Five College Community Rallies to Support Democracy in Egypt
By Yi Lu ’14, Contributing Writer
Nearly 200 students, activists and residents from the Five College area and beyond took to the streets on Saturday, marching from UMass Haigis Hall to Frost Library to express their solidarity with Egyptian protesters. They demanded that the US government withdraw its long-time support for the Mubarak regime and respect the Egyptian people’s freedom to chart their country’s political future.

Holding banners such as “Power to the People” and “Go Mubarak Go,” the marchers came in twos, in threes, in throngs, and quickly gathered at UMass Haigis Hall, where they were greeted by representatives of twelve sponsoring organizations, including Amherst College Students for Justice in Palestine.

“Last night, we were on a Skype call with our Arabic instructor in Cairo and he told us about the situation there,” said Cora Lively, a senior at Marlboro College, VT, who drove from Vermont with four other friends. “We got really upset and decided to come.”

The Saturday rally came at a time when Egypt has become engulfed in civil unrest since Jan. 25. Frustrated by poverty, youth unemployment and long-time political repression, thousands of Egyptians occupied Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square and demanded the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years of authoritarian rule. There have been peaceful sit-ins, raging confrontations and extensive crackdowns.

As of Feb. 7, more than 300 people have died in the protests, according to the UN. Banks, shops and museums have been looted and remained closed for almost two weeks. More than 700 protesters and journalists have been arrested. Egypt, often regarded as one of the most stable Arab nations, is in rage.

“Brick by brick, wall by wall, we’ll see Mubarak fall”

Around 1:15 p.m, the procession began.

“I am happy that the Egyptian people finally stood up and are building a stronger coalition themselves,” said Dr. Mohamed Elgadi, coordinator of the Amherst chapter of Amnesty International. Elgadi is half Egyptian and went to college in Egypt. “It’s time that we rally in support of their efforts.”

Although the 12 sponsoring organizations — ranging from the Amherst International Socialist Organization to the Palestinian Solidarity Bridge — advocate different causes, they all demand that the Egyptian people should have the autonomy to determine the next step of the power transition.

“People in every country know what they want for their country,” said Claudia Lefko, a long-time activist who runs a children’s art exchange program in Iraq. “I believe the people will ultimately rise up and get a government that they want.”

Quickly, the chant changed. Hope still burned bright for the capacity of the Egyptian people, but the sentiment now focused on criticizing US continued support for the regime and more broadly, US foreign policy in the Middle East.

“The billions of dollars that the US supplies Mubarak and his regime makes us complicit in the oppression that the Egyptian people are fighting so hard against.” Joey Kelly ’11 said. “Rather than claiming that the US is bringing democracy to the rest of the world, the Egyptian people are showing us the true spirit of democracy.”

According to the State Department website, currently US military aid to Egypt totals over $1.3 billion annually, in addition to $28 billion in developmental aid. Many marchers voiced their skepticism about whether the US government is truly concerned about the democratic transition in Egypt or if it is “merely scrambling for another puppet to serve its own strategic interest in the Middle East.”

“It’s like sending a wolf into a chicken coop,” Lefko said. “The idea that our country may step into the process is very dangerous to me.”

“The people, united, will never be defeated”

By 1:50 p.m, the crowd had gathered on the steps of Frost Library. The rain has settled into a drizzle, yet the marchers’ mood remained elated.

Michael Fiorentino, representing Western Massachusetts Coalition for Palestine, first addressed the crowd.

“It’s great to see all of you from different political affiliations and interests, starting to come together,” he said. “I hope we may think about what we may bring to the table from Massachusetts and tell the Egyptian people that we are finally demanding US imperialists, ‘Hands off!’”

Amid intermittent chants and cheers, representatives from the 12 organizations each took the stage, their voices buoyed against the February chill. Many chose to speak about their own causes, such as Free Palestine and the Darfur genocide.

Last to speak was Roman Gautum ’11, representing Amherst College Students for Justice in Palestine. Rejecting media reports about Wikileaks as a hacking attack, he emphasized that social media is a powerful outlet of civil dissent.

“We need to make sure what happens online and then happens on the streets of Egypt happen again,” he said. “The internet is our new commons. Defend it.”

Some marchers expressed a gnawing feeling that the sponsoring organizations do not have a coherent agenda beyond a radical flair.

“The rally needs to clarify what they mean by ‘solidarity,’” Andre Wang ’14 said. “After all, supporting the freedom of protests and supporting the termination of the dictatorship are drastically different.”

Wang concluded that the rally was “loud in passion but stammering in ideology.”

But some defended that the mission of the rally, contrary to popular cynicism, is not to assign blame or to prescribe any immediate solution to the crisis; rather, it is about creating a broad platform for different activist groups to come together and reaffirm common democratic values of freedom.

“The rally was not, as some are inclined to see it, an expression of blind anti-Americanism, although the reduction of reasoned political positions to 10-word chants invariably results in jarringly crude formulations along the lines of ‘US out of the Middle East,’” Gautam said. “I did not march against America, but in defense of the democratic ideals that this nation rightly espouses but does not always uphold.”

In addition to concerns about the coherency of the rally, some expressed concerns about the rally’s representation, despite the sizable number of people present.

“I was surprised that none of the Egyptian students or residents showed up,” said Dr. Mohamed Elgadi in a post-rally email interview.

He also lamented the absence of other minority groups, especially “the Latino and African voices,” and believed the outreach “could have been more effective.”

What was also noticeably missing from the rally, however, was the presence of Amherst students. A few observed the rally from Frost, and less than ten followed the entire event.

“Most of the students I’ve talked to aren’t so aware of the Egyptian situation,” David Baird ’14 said. “They know it’s going on, but they don’t often realize why.”

Many students confirmed that they knew about event, but believed their participation would make little difference.

Such attitude is perhaps what the rally is hoping to change.

“Try telling millions of people in Tahrir Square, Egypt that protests don’t matter, that protests don’t do anything, that protests don’t bring any change,” Michael Fiorentino said at the end of the rally, his voice booming, “What we are doing here today is only the start of a process here.”

Issue 14, Submitted 2011-02-09 02:26:15