This semester began just days after Tunisian President Ben Ali’s exile and shortly before Cairo erupted in protests calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Students across the Claremont Colleges have engaged in conversation about the political implications of the revolutions and the new face of social change, in both formal and personal settings.
Naira de Gracia PO ’14, who led a student discussion about the Egyptian revolution at Frank Dining Hall on Feb. 3, lived in Egypt for two years before college.
“The worst part was being away from it. Cell phone service was shut off, but I was able to talk to my parents on their land-line and I watched Al Jazeera 24/7,” she said. “When Mubarak stepped down, I was so excited. I ran down my hall screaming.”
De Gracia’s parents, both journalists, live in Egypt.
“The regime was targeting foreign journalists, so if they had ventured too far, something could have happened,” she said. “My father broke two ligaments running from flying stones thrown by the militia.”
Pundits and journalists have commented on the integral role of social media and technology in the revolution.
“Facebook and Twitter got the ball rolling,” de Gracia said. “Political activists saw their children stepping up, and the old generation followed the new generation’s lead.” She explained that by the time the government blocked internet access on Jan. 25, the movement no longer depended on digital communication.
“It didn’t matter—people on the streets were calling up to people in apartment buildings, telling them to join,” she said.
“It was obviously orchestrated by young people,” said Rodrigo Ranero PO ’14, who attended de Gracia’s discussion at Frank. He mentioned the fact that the revolution was leaderless as an indication of social media’s role in organizing the people.
“There is a core of activists who have been using the internet,” said Pomona History Professor Victor Silverman. “But the vast majority [of Egyptians] don’t have internet access. Using these particular tools restricts who is going to be involved. Middle class people are over-represented.”
He explained that the militia are targeting working class union strikers.
“[Protestors’] ability to extend beyond a [middle-class dominated group] is questionable. The fact that the military feels that it can go after strikers is indicative of this,” he said.
Silverman is one of five Middle East scholars who will speak on a panel entitled “Egypt for the Egyptians” on Feb. 24 in Hahn 101.
Ranero, who is from Guatemala, said he noticed a lack of interest in the uprisings among the student body and mentioned that international students seemed have more knowledge about the revolutions.
“We are studying abroad, so we’re usually very infused with what’s going on in the world—more so than students from the States,” he said. “I’ve experienced a lot of dialogue because of my International Relations class, but there should be more interest. We’re in school worried about essays when people are fighting for something as basic as their freedom.”
Ranero said he was frustrated by what he views as hypocrisy on the part of the US government.
“The U.S. is a promoter of democracy but has been supporting Mubarak for a lot of years because of economic interests,” he said.
Current protests in Libya and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa demonstrate what Ranero referred to as a “domino effect.”
De Gracia was in Egypt over winter break, when the uprising in Tunisia was just beginning.
“Some people predicted the domino effect,” she said. “But lots of people didn’t believe them because Egyptians are known for being lazy!”
On the current state of affairs in Egypt, de Gracia said, “People want regularity and routine back. They’re ecstatic, and it’s nice to have the uncertainty over with.”
“Whatever its limitations, this is a fantastic moment for Egypt, for Tunisia, and for the people in the Arab world in general,” Silverman said. “After decades of brutal repression, the fact that they can move towards more democratic societies, and the fact that it came about because people demanded, it gives me hope.”