It started as a series of self-immolations in Tunisia, Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern countries. That sparked a wave of popular protests to the low standards of living and authoritarian regimes found there. And as protesters camp out for yet another day in the streets and squares of Cairo, students and faculty on the Knox campus wonder how it will end.
“The impact on the stability of the region is of major concern,” said Professor of Political Science Sue Hulett.
For years, a tenuous peace agreement has existed between predominantly Muslim Egypt and the regionally reviled Jewish state of Israel, backed diplomatically and financially by the United States. Hosini Mubarak, president of Egypt since 1981, has worked to keep that peace in place.
“Mubarak has been a good ally in holding the peace,” Hulett said. “But you have to be supportive of a popular revolt over an authoritarian ruler.”
While the protests do signal a possible change in the political landscape from corruption to open democracy, groups already jockeying for position in the forecasted transition may not have the best result for the region. One of those groups is the Muslim Brotherhood.
“This is a radical organization dedicated to overturning the peace process,” Hulett said.
While issues of peace and stability will be decided in the months and years to come, some Knox students are left to wonder how their friends are doing now in the tumultuous social and political situation.
“I’m afraid,” senior Tim Schmeling said. “I have friends in Egypt that I haven’t been able to hear from since [the protests] started.”
Protests lasting for weeks straight have left the transportation and supply structures in Egypt undermanned and woefully below capacity. Combined with pro-government supporters inciting violence in the demonstrations and the only recently ended information blackout, it can be hard not to worry about friends and family in the region.
“One of my friends was tear gassed and he had just been staying in his apartment all day,” said junior Lizzy Johnson, who studied abroad in Egypt during fall term 2010.
With all of the problems and issues involved, it can be difficult to see how these cases of civil unrest and popular revolt will come to a happy conclusion. Hulett hopes that the United States can help guide the region away from complete collapse and that Turkey’s example of balancing a Muslim population with secular government will prevail.
Bowing to the popular pressure, Mubarak will step down and not run for re-election, but what will happen next in the short term is not by any means clear.
“The people in the streets won’t stop protesting until he leaves,” Johnson said.
The one thing that students can be certain of is that they are witnessing history being written.
“Mostly, I’m excited,” Schmeling said. “We’re seeing democracy in action.”