Despite Uncertainty, Optimism Prevails
As demonstrations and uprisings continue to sweep across North Africa and the Middle East, UMass Lowell experts on Egypt and the region gathered to reflect on recent events, offer background and perspective, and discuss the transition to a more open system of governance.
The panel, Egypt’s Future: Reflections and Dialogue, was sponsored by UMass Lowell’s Center for Middle East Peace, Development and Culture. Prof. Paula Rayman, the Center’s director, moderated the discussion.
The revolution of Jan. 25 has entered the history books. That date marks the beginning of the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, an 18-day siege that culminated with the resignation of Egypt’s longtime president, Hosni Mubarak.
UMass Lowell Provost Ahmed Abdelal grew up in Egypt and has six siblings living in Cairo, including a brother who is a law professor.
“They are excited about the uprising,” said Abdelal. “This was led by the educated class and the young people. And except for the violence that erupted when they were attacked, this was a largely peaceful revolution.”
Abdelal added that Mubarak did a lot of good things in his first 10 years: “Unfortunately, he stayed for 30.”
Social Media Plays a Role
Deina Abdelkader, assistant professor of political science, is also optimistic. Originally from Egypt, she specializes in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Islamic activism and democratization in the Muslim world.
Abdelkader discussed the recent history of young Egyptians using social media, especially the case of Khaled Saeed. Saeed’s death by a police beating last summer caused an uproar. The subsequent Facebook page, “We Are All Khaled Saeed,” became a center for planning the revolt.
“The young people were afraid for themselves because they saw it happen to one of their own,” says Abdelkader, who also showed a BBC-produced map of Tahrir Square under occupation. The demonstrators were well organized, with places for artists, trash, medicine and health needs, blogging and more.
Military Future in Question
Panelist Gregory Aftandilian, now an associate of the Mideast Center, is a former Middle East analyst for the U.S. State Department and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member who served as a foreign policy fellow to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Aftandilian focused his remarks on the military and what may happen while it’s in control, noting that the military is a huge organization within Egyptian society and accustomed to having lots of autonomy.
“I think the military will be fine with civilian leadership as long as it retains its autonomy,” he says. “Eventually, the new civilian leadership will have to strike a deal about separating the political and military spheres.”
Meanwhile, changes are needed: removal of the state of emergency law, reconfiguration of the National Democratic Party so that it’s divorced from state rule, and replacement of government leaders. The military council has already taken steps to rein in the Mukhabarat, the Egyptian secret police force, and to begin a process for amending the constitution.
“I am optimistic that the military will allow these changes, as long as they believe that they will be left alone and retain autonomy,” says Aftandilian.
Upcoming Exhibit Features Young Artists
Stephen Mishol, assistant professor of art, found himself caught up in events as he prepared an exhibition, From the Nile to the Merrimack: A Selection of Contemporary Egyptian Art. Co-curated with Asst. Prof. Jim Jeffers and Rasha Ragab of the Egyptian Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition represents the work of contemporary and, for the most part, young Egyptian artists.
“As the news images showed massive crowds of demonstrators, confrontations, police violence and resistance, I began to wonder about the connection between the exhibit materials and the Egypt the world was seeing,” he says.
“Then I realized: the artists were there, too. Artists and lawyers, students and shopkeepers - this was a revolution of all the people.”
Artists in Egypt have been subject to many cultural restraints and political repressions, especially the free exchange of information.
“In a city of seven million people, there are only 35 galleries,” says Mishol. “With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see the work in the show as ‘something brewing.’ Also, both groups were digitally connected: the young artists and the revolutionaries.”
The Nile to the Merrimack exhibition is on display through March 25 at the University Gallery.