“I’ve been living under the Mubarak regime my entire life,” said Marwa Ibrahim, a junior from Cairo. “In some sense, what they were fighting for in Tahrir Square was my own liberation.”

Ibrahim is one among many Penn students with ties to the Middle East who have had to watch the recent uprisings and revolutions from afar. And though there is safety in distance, there is also yearning.

When protests in Egypt broke out, Ibrahim recalled later, “My daily routine completely changed.” She began obsessively watching Al Jazeera’s Internet live stream, and reading bloggers in Cairo. She even created a Twitter account so that she could stay totally up-to-date. Flying back home was not a realistic option, but nevertheless, “I felt like I wanted to protest.”

Heba Fadel, a Fulbright scholar from Egypt, echoed the feeling: “I wanted to fly home.”

“At the beginning of the demonstrations or protests, I was against it,” she elaborated. “Because whenever there are demonstrations in Egypt, people don’t get their rights, and the police or security men begin to use violence.” When her friends in Egypt read that sentiment on Fadel’s Facebook page, she said, they doubted her patriotism—but “I hated violence.”

When she saw that the protesters stood strong even as the Mubarak regime responded with tear gas, however, Fadel’s sympathy for their cause deepened. “I found that this bad regime, this corrupt regime has to face an end. And this is the end.”

Ebraheem el-Touhamy, a Fulbright scholar from Egypt who was an Arabic teaching assistant at Penn last year, experienced the protest firsthand. He said it was a rough scene. On the fourth day of demonstrations, which some protesters called “Brutal Wednesday,” pro-Mubarak forces tried to evacuate Tahrir Square by force; according to El-Touhamy, their weapons included stones and metal scraps. Looters took advantage of the situation: at night, El-Touhamy volunteered in a community patrol team, which kept watch on homes as well as churches, mosques, museums, and landmarks.

To make things worse, the regime’s imposition of a curfew forced El-Touhamy to walk the 10 miles between his home and Tahrir Square on each day of the protests.

But he said there was a strong sense of community in Tahrir that kept him going back each day. “There were many, many shows just to amuse ourselves,” he said, even arts and crafts for the children.

Many students remarked on the spirit of cooperation between Egypt’s Muslims and Coptic Christians. El-Touhamy, Fadel, and Ibrahim posited that much of the tension between Copts and the Muslims had been kindled by the Mubarak regime to distract citizens from issues within the government. “The day the Christians went to Tahrir Square and stood with the Muslims, they showed to the whole world that they don’t have any problems with the Muslims,” Fadel said.

Because she couldn’t be in Tahrir Square to celebrate, Ibrahim tried her best to bring Tahrir Square to Penn. She organized an event called “Tahrir Square, Experience the Egyptian Revolution,” which occurred on February 26. There was falafel and foul (an Egyptian fava bean dish), a performance by the Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble, and political discussion. “It felt like I was at home,” she said.

When Ibrahim found out about Mubarak’s resignation, she was at her work-study job at the Religious Activities Common. She and her co-workers dropped everything and watched the Al Jazeera live stream. “I was like, oh my God! This is something I’m going to tell my children, my grandchildren.”

But despite the festive mood at Penn, many students from the Middle East were envious of their friends and family, who were witnessing the historical events firsthand. Second-year graduate student Ameer Saabneh, a Palestinian from Israel, said that although he was checking for news online at every free moment, “There is a feeling of missing something.” And with protests erupting throughout the region, he felt he couldn’t “find the right people to talk with about it.” So he sought discussion at the weekly meetings of the Arabic group at Gregory College House’s Modern Language Program.

American students who had studied abroad in the Middle East were as enraptured as their international classmates by the recent tumult. “The craziest thing for me is that we were living … two blocks from Tahrir Square, “ said Penn senior Yuval Orr, who studied in Egypt last summer.

“It’s hard to live in Cairo,” Orr said, adding that Tahrir Square is not a place where foreigners typically settle, due to the area’s poverty. He recalled the doorman of his summer residence, who lived, with his family, in a lean-to built under the building’s fire escape. “When I first heard about the Egyptian protests … and [the] poverty motivating the revolution, this was the person I thought about.”

A common refrain among Middle Eastern students was their surprise at the suddenness of the uprisings. “Before Tunisia, I would not have predicted anything like this,” Ibrahim said. The same went for sophomore William Dib, a Syrian who grew up in Kuwait. “I thought the Tunisian president leaving was very odd,” said Dib. He didn’t think Mubarak would ever step down.

There was one exception: most students who had spent time in the Middle East felt that Libya was a ticking time bomb. “They were all just waiting for a little push from their neighbors,” said Dib.

As unrest escalated in some countries and seemed to settle down in others, many students were beginning to wonder about the region’s future.

Ibrahim, along with her Saudi friend Marion Abboud C’10, started a blog (ShiftingSandsofEgypt.tumblr.com) to chronicle the political developments of each day after Mubarak’s resignation. They dated their first entry “Day 0”—marking February 11, the day of Mubarak’s resignation—and asked, “What next?

There are many theories. Ibrahim is optimistic: “The youth are not going to sit back and watch another corrupt regime born.”

But others have reservations. Fadel counters that though young people were the base of the revolution, “I’m not sure if [they] will be the base of the coming elections.”

“I’m trying to really restrain myself from celebrating,” said Dib. “They can’t really call it victory unless they really establish a good government for the future.”

Maanvi Singh C’13


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SIDEBAR: Far Away, So Close:
Penn Students with Middle East Ties
React to the Uprisings

COVER STORY: Anatomy of an Uprising By Trey Popp
Photography by Tara Todras-Whitehill C'00 EAS'00

©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

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©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 2/24/11