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Egyptian MU students reflect on protests in their home country

Tuesday, February 8, 2011 | 5:37 p.m. CST; updated 11:03 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters shout slogans as they march in Alexandria, Egypt, on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of Egyptians have been demonstrating in Cairo and other cities, calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Arabic reads "Egypt, one nation, one blood."

COLUMBIA — More than 6,000 miles away from their home country, two MU students from Egypt are closely watching the protests in Tahrir Square.

Both say they are proud of their countrymen, the cause they're fighting for and the attention Egypt has received in the world press. They have great hopes for their country's future.

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"Everyone is talking about the revolution," said Farid El-Sayed, 25, a doctoral student in biochemistry.

"I feel so proud," said Mervet Mahmoud, 32, who is pursuing a degree in entomology. "I have this feeling that Egypt is not a small country."

She paused, looked away briefly and smiled.

"It's a very, very big country — from its role in the Middle East to its role in the whole world. Everywhere, everyone is asking about Egypt and eager to know what is going on and how it will be ended."‬‬

The country and its people have thousands of years of rich history, El-Sayed said, during which they've built pyramids, fought wars and won Nobel Prizes.

"This is very simply — this is Egypt," he said, clasping his hands together. "I'm trying to pick some examples that represent the value of Egypt."

This history, as retold through the voices of two Egyptians, gives some perspective to what these protests mean to those on the streets of Cairo and surrounding areas, where CBS News reports 297 people have died.

‪The protests began Jan. 25, sparked by the revolution in nearby Tunisia, along with accusations of corruption in the government. El-Sayed said Jan. 25 is traditionally the day Egyptian police celebrate their achievements, and the protesters purposely picked it to begin their demonstrations.‬

Now beginning their third week of protests, demonstrators remain camped on Tahrir Square, despite police intimidation and violence, as well as official efforts to appease them with reforms.

They continue to call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down. Mubarak has been in power for 30 years — a period in which he has maintained peace — but he has been accused of staying in power through questionable elections and paving the way for his son to be his successor.

He has since announced he will not seek re-election in September.

‪El-Sayed, who is from Cairo, said his family and friends are among the protesters, and some of his friends have been severely injured.‬

‪"This revolution is purely Egyptian," he said. "I was dying to go back to Egypt to share with everyone. All the Egyptians here, we were not sleeping."‬

‪Three days after the initial protest — a day known as the "Friday of Anger" — the government began blocking access to the Internet and cell phones. El-Sayed said this was the only day he was unable to talk to his family.

Qena, Mahmoud's hometown, is an eight-hour train ride from Cairo. Given the distance, her family is safe, she said, and she has been able to talk to them over the phone.‬

Mubarak waited until three days into the protests to react to the events with a speech in which he told Egyptians he regretted the deaths on both sides. He also said the protests would not have occurred without freedom of speech and assembly.

El-Sayed called the speech "very weak."

‪"The problem is the government's response was very late," he said.‬

‪He believes the government employed counter-revolutionary tactics to cause chaos, such as removing police protection so criminals could sack the city. Eventually, the protesters formed self-watch groups and turned violent people over to the military, he said.

Mahmoud said the real protesters are ordinary people, peaceful and committed.‬

"They want to live in dignity. They want to live in peace."‬

‪Mubarak gave a second speech on Feb. 1 in which he said he had formed a new government "with new priorities and duties that respond to the demand of our youth and their mission," according to The Guardian in London.

He appointed his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, as his new vice president. Mubarak said Suleiman would hold dialogues with those who had political concerns.

"My primary responsibility now is security and independence of the nation to ensure a peaceful transfer of power in circumstances that protect Egypt and the Egyptians and allow handing over responsibility to whoever the people choose in the coming presidential election," Mubarak told the Egyptian people.

Mubarak also named a prime minister: Ahmad Shafiq, the aviation minister.

El-Sayed called the vice president a "very good person" and the prime minister "very clean."

‪The appointments persuaded more Egyptians to want to work with the president, he said. But on Feb. 2, after a period of relative quiet, the protesters were attacked.

‪"I felt that he gave the speech to say, 'I'll do what you are asking for,' but the other day he wanted to show, 'you are not forcing me to do anything. I still have power. I can kick you if I want,'" El-Sayed said.

In a new wave of demonstrations in Tahrir Square on Tuesday, protesters rejected the political overture and called for the immediate resignation of Mubarak.

‪Even so, El-Sayed said, if Mubarak shows flawless leadership, he can finish his term in September with respect.‬

‪"We do not wish anything bad for him. We do not want anything except our country to be clean,"‬ El-Sayed said.

"On the other hand, none of the Egyptians will forget the 300 guys who died and the 5,000 guys who were severely injured in these protests due to the violent way the police dealt with the protesters."

Mahmoud said Mubarak has done "a lot of good things and a lot of bad things"‬‬ throughout his presidency. She said she's always liked Mubarak as a leader and as a wise president.

But she added he has passed laws giving security forces and the military too much power, causing Egyptians to live in fear.‬‬

Both El-Sayed and Mahmoud described Egyptians as emotional.

"I know my people," El-Sayed said. "They are very, very kind and very peaceful and very united."

Although Mahmoud supports the protesters, she said Mubarak should facilitate a smooth transition.

‪‪"For Mubarak to stay now during what is going on in Egypt, I think is very right of him," she said.

El-Sayed said Mubarak should take "quick steps" to show that he will work with protesters, both short and long term.

Mahmoud said she wants Egyptians to have a voice in their government.

‪‪"First, it will be free elections. We will choose what we want — what is the best for the country, and everyone will be 100 percent honest," she said. "We have enough speech. We need real action."‬‬

El-Sayed said Egypt needs to once again be the leader of the region and offer opportunities to the brightest minds.

According to the CIA World Factbook 2010, 20 percent of the Egyptian population lived below the poverty line in 2005. El-Sayed said it is even more today.

"They do not deserve that," he said.

El-Sayed said his uncle took his 10-year-old son to the protests, despite the danger. When asked why, his uncle responded: "He should understand. He should love his country."

For El-Sayed, it is a matter of returning the country to greatness. He wants "Egypt to be Egypt."

"If you know what Egypt means, you will understand what I am saying," he said.


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