Egypt protests stir a jumble of emotions for Egyptian-Americans

Egypt developments have relatives in the US feeling immense pride for the people of Egypt but being unimpressed with America’s response.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Protesters gather before Friday prayers at Tehrir Square in Cairo on Feb. 4.

Noura Fadel grew up in the posh Heliopolis suburb of Cairo, blocks from the presidential palace, the official residence of President Hosni Mubarak. Ms. Fadel was born a year after Mr. Mubarak assumed office and has known no leader but him.

Though she came to the United States four years ago to “leave a corrupt educational system and get a quality education,” she says she bears Mubarak no ill will.

“I don’t hate him. He did a lot of things; I don’t want to ignore what he did,” says Fadel, sitting in her sparely decorated apartment in Rochester, N.Y. “He served his country for 30 years, 20 years [of which] were good.... I want him to leave in dignity ... but he needs to leave.”

Fadel says she was so distressed by the tense situation in Egypt that she went in late to work, contacted her family in Cairo, and watched streaming video of the protests on her cellphone.

“At the beginning [of the demonstrations] I was happy, proud, because it was peaceful,” Fadel says. “Now everyone is scared ... how much more violence?”

A week and a half after protesters took to the streets of Egypt to demand a new leader and sweeping reforms, Egyptian-Americans in the US are anxiously following media reports of the peaceful uprising-turned-dangerous. They’re calling friends and family overseas to ascertain their safety and get the latest news on an event many thought they’d never see in their lives.

For Egyptian-Americans, the events have led to a jumble of emotions – from pride in the people of Egypt, to a desire to do something, to alarm at the violent developments.

“What I am seeing in the news is heartbreaking,” says Soumaya Khalifa, an Egyptian-born American and founder of Khalifa Consulting in Atlanta. “The youths have the right idea about democracy ... but my heart is aching because of the clashes. I was truly hoping for a peaceful change,” says Ms. Khalifa, who was following the demonstrations on two TVs, a couple of laptops, Twitter, and Facebook.

The US is home to at least 200,000 people of Egyptian descent, according to the US Census, although other estimates put the figure closer to 2 million. Many of them came to America to pursue education, find better jobs, or escape corrupt bureaucracy, like Fadel.

During the past week and a half, Egyptian-Americans have mobilized, organizing demonstrations across the US to support the protesters, arranging letter-writing campaigns, and holding prayer sessions at local mosques and churches.

The reasons they left for the US – poor living conditions, high unemployment, and corruption at home – are the same conditions, they say, that protesters want to change.

“People are protesting because their everyday lives have become unmanageable,” writes Mona Atia in an e-mail. “With stalled job opportunities, stagnant wages, and basic needs like food and oil prices skyrocketing, the majority of people see a grim future for themselves. This is especially true for the youth, who face higher unemployment rates,” says Ms. Atia, a professor of geography and international affairs at George Washington University.

Many Egyptian-Americans say their grievances are directed not just at Mubarak, but also at President Obama and the US, which they say is responsible for supporting Mubarak’s 30-year regime. So far, many have been unimpressed with the US response.

“The main message I got was, ‘We don’t know how to deal with this, so we’re going to come in with vague statements,’ ” says Alia Galal, an assistant at a talent agency in Los Angeles. “Obama, you fueled this with your beautiful speech [in Cairo in 2009]. Now they’re listening to you. Where are you now?”

She adds, “I will give him this: He is in the toughest position out of anyone standing on earth now ... but for him to not stand up [is frustrating].”

Tarek Saadawi agrees and says he holds the US responsible for the events that led up to the protests.

“The US administration has been supporting a dictator's regime and in the meantime calling for democracy in Egypt and the Middle East,” says Mr. Saadawi, a professor at the City University of New York and a board member of the Alliance of Egyptian Americans. “It's shameful ... a double standard. Now it's a golden opportunity for the US to gain credibility among the Egyptian people. The Obama administration shouldn't hesitate and drag its feet in fully supporting the uprising.”

While displeasure with America’s stance and anger at Mubarak have been common among Egyptian-Americans, another feeling has also taken hold: immense pride.

“I’m just feeling so empowered, elated,” says Ms. Galal, who studied at the American University in Cairo as a college student. “I used to walk the streets of Tahrir to go to American University, so to see the footage and the imploding of emotions was overwhelming. I love Egypt; I’m proud of who I am – my bloodlines and rich history,” she says, noting that she had worn the colors of the Egyptian flag to work that day.

For many Egyptian-Americans, their pride is rooted in witnessing a transformation in their countrymen – a move away from apathy, as Khalifa of Atlanta describes.

“It seems there is an awakening happening in Egypt,” she says. “People have stopped doing simple things like throwing trash in the street. Now young men and women are cleaning the streets, providing security. [Egyptians] thought they couldn’t do anything. All of a sudden, they saw they can and did.”

Saadawi’s daughter, Ranya Saadawi, is working in Cairo. She confirms that Egyptians are reclaiming their streets.

“When the police disappeared from the streets, we set up neighborhood watch groups to monitor the streets and buildings in the evening,” Ms. Saadawi writes in an e-mail from Cairo. “Ordinary citizens, teenagers, are directing traffic and setting up checkpoints to ensure safety and security in the neighborhoods.”

Born and raised in New Jersey, Saadawi recently went to Egypt to pursue her interest in development work – and found herself in the midst of the uprising. Rather than look for the next flight out of Cairo, Saadawi rushed to join the protests.

“Egyptians have broken the seal of fear in a way that nobody could have predicted,” she says. “As an Egyptian-American, I have never been prouder in my life to be an Egyptian.”

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