Ask the expert: uprising in Egypt

map and Egyptian flag


Something is brewing in the state of Egypt. It began in Tunisia, where demonstrators ousted their longtime president and forced him into exile, before spreading to other nations in North Africa and the Middle East.

On Jan. 25, the uprisings reached Egypt, where at press time Hosni Mubarak, who ruled as president for 30 years, had stepped down and handed power over to the military. A historic change has come to one of the world’s oldest and greatest civilizations, but it remains to be seen if Egypt is experiencing a full-blown, U.S.-style, “liberty or death” revolution.

Eve M. Troutt Powell, an associate professor of history at Penn, is a cultural historian who specializes in the modern Middle East. She first visited Egypt in 1983 on an internship with the American University in Cairo, lived in Egypt for many years and has spent half her life traveling back and forth to the country.

The Current conversed with Troutt Powell as Egypt erupted to discuss the origins of the uprising, Mubarak’s resignation and what this all means for the future of one of the most important countries in the Middle East.

Q: To a large portion of the American public, I’m guessing the protests in Egypt seemed to come out of nowhere. Could you see any of this coming?
Yes. The quickness with which it happened took me by surprise, but this has been brewing in Egypt for at least the last five years. I think that the fact that Tunisians were able to pull it off and it worked so fast inspired Egyptians, but this has been coming for quite some time.

Q: Do you think the Egypt uprising would have occurred without the Tunisia uprising?
Maybe not this January, but I think it would have. About five years ago, a movement was started in Egypt called the Kifaya movement. Kifaya means ‘enough’ in Arabic, and this is a movement protesting Hosni Mubarak’s tamping down on the opposition and the assumption that his son was going to become his successor. More recently, another movement began on the internet protesting for a young man who was beaten to death by the police. His name is Khalid Saeed and there’s been a big movement saying ‘All of us are Khalid Saeed’ in Egypt. So there’s been a lot of anger that has been rising, but it has not been reported much in the news.

Q: Were you surprised that Mubarak finally decided to resign?
I was. After his speech [on Feb. 10], I was quite surprised and I was very worried. The only thing that I found hopeful was that the protestors in Egypt did not back down and their numbers increased, and in such a nonviolent manner. That gave me some hope but I had no idea that this would happen. From what I understand from the people with whom I’m speaking and from what I’m watching, there was pressure within the military to have him step down in response to the fact that people just would not leave the streets. But I think it is a wonderful beginning.

Q: Do you think this is the beginning of a democratic transition in Egypt or is it too early to determine?
I think that it is certainly a step towards the voices of the majority of Egyptians actually being heard. When I look at what I think a democratic transition would mean, I see this as an Egyptian civil rights movement and a national civil rights movement. When you saw those people praying and having water cannons hosing them down as they continued to pray, I felt that was just as powerful an image as what we were seeing in Alabama two generations ago. The fact that this was the entire country, the fact that I think this was one of the first nonviolent movements in the Arab World, I think, yes, if we think civil rights movements are a part of democracy then I do think this is definitely a beginning.

Q: Some commentators have stated that Egypt is not yet ready for full-fledged democracy because the country could end up with the Muslim Brotherhood in power. What do you say to this argument?
First of all, I think there is an irrational and uninformed bias against the Muslim Brotherhood here. There’s been some good reporting done in the American mainstream media but there are some so-called Middle East specialists who feel that the Muslim Brotherhood is exactly like Hamas, is exactly like Hezbollah, is exactly like parts of the Iranian government. This, to me, just demonstrates how far we have to come in our education, what different Muslim groups mean and what their politics are in different countries across this vast region. The Muslim Brotherhood has been a part of Egyptian politics, off and on, for almost the last 90 years, and in many ways, they are willing to participate with the groups, but they cannot take over. They just don’t have the strength to do so.

Q: What do you think these events mean for the future of Egypt?
I think, honestly, that if we take a careful look at Egyptian history, Egypt had a revolution in 1919 that brought in a parliament; Egypt had a revolution in 1952 that probably carried in a much too power-loaded presidency, but Egyptians have a history with liberal politics and liberalism in politics. This is a country where people are educated. Let them figure it out, and let them define their own democracy. No, it’s not going to look like Washington, D.C., but it will be theirs.

Originally published on February 17, 2011