Watching history unfold in Egypt

by Jack Stallworthy

I set off the Middle East in April to continue my Arabic studies, just as the term ‘The Arab Spring’ was becoming a nightly theme on European television screens. However the changes sweeping across the Arab world had already provided a very different ‘year abroad experience.’

The first students to be affected by the upheaval in the region were those studying in Cairo. Most students are either sent to the Egyptian capital or to Damascus (Syria) to continue their study of Arabic. The language is taught from scratch in first year, so students carry on studying the language during the year abroad rather than undertaking a work-placement or an Erasmus-like experience of studying a variety of subjects in the target language like other linguists.

One of Durham’s Arabists Toby Elsegood, from St. Cuthbert’s, stayed in Egypt during the January revolution for personal reasons and found himself trapped in his flat twenty minutes’ drive away from Tahrir square – his language school closed, the internet and mobile communications cut off and no contact from the British embassy – as chaos spread around the city. Vigilante groups formed in the street below, as residents and shop-owners sought to defend their property from looters taking advantage of the situation.

The regime had released prisoners and withdrawn the police from most areas, in order to create fear amongst the capital’s population and stem the growing for the protestors. As tear gas from a nearby clash between demonstrators and security forces diffused in the air around his home, residents took turns to guard the street against potential looting, with suspected opportunists beaten up and a shooting occurring in the street.

As the situation had settled in Egypt, protests began in Syria in March – at first isolated in the southern city of Deraa but slowly spreading to other parts of the country.The grip of regime on society was visibly much more obvious than that of Egypt’s Murbarak, with most businesses, schools and even homes having large pictures of the President Basher Al-Assad. During my first time in Damascus, not knowing how to describe how I wanted my hair cut in a Damascene barbers, I asked, pointing to the picture of the President on the wall, “to have it cut like the President’s.”

The only protests Durham students witnessed in Damascus were large pro-government rallies, organised to strengthen the position of President Basher Al-Assad. Those studying at Damascus University even received a day off from their classes, as the regime announced a public holiday to allow government employers to take part in one of the largest “pro-Assad” demonstrations. Whilst this may have provided an entertaining distraction for Western students of Arabic (for the demonstrations were mostly peaceful and were even likened to by people living in Damascus as having a “party atmosphere”), civil servants and other state sectors workers had their names ticked off by their bosses, checking to see that their employees had attended.

Despite growing anti-government protests each Friday in different cities in Syria, life in Damascus remained relatively normal for students, who mostly lived in “the Old City.” The walled citadel survives from Roman times and has become a campus for those studying Arabic, forming a melting pot of different nationalities and religions from across the globe.

The first signs that anything was untoward in Damascus itself were on Good Friday. Rumours spread through the Christian quarter that ‘Islamist protestors’ might attack the area. Shops drew their shutters down, internet cafés closed and foreigners advised to stay indoors. The Syrian regime often claims (as did the ousted regime in Egypt) that, without the government’s grip on the country, Syria would split along sectarian lines. The Christian quarter was not attacked on Good Friday.

After the Syrian security forces used tanks against civilian protestors in Deraa on that same Friday, Durham students were ordered to leave Damascus at the first available opportunity. Those who delayed their departure to review their options found that attendance in their Arabic classes dropped dramatically, as various governments instructed their citizens to leave, and that conversations in Arabic classes revolved around the developing situation, with teachers stressing the safeness of Damascus and denying the extent of the government crackdown and the reasons behind the protests.

A number of students moved to Cairo, where, a few weeks later, those dissatisfied with the interim government occupied Tahrir and erected a tent, vowing not to move unless the ruling military council pressed on with reforms. Mass demonstrations on Fridays became part of the routine for those living in Cairo, planning their movements to avoid protests. The demonstrations, however, were not to be feared. Westerners were not discouraged from joining the protests, so long as they went through the protestor-organised security checks at the edge of the square and showed some ID. One Durham student, having forgotten his passport, managed to get through using Durham Library card!

The protestors featured an array of organisations on various platforms around the edge of the square, including one dedicated to Connell Nasser with a small girl repeatedly shouting, “The people want the downfall of the regime.” Entrepreneurs went around the square, selling bottles of water, offering to paint faces, and presenting a range of revolutionary-themed merchandise.

At the start of Ramadan, the military cracked down on the protest and forced demonstrators and those camped out in the square to leave Tahrir. Ramadan remained quiet but, after the first suicide attack on Israeli soil for a number of years and the events that followed including the shooting of Egyptian soldiers, a reformist demonstration developed into an anti-Israeli one, with people breaking off from the protest in Tahrir and heading towards the Israeli embassy – their chanting interrupting my part-time English teaching.

Egypt’s elections are set for November, with presidential elections set for the new year, the situation in Syria is very volatile and great changes continue to sweep across the Middle East. All of which leaves plenty in store for an exciting time for the Durham Arabists studying aboard this year.

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