embroiled in the chaos not because of their politics, but rather due to opportunistic looters who had taken advantage of the beleaguered state of the police to rob local shops and homes. Every night, locals were obliged to keep vigil over their homes and businesses with whatever weapons they could find; mostly cudgels and truncheons, while only a few residents had guns. The police, scarce before, were stretched to their limits. Shops were boarded up and remained closed all day, and supplies of food and water began running low because delivery trucks were unable or unwilling to enter the capital city for fear of the looters. In one example of the effects of the shortage, the price of a bottle of water, a necessary staple for any American unaccustomed to drinking the local water, went from $2.25 on Tuesday to $3.00 on Saturday, a negligible increase to students used to paying exorbitant Princeton prices for water, but deeply frustrating to local Egyptians. Nevertheless, their neighbors remained cordial to the students. “No one minded us as Americans,” Gibbs reported. By Friday, internet and cell phone service had been suspended. Fortunately, Gibbs recalled, the home they rented was equipped with a landline telephone that became their own means of communicating with the University officials trying to get them out of the country. Gibbs and his four colleagues remained in their quarters for the last few days for security reasons. Their ordeal finally ended on Sunday, January 30 when they successfully left Egypt, their semester abroad cut short by the fickle tide of history. One student chose to relocate to Istanbul for the rest of the semester, two of the students went to Israel instead, and the remaining two are in France. Wherever they went, it is safe to that say it will be an environment more conducive to studying abroad than Egypt.

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