A lesson from Egypt

Andrew Sheeler
Feb. 15, 2011

On Feb. 4, while most people in Fairbanks were sleeping, history was being made on the other side of the world. Protesters filled the streets of Cairo and, without guns or bombs, were able to enact the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the 30-year tyrant of Egypt. We cannot say what will happen next, but the global is also the local, and there are men and women here at UAF with a personal stake in the fate of Egypt.

One of these people is Sabry Sabour, assistant professor of mining engineering at UAF. Sabour received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate at Assiut University in Asyut, Egypt. After getting his doctorate, Sabour left Egypt and came to UAF after first going to Canada. Sabour left Egypt in part because of the corruption and political pressure of the Mubarak regime. Under Mubarak, Sabour said, there was “no political life.”

The morning of Mubarak’s resignation, Sabour’s wife called from Canada to tell him the news. “Like most Egyptians, I’m very happy,” Sabour said. “I couldn’t believe that this would happen.” Sabour said that he was saddened to hear reports of violence against protesters, but when he learned that Mubarak had stepped down, it was like a nightmare ending.

As a citizen of Egypt, Sabour experienced Mubarak’s reign. Cheryl Hatch, the Snedden Chair of the journalism department, experienced it from a different perspective. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Hatch lived in Cairo while working as a photojournalist. During her time there, she would often have shooting assignments that took her in to Mubarak’s presidential palace.

In an interview on Feb. 4, Hatch remembers a memorable story from one of those visits. She had been in the state visitors’ room with several other photographers during a state visit. Mubarak’s men would typically rush photographers out after taking only a few shots, but Hatch’s camera had either jammed or run out of film. As the guards tried to prod her out of the room, she said “one minute, please,” in Arabic. Mubarak asked, also in Arabic, whether she spoke the language and she responded that she did. Impressed, Mubarak ordered his men to stand down and let her take her pictures.

Like Sabour, Hatch was pleased with the events of Feb. 4.

“I was so impressed they really took the path of peaceful protest,” Hatch said. Hatch characterized Egyptians as family-oriented and long-suffering under Mubarak’s reign. You can only be re-elected by a landslide so many times, Hatch said, before somebody has to say the emperor has no clothes.

The road that has taken Sabour and Hatch from Egypt to UAF has been a winding one, and their feelings vary on whether they will be returning. Sabour wants to wait and see how things develop.

“We’ll see in a few months.”

Hatch, whose love of Egyptian history, culture and mythology inspired her to name her non-profit foundation The Isis Initiative, said her feelings were mixed.

“I was ok not being there [for the uprising], at the same time I feel the pull of history,” Hatch said, “I’m sure I’ll go back.”

It’s very easy to become wrapped up in all the bad news in the headlines today. There’s plenty to be upset and disturbed by, to be sure. It becomes easy to feel as if you have no voice, no ability to make a difference. Let this serve as a reminder that is not the case. The people of Egypt took to the streets, they cast down Hosni Mubarak and they did so without using guns. Dissident and journalist alike braved Mubarak’s secret police to get the message out that Egypt was changing. It doesn’t take guns. It doesn’t take violent rhetoric. It takes people to make change, and that is something that no government can ever suppress.

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