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From Memphis to Cairo

By Elizabeth Cooper
On January 24, 2012

  • Islamist, liberal and revolutionary figues lead thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, on Friday, Nov. 18, 2011 in unifying protest to criticize policies of the military government of Egypt. MCT

Suzanne Onstine stood on the rooftop of a building in Luxor, Egypt and watched men with sticks gather in protest while Ahmed Elnahas and his family watched news reports in Memphis saying that hundreds of people were being killed in the streets.

Onstine, a University of Memphis professor in Egypt, and Elnahas, an Egyptian doctoral student in Memphis, found themselves drawn into an unfolding history as a popular uprising erupted on Jan. 25, 2011.

Elnahas came to the United States to study finance at The U of M, three months before the revolution took place.  Both his and his wife's family still live in Cairo and other parts of Egypt.

Onstine was researching a tomb in Luxor, roughly 450 miles from Cairo, when Egyptians took to the capital's streets in protest of the 30-year regime. Both Onstine and Elnahas said former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's reign left the population hopeless.

"Under Mubarak everything became nil — healthcare, education — everything but their bank accounts," Elnahas said.  "If you had asked me before the Revolution, I would have told you nothing would change.  I would have told you these young people are distracted in the Internet, technology, fashion — they are experts on Twitter, but they know nothing about life."

But Onstine points out that this same generation of tech-savvy young people in Egypt led the revolution.

"You see people here plugged into their iPods with their earbuds in.  That same generation of people brought down a government just by having a voice collectively," she said.

Onstine said she has noticed a rise in the awareness of the strength of activism in her classes following the events of the Arab Spring.

What began as a 26-year-old Tunisian setting himself ablaze to protest the police confiscation of the vegetables he was selling as a street vendor cascaded into a series of pro-democracy movements throughout the Middle East.

The Egyptian Revolution did not begin here though. Many interest groups, activists and journalists have been working to gain freedoms and rights for the Egyptian people for years, Elnahas said.

Both Onstine and Elnahas, who have never met and were on separate trips, returned Jan. 15 from their first visits to Egypt since the uprising.

Much is the same as before, they said.  Businesses conduct themselves as usual.  People walk down the street in peace.  Except in Tahrir Square, where protestors maintain their dissent of the military occupation.

Hussein Tantawi, former defense minister under Mubarak, serves as the head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces.  SCAF acts as the country's interim government and continues to use violence against activists and journalists.

Now, the chief concern for the majority of Egyptians is that the sacrifices they made are not going to bring about a real democracy, Onstine said.

"They feel like they have traded one bad master for another," she said.

Elnahas said these changes would take time.

"Mubarak's regime is still there," he said.  "The whole system is still there. You cut off the head, but you still have the body."


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