Hickman students invite Derrik Sweeney to speak about Egypt arrest

Wednesday, December 7, 2011 | 7:29 p.m. CST; updated 7:47 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Derrik Sweeney, the Jefferson City resident who was held in Egypt, speaks to senior Fatima El-Walid, left, at Hickman High School after giving a presentation to the Amnesty International club. Sweeney and El-Walid were speaking Arabic to each other, laughing because Sweeney studies Arabic at Georgetown and learned the Egyptian dialect, and she speaks a Libyan dialect of Arabic, which made it hard for them to understand each other.

COLUMBIA — Since his deportation from Egypt, friends, family and reporters have frequently asked Derrik Sweeney to tell the story of his arrest at Tahrir Square.

But Wednesday was the first time he has done so onstage.

Sweeney, 19, of Jefferson City, was arrested in Cairo on Nov. 22 after being accused of throwing a firebomb during a protest. He was detained and interrogated by Egyptian authorities for a week, before returning to the United States on Nov. 26. He was invited by Hickman High School's chapter of Amnesty International to speak to students and faculty about his experiences in Egypt.

The chapter includes about 30 students, and is affiliated with the national organization focused on the promotion of human rights.

Keeping his white high tops planted squarely on either side of the microphone stand, Sweeney seemed comfortable telling the story of his arrest, his treatment by authorities and his subsequent removal from the country.

"There's a complete lack of respect for liberties," Sweeney said. "There's never been a real democracy or republic like we have here."

Hickman students sipped sodas and devoured pizza as they listened to Sweeney speak about the circumstances that led to Egyptians toppling their dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and the weekly protests that still occur in Tahrir Square.

"The government that is in power was supposed to change the ways of Mubarak, but they're doing exactly the same thing,"Sweeney said. "There were a lot of Egyptians who were treated way worse than we were."

Sweeney laced details of his experience together with his love of the Arabic language and his opinions about Egyptian, Arab and Islamic cultures. He went to Cairo on Aug. 20 to continue the Arabic studies he'd started at Georgetown University. He told the group he wants to read the Koran in its original language.

Fatmah El-Walid, a senior at Hickman, said she mostly liked what Sweeney had to say about Islam.

"I was kind of proud of what he was saying," she said. "He represented the ideas better."

El-Walid said she's been involved with Amnesty International since her sophomore year. 

"I have a sense of pride when my Americanism coordinates with my Islamic ways," El-Walid said.

El-Walid's family is Libyan. When protests demanding regime change erupted across the Middle East and North Africa earlier this year, she said her family stayed glued to the news.

Eli Byerly-Duke, 16, said there is a small group of high school students in Columbia who follow the political changes in the Middle East and North Africa closely. He said he has been following the events of the Arab Spring since reading a New York Times article at the beginning of the movement.

"Living in the Midwest, there are not very many people who have experienced cool places like Tahrir, so it was worthwhile for that," he said of Sweeney's speech.

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