Egypt has now been in turmoil for more than two weeks. Pictures of screaming protesters and headlines full of names difficult to pronounce have become routine at the top of websites from The New York Times to Fox News. It’s easy to start ignoring them all: Skip to the local news and you can get political sex scandals and Fashion Week — at the same time.
Egypt is complicated. There are angry civilians in a square and armed soldiers on the streets. There is an embattled president (or dictator or strongman, depending on who you are) who still refuses to step down. The American government is involved, but it’s hard to get a handle on what, exactly, President Obama is pushing for. His statements on the country seem to change by the day. Egypt is complicated, but so is your econ lecture. And econ lecture is the one with the midterm.
But Egypt is going to last longer than your transcript. And so, Yale students and faculty are saying, we should be paying attention.
“Yale students are generally worried about getting from class to class without slipping on icy sidewalks,” said Rawan Maki ’12, the president of the Arab Students’ Assocation (ASA). “While this is very understandable … it is crucial to put our daily lives aside every now and then, look beyond the Yale bubble and realize that history is changing.”
Changing history means tens of thousands of protesters in the most populous country in the Middle East. It means the demanding of democracy and the ouster of a president who is an American ally and has received tens of billions of dollars in (mostly military) aid from Washington during his 30 years in office.
That change is easy to see in Egypt; it is more difficult to know how to react from New Haven.
The beginning of Yale’s response included two opinion pieces in this newspaper. Five more articles have followed on the opinion page. Yale professors have added their names to petitions and open letters regarding the situation, and a group of five faculty members spoke at a Wednesday teach-in that drew about 150. A demonstration on Beinecke Plaza the day before — which organizer Bassem Khalifa FES ’12 said was meant to show solidarity with protesting Egyptians and inform the Yale community about the situation — drew about 60 students, faculty and New Haven residents.
The attempt to inform was central to the teach-in as well as the protest. Most Elis have some grasp of the situation in the Middle East, but, according to Yaman Salahi LAW ’12 who also helped organize the Beinecke demonstration, that grasp is far from perfect.
“I don’t want to make generalizations, but I do feel without a doubt that the impact and significance of what is happening in Egypt has yet to be appreciated,” he said.
Students who are closely following the protests in Cairo think them particularly significant because of Egypt’s connection to America and because of the possible impact that a successful democratic revolution might have on the rest of the Middle East.
The connection between Washington and Mubarak has inspired much of the activism that the demonstration’s organizers advocate. They argue that the billions of dollars of aid to Mubarak mean that many Egyptians see Americans as hypocrites who, despite their avowed support of democracy, support autocracy when it fits their interests.
“At the end of the day you’re either committed to democracy or you’re not,” said Tarek Masoud GRD ’04, a Harvard professor of political science who spoke at the teach-in. “If you stall because you’re worried about who will come to power, you’re the opposite of committed. It’s time to put our money where our mouth is.”
That desire to see America back its rhetoric with action in Egypt is inspiring the activism of Omar Mamullah ’12, the president of Students for Justice and Peace in Palestine and an organizer of the Yale demonstration.
“Regardless of what the Obama administration is doing, it’s our job to push it where we want it to go,” he said.
But some are unsure whether there is a clear solution to the unrest in Egypt, or even what — if anything — America should be doing to help restore order. During the Wednesday teach-in, Masoud and assistant professor of political science Adria Lawrence debated whether or not the United States has a duty to involve itself.
Those questions of American involvement might not be the most important. No matter how key Egypt is to American policy in the Middle East, the involvement of most students will end at the front page of a newspaper. There is simply very little a Yale student in New Haven can do to help protesters in Cairo.
“If you really want to make a difference, fly over,” Nicolas Kemper ’11, a staff columnist for the News who was written twice about the conflict, said half-jokingly. “It’s $400 with a seven-hour layover in Moscow.”
He grew more serious and added that it is unclear how to be useful in a situation like the one in Egypt. The most applicable lesson from the turmoil was not one about Egyptian politics, but of steering the right path between idealism — supporting the democrats — and pragmatism — sticking with Mubarak.
That philosophical approach to the conflict might not have students racing to their computer screens for the most recent news. Instead, it’s those who are already heavily involved in the Middle East who are looking closely at the news from Egypt. Kemper, for example, wrote his thesis for the international studies major on the Egyptian military. Max Budovitch ’13 is another student who is continuing to monitor the situation closely. He criticized the Western media’s coverage of the protests in a recent article for this newspaper and has been interviewing various activists and local journalists in Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. He said that a student’s goal should be to try to get past the opaque veil of mainstream media and seek to fully understand the situation.
Meredith Morrison ’11, who spent a summer in Egypt in 2009 working for the National Council of Human Rights, echoed Budovtich’s dissatisfaction with the western media and expressed hope that students would seek out all the information possible about the conflict.
“Our job is simple,” she said. “It’s to pay attention and to follow very clearly what’s going on.”
But she, Budovitch and the organizers of the Beinecke demonstration are all involved with the Middle East on a daily basis. Morrison can map the buildings surrounding Tahrir Square, where the Egyptian protests are concentrated. Budovitch speaks Arabic well enough to conduct many of his interviews in his subjects’ native languages. Khalifa knows the streets of downtown Cairo better than he does those of New Haven.
For those who spend more time in Mason Lab than the MacMillan Center, the dedication to watching Al-Jazeera and scouring Twitter for news is difficult to muster. There are few enough hours in a Yale day already. Every student in the bustling Bass cafe at one point Wednesday night said he or she was aware of the protests in Egypt. Two had been to the teach-in. None said they were planning on any future activism.
One student overheard a question about the Beinecke demonstration as he walked by.
“It’s bullshit,” he responded and kept walking.
Kemper said the lesson of the Egyptian protests was a balance between idealism and pragmatism. And maybe the lesson of the effect of the protests on campus is also one of balance, this time between interest and ignorance. To skip the front-page news about the situation and brush the protests aside as the problems of another people is certainly a mistake. Nafez Al Dakkak ’11, a past president of the ASA, expressed the difficulty of asking others to share his deep interest in the situation even as he discussed its enomrous importance.
“Human compassion is something that everybody should worry about, and I don’t think anybody should be okay with violence used against peaceful protestors,” he said. “But I don’t know if I can go ahead and say that it anyone’s duty to preserve human life everywhere on the planet. What’s going on in Egypt now is getting more coverage, but there are other issues that also require attention.”