As rebellion rocked Egypt in early 2011, several Penn scholars had unusually intimate perspectives on the action. Days after Hosni Mubarak’s regime was toppled, they offered a worm’s-eye view of the Facebook protests that helped set the stage, an expert history of the new Arab media that kindled the sparks, and a eyewitness account from the tipping point at Tahrir Square.
BY TREY POPP
On January 7, 2011, four days after arriving in Cairo to conduct a final round of field research for his dissertation, Eric Trager found himself in the home of a former Egyptian State Security Court judge. Trager, a doctoral candidate in Penn’s political science department who speaks Arabic, had interviewed scores of Egyptian political figures over the previous five years. His area of expertise was opposition politics—specifically, the ways opposition parties had been repressed or co-opted by the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak’s mastery of political suppression was reflected both in his 29-year reign and in the working title of Trager’s thesis. “My dissertation,” he recalled in February, “was on ‘durable authoritarianism.’”
The former judge wanted to talk about something else. The two men spoke in a parlor whose ambience gave their conversation a peculiar, almost surreal cast.
“His living room was bizarre, because it was just full of tchotchkes,” Trager recalls. “A ton of tchotchkes, to [the point] where there was just no room for us to sit. There was elevator music playing in the background, which was odd. I wasn’t facing him, because there was an antique couch between us. And he said, ‘I want you to take down a couple notes.’”
“‘The things that you’re seeing happen in Tunisia and Algeria are going to continue in Egypt,’” the man continued. He was referring to events that had been set in motion three weeks earlier, when a 26-year-old fruit-and-vegetable seller in Tunisia had doused his body with paint thinner and set himself on fire to protest police brutality. The act had touched off wider clashes between citizens and police. Most recently, the Tunisian Bar Association had led a general strike as conflict intensified.
But in Egypt life had gone on as usual the entire time. To Trager and other seasoned observers, the Mubarak regime seemed yet again to be in comfortable control. It was doing everything it could to make sure that nothing would change—wages, food prices, Cairo’s famously nonstop nightlife—and that the sense of continued normality would act like a narcotic on any dissent.
“‘There’s going to be a major uprising here. It’s coming,’” the former judge declared.
Trager listened and gazed at his surroundings. “I sort of heard ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ in the background, and I’m looking at all these tchotchkes, and I’m thinking, Yeah, right.”
One week later, Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dissolved his government and fled to Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, life went on. In Algeria, where the government had quelled demonstrations and riots over hikes in food prices by suspending taxes on some staples, a wave of self-immolations swept across the country in protest of housing and employment policies. In Egypt, life went on.
Trager went about his work. Having interviewed numerous members of the Wafd, Ghad, and Tagammu parties, as well as a fair share of so-called Facebook activists, he began speaking with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some opposition activists with whom he spoke echoed the former judge’s prediction. Trager found it hard to share their optimism.
“They kept saying: ‘January 25 is the day that we’re going to take the street,’” he remembers. “Now, January 25 had been on their calendar for a very long time. It’s a day that honors the police for their role in 1952 protecting the people from the British. It’s a remnant of the Free Officers Revolution. In recent years, though, January 25 has been a day of protest, given police brutality. So this was going to happen anyway. It had been tried before, and quite frankly, it had failed.”
When he went downtown on the appointed day to report on the demonstration for The Atlantic’s web edition, it looked like another failure was in the works. His companion, an Egyptian lawyer, shared his assessment. At one o’clock in the afternoon he turned to Trager and said, “If nothing happens by 2 p.m., the day is done. It gets dark early in Cairo this time of year; the day is done; nothing’s going to happen.”
The next hour lasted, in a sense, for 18 days. Before it ended, Trager would get a worm’s-eye view of a revolution that truly appeared to rise from the ground up—a leaderless rebellion whose shock waves continue to reverberate across the Middle East. He would share the elation of Tahrir Square, the suffocation of tear-gas warfare, and the terror of streets commandeered by criminals and teenaged boys wielding clubs and swords.
His up-close insights, combined with those of two other exceptionally well-situated Penn scholars, provide a vivid and deeply informed vantage on a series of questions that will occupy historians for years to come. Shortly after Mubarak fell on February 11—and as uprisings continued to shake Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya—they tried to begin formulating answers to some of them. What enabled this uprising to succeed where others had failed? Was it Facebook and Twitter? Al-Jazeera? WikiLeaks? Was it the machinations of established opposition party leaders, or the enthusiasm of a generation that had little use for that establishment? In a region whose politics are seemingly dominated by hard-line religious militants, what should we make of the conspicuously secular character of the Egyptian revolution? How did previously neutered activists and ordinary Egyptians overwhelm a regime that enjoyed US support to the tune of $2 billion a year? And, perhaps most intriguingly, how many things had to go exactly right—and will have to keep going exactly right—for the pro-reform underdogs to win?
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COVER STORY: Anatomy of an Uprising By Trey Popp
Photography by Tara Todras-Whitehill C'00 EAS'00
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Far Away, So Close:
Penn Students with Middle East Ties
React to the Uprisings
The photos in this story, and the Gazette’s cover, were taken by Tara Todras-Whitehill C’00 EAS’00, who covered the Egypt and Libyan uprisings for Associated Press. (Top) An anti-government protester paints an Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square, February 10; An anti-government protester displays an Egyptian flag covered with blood during clashes, February 2. (Above) An anti-government protester puts up a poster with a caricature of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir Square, February 8.