The University of California has suspended its study abroad program in Egypt and announced yesterday that it will evacuate students from Cairo.
Inspired by revolution in Tunisia, tens of thousands of demonstrators have taken to Cairo streets over the past week to protest the government of President Hosni Mubarak. Anti-government protesters are planning a “march of millions” today in a continued effort to force Mubarak’s resignation, according to the Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera.
It is UC policy to suspend study abroad programs in countries affected by U.S. State Department travel warnings, said Andrea Delap, a senior analyst for the UC Education Abroad Program.
“Egypt is a fluid situation and we are monitoring it closely,” Delap said. “We are working through appropriate channels to keep any University of California students who might be traveling in the region at this time informed and secure.”
Delap refused to disclose the number of UC students in Egypt or whether any of them were from UC Davis.
The uprising hits close to home for Egyptians studying and teaching in Davis.
Telephone and Internet blackouts have made it nearly impossible for junior Chantal Boctor to keep in touch with her family in Cairo. She moved to the U.S. three years ago to study political science at UCD.
“The bank on my street was burglarized Friday night,” said Boctor, whose family lives just a few blocks from Tahrir Square, ground zero for demonstrations in Cairo. “People are breaking into other people’s homes and trying to steal stuff.”
Seven students and one scholar from Egypt are currently studying at UC Davis, said Wes Young, director of the campus’ Services for International Students and Scholars.
Karim Mahfouz, a 20-year-old economics major from Cairo who arrived in Davis since September, said dozens of his friends and cousins planned to participate in today’s march.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I know at least 30 or 40 people going,” he said. “The army has promised not to use force, so it should be peaceful.”
With 80 million people, Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country. Egyptians have taken to the streets in protest before, but never to this degree or for this long. Al Jazeera reported that at least 150 have died in protests across the country since last Monday.
UCD history professor Omnia El Shakry said via e-mail that the demonstrators are doing what needs to be done.
“They are resisting a violently oppressive regime that has exploited and tortured its citizens for decades,” said El Shakry, who was born in Egypt, lived there for a decade and studied at the American University in Cairo. “On a political and historical level I think this is a momentous event, a revolutionary transformation from below, long in the making.”
El Shakry believes the U.S. now has a critical opportunity to show that it is committed to democratic reform.
“Egyptians and others in the Middle East will be watching the U.S. response very closely to see if long-standing calls for democratization are simply doublespeak,” she said.
But those hoping for a true democratic republic to blossom in Egypt shouldn’t hold their breath, said Elias Tuma, an emeritus professor of economics at UC Davis.
Only 58 percent of Egyptians can read and write, according to U.S. State Department figures. That’s one of the biggest obstacles to positive change, Tuma said.
“They don’t know about democracy – they probably don’t even know how to spell the word in Arabic,” he said.
Tuma, who grew up in the Arab village of Kafr Yasif in northern Israel and lived in Egypt when Mubarak became president in 1981, said democracy must become part of the culture practiced in homes, schools and businesses.
“Democracy cannot be installed like you push a button,” he said.
Hossein Farzin, an agricultural and resource economics professor, agreed that illiteracy is a major problem, but for a different reason.
“Illiteracy is a good field for the fundamentalist Islamists to sow their seeds,” he said. “They basically brainwash the illiterate and use their emotion rather than their rational thinking.”
Farzin, who has worked as an economist for the World Bank and advised the governments of Kuwait, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, said there is a serious risk that if Mubarak’s government is deposed, radical Islamists could turn back the clock on any democratic progress Egypt has made.
“They are just waiting, waiting to hijack this movement,” Farzin said.
Shayma Hassouna, an Egyptian citizen who is lecturer in Arabic at UC Davis, said via e-mail that Americans can learn a lot from what is happening in Egypt.
In America, Hassouna said, we take for granted that our votes are counted, that we will not be arrested for no reason, that we can fire our leaders if they are not meeting our needs, that torture is unacceptable and that human life is worth something.
“Some people live and die without getting a taste of any of this,” she said. “Young Egyptians have decided that it is time for them to try a little bit of this delicious thing called dignity and freedom.”
JEREMY OGUL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.