It was January 2011. College junior Layla O’Kane sat glued to her television, clicking back and forth between United States and international news channels. The internet in Egypt was down, and she was 5,000 miles from her home in Cairo. The revolution had begun, and she was watching it unfold from a TV screen.
More than two years after the revolution first began, Egyptian students at Penn are still reflecting on the changing political climate of their home country.
Their experiences varied widely and, while these changes have discouraged some, most remain hopeful not only about Egypt’s democratic potential, but also their families’ safety in the future.
When the protests were just beginning, though, these hopes were difficult to maintain.
That January, College junior Mahmoud Elguindy was making phone calls to his family in Cairo. Elguindy was born and raised in the United States. His grandparents, however, live in Tahrir Square — the center of the action.
“They could not leave their place because it was very dangerous … there weren’t police out there to help them,” he said.
His grandparents did not leave their apartment for more than a month. He said that the apartment building where they lived had a guard who would run errands and pick up groceries for them.
The following summer, Elguindy visited Cairo himself and brought back stories of his own to tell. On one occasion, while attempting to ride the subway, he was stopped by a citizen who asked to see his passport.
Elguindy believed that he was approached because the man thought he did not “look very Egyptian.” Elguindy had to show him all of his documentation. “It was pretty scary,” he said.
For some, however, the unrest didn’t reach so far as to interrupt their daily lives.
College sophomore Diana Gonimah’s life continued as usual. At home in the suburbs of Cairo, she had schoolwork to do, leaving her little time to get wrapped up in the action.
The Digital Revolution
It all began in January 2011, when a Facebook event began to make its way around the country, inviting Egyptians to take to the streets.
“People were so skeptical,” Gonimah, a former Daily Pennsylvanian staff writer, said of the online event. Many Egyptians thought that it would end in a day, with the police tear-gassing everyone, she added. “That’s what took everybody by surprise. It actually worked. People actually showed up.”
College sophomore Omar Sobh has always lived in the United States, but he has a lot of family members in Egypt and was excited for them. “At first, we certainly were very excited for them — the old regime was in power for far too long and was extremely corrupt. It was exciting that there was so much potential for change post-revolution,” he said in an email.
“Based on the conversations I had with friends and family in Egypt, there was a very strong sense of national pride. The Egyptian people were thrilled to spark a transition toward democracy,” he added.
While O’Kane’s family isn’t ethnically Egyptian, she said they were joyful as the revolution unraveled.
Elguindy’s family also supported the protests’ politics, at least in the beginning. When Elguindy visited Egypt during the summer of 2011, he observed that the protests had evolved from their original purpose. “The main goal was to get the ex-president out of his term … that happened already, but they would still protest,” he said. “Up to a certain point, it was just hindering the country’s performance.”
For Engineering sophomore Hanna Elmongy, the achievement of that original goal, however, meant the chance to vote in Egypt’s first democratic election.
“At first I was really scared because the voting was segregated [by gender],” she said. She had worried about whether poll workers would ask her why she didn’t wear a hijab, or whom she was voting for. Fortunately, her fears had been unwarranted. When they saw how young she was, the female poll workers said, “This is the new generation, this is the future of Egypt.”
Disappointment and Hope
However, the hope that some Egyptian students felt before the national elections in May 2012 has been diluted by the perceived lack of true progress in Egypt.
“Who would have thought that the Muslim Brotherhood would have taken over?” Gonimah asked. “It’s not as easy as we thought.… We thought once that the revolution marked the end of human rights and civil liberties violations.”
Still, she is not as critical of the new government as others have been. She said that she has learned “there are two sides of every story,” from her time at Penn and she is not yet sure which side holds the truth.
And while Elmongy is disappointed with the lack of progress she has seen in Egypt, she said, “It’s only been two years. We have to give it some time.”
Certainly, violence in Cairo did increase as a result of the civil unrest. But O’Kane and other Egyptian students argue that the vantage point of Americans might be limited or skewed by the media’s portrayal of the events of the past two years.
O’Kane said one of the most important things for Americans not to do is “to take what CNN says, [what] everybody says, to heart.” She believes that while much of what Americans hear is true, they’re not always getting the whole story.
All of the students interviewed have lived, worked and visited Egypt over the past two years. While they understood at the time that certain precautions — such as avoiding hotspots of unrest in Cairo — are necessary, none of them felt truly unsafe.
And while there was reason for concern, the revolution mostly evoked a sense of hope.
Gonimah said that she had always felt that she could not have any political influence in her country — not because she was a woman, but because she lacked a direct link to political power.
But the revolution changed that. That feeling of empowerment is “something that nothing can take away from me,” she said. “The revolution reinforced my passion in Egyptian politics … I can make a difference.”