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Egyptian scholars talk revolution at Mills College

on February 24, 2011

Egypt changed forever after its recent popular uprising and the February 11 ouster of its president, Hosni Mubarak. With all eyes fixed on the North African nation, two Egyptian-born scholars drew a riveted audience at Mills College in Oakland on Wednesday night at an event dedicated to discussing the revolution’s finer points.

The panel featured Dr. Nezar AlSayyad, the Chair of the Center for Middle East Studies at UC Berkeley, and Yasmeen Daifallah, PhD candidate at UC Berkeley and lecturer at Cairo University. The two discussed issues and answered questions on topics like military control and gender roles in front of roughly 100 guests in Mills’ Student Union—a solid turnout for a school of just 1,000 undergraduates.

Their talk was sponsored by Mills’ Muslim Students Association. Association president Sahar Momand said she and her fellow association members had heard people discussing the revolution on campus, and wanted to provide some details. “We felt it was our duty to inform people about what is going on over there,” she said.

Dr. AlSayyad spoke first, and began with a quote: “Egypt has passed through a critical period in her recent history characterized by bribery and mischief.” For many, this seems to perfectly characterize Egypt’s recent shift in power—Mubarak’s 30-year presidential term was thought by many to be fraught with corruption and tyranny. But AlSayyad was simply being coy. The quote came from Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s third president, in 1952 after the military overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and instituted the “democracy” of which Mubarak was a product. AlSayyad’s point: This isn’t Egypt’s first revolutionary rodeo.

AlSayyad gave a thorough rundown of the 2011 revolution step-by-step, beginning in mid-January with Tunisian protesters’ insistence that its longtime autocratic ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, step down and flee the country. This episode set off a domino effect in the region, where mass protests have called for the departure of autocratic leaders of democratic governments in countries like Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya ever since.

But nowhere did the push for democracy take hold—or have the result, so far—as it did in Egypt. Within days of Ben Ali’s ouster, Egyptians of all stripes banded together in protest, demanding Mubarak cede power and leave the country. When he finally did on February 11, 2011, transferring power to the military, the world knew history had been made. What is unclear, said AlSayyad, is how Egypt’s transition to a new government will shake out.

“I think it is important to take a more tempered attitude toward the prospects,” said AlSayyad, referring to the high-pitched excitement and relentless optimism many have been expressing over Egypt’s democratic elections slated to occur in fall of 2011.

In Egypt, he said, there are now two Mubarak-instituted factions that will play major roles in the coming months: the military and the massive “security apparatus,” which is comprised of many offices, from the infamous Egyptian police force (known for its abrupt use of force) and the Department of the Interior (or, rather, what is better described as the Department of Security). The security apparatus employs 1.5 million people, which is significant in a country of 80 million people.

AlSayyad said it will be difficult for the military to control the security apparatus because its sheer size and because it is such a prominent employer. While AlSayyad commended the military for refusing to use force against Egyptian civilians during the protests, he noted that many military branches profited under Mubarak. It might be hard, he suggested, for them to forgo their economic interests in the interest of democracy.

AlSayyad also pointed out that the military has left Mubarak’s cabinet in place, which is of some concern to those who demanded his overthrow. They did, however, add “a few reasonable people,” said AlSayyad. “So, what happens remains to be seen.”

AlSayyad ended his talk on a high note, closing with a discussion of his true passion—urban history and planning. He talked about the significance of Tahrir Square, the space in Cairo where much of the protesting unfolded, and its newfound status as an international symbol of freedom. In Arabic, Tahrir means “liberation.” Everything from the non-violent protests based in Tahrir to the intense cleaning of the square by civilians post-protests symbolized the dawning of a new reality for the country.

He then gave the floor to Yasmeen Daifallah, who concentrated on the role of Egyptian women in the revolution and whether a recently increased female presence will influence the country’s governance in the future. Daifallah showed a series of images throughout her talk, and many of them were unusual for protests in the Arab world. Women—of every socio-economic class and religion—were suddenly on the scene. Women were taking part in every facet of the movement, lifting spirits, using social media to post videos and organize, and leading chants in Tahrir.

Daifallah talked about the significance of this, considering women’s very limited role in Egyptian public life in recent decades. “The presence of women in the government has been meager—2.2 percent are women. The labor force is 22.3 percent women, and 12 percent of college graduate are women,” said Daifallah. “But there was a lot of female activity in the informal economy, informal networks—in volunteer organizations, for example, in places where statistics don’t come into play.”

Daifallah added that if women did come out to protest in past decades, it would be a very specific type of woman depending on the cause. For example, if the protest had an Islamic bent to it, veiled women or women who cover their hair and their face might be a common sight. Other brands of protests might draw more secular, socialist-leaning women. Rarely, however, would the two meet as they did in Tahrir Square.

Daifallah said that regardless of generation, religion—including secular, Muslim, and Coptic Christian women—or socio-economic standing, every type of Egyptian women was involved in calling for Mubarak’s ouster. The “jean clad” women and the “niqab clad,” or veiled women, found a common cause, she said.

Daifallah said going forward, she hopes women will continue to play an active role in the election and in the forming of a new Egyptian government—for now, she is guardedly optimistic.

Either way, she said, the example of women coming together across boundaries is indicative of collective spirit of this revolution. “The very idea of this revolution is that there is no solidification around one person or creed or dogma or the ideology,” said Daifallah. “And although there is something worrisome about this, I think it allows us to retain the creative spirit of the revolution.”

AlSayyad agreed, and maintained there is hope for the rest of the world if Egyptians can break free from the void an autocratic leader leaves in his wake. “I think that the Arab world has vast differences in political culture. What they have in common is that ruthless dictators have created a vacuum; once they are in power, nothing happens. None of the political parties have any legitimacy in Egypt,” AlSayyad said. “The Egyptian revolution will succeed if it is able to create a political culture despite the absence of one.”

Image: Dr. Nezar AlSayyad, the Chair of the Center of Middle East Studies at UC Berkeley, and Yasmeen Daifallah, UC Berkeley PhD candidate and Cairo University lecturer, discuss the future of Egypt at Mills College on Wednesday night.


  1. Brian on March 4, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    There was a great article in back\slash magazine (the college lifestyle magazine) about why the US College Demographic is on the brink of “REVOLUTION.” The article can be found here… I highly recommend reading it:

  2. Now-A-Days Part 2 | So You Want A Revolution? on March 30, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    […] No Comments · Uncategorized Dr. AlSayyad describes his nation of Egypt by stating “Egypt has passed through a critical period in her recent history characterized by bribery and mis… at a panel discussion at Mills College in Oakland. This public Q and A featured not only Dr. […]

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