On Feb. 8, pro-Egypt demonstrators in Nashville’s Centennial Park chanted “Ya Mubarak hear our cry/please step down and say goodbye” and “The people want the end of the regime.” Approximately 150 protesters braved the cold and marched in solidarity with the activists in Egypt.
When young Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and lit a match on Jan. 4 as a final protest against the dismal prospects for social mobility in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, nobody could have envisioned the shockwaves that would reverberate across North Africa and the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen and Jordan. Ten days after Bouazizi’s death, Tunisian autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown after a 24-year rule.
Inspired by the uprising in Tunisia, Egyptians took to the streets and tension began to escalate between demonstrators and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s state security forces. The world’s attention was gripped by the showdown, and there emerged a worldwide outpouring of grassroots support for the Egyptian protesters. Nashville and the Vanderbilt community were no exception.
The “Peaceful Nashville Rally in Support of the Egyptian People” was organized through an alliance of progressive organizations, the most prominent being the Nashville Peace Coalition.
“The Egyptian people’s revolt against their dictator is simply a natural product of decades of Cold War-inspired policy in which upholding ‘stability’ was simply reduced to unconditional support of US-allied dictators,” said Vanderbilt professor of mathematics Eric Schechter, an active Nashville Peace Coalition member. “Today is about upholding democracy and the right to self determination.”
Schechter believes that one of the biggest challenges for the American public is apathy.
“People who know about such issues don’t care to help while people who care feel as if they don’t know how to help,” he said. “This is a fundamental disconnect which we must all strive to bridge.”
A handful of students from Vanderbilt Amnesty International, the Muslim Students Association and the Middle Eastern Students Association came out for the rally. A larger number of students showed up from Middle Tennessee State University.
Weeks before the rally, Vanderbilt students had already been discussing ways to raise awareness of the emerging socio-political situation in North Africa and the Middle East. Junior Omar El-Khattabi and sophomore Mehdi El Hailouch, both international students from Morocco, had been planning on holding a seminar on the evolving geo-political situation in North Africa and the Middle East featuring Vanderbilt’s political science and history faculty.
For some, it’s a very personal issue. El-Khattabi has been following the Tunisian protests “almost from their inception, and as the protests spread, I began discussing the evolving situation with several of my fellow students and professors.”
“It was through these discussions that both Omar and I became convinced of the need to provide a forum to bring students and professors together in order to contextualize and discuss what they had been seeing on the news,” El Hailouch said.
With collaboration with the Middle Eastern Students Association through its Egyptian-American president Cherie Fathy, a junior, they plan for the event to take place within the next two weeks.
After a fourteen day campaign of civil disobedience and street protests, Mubarak was forced out of office on Feb. 11 — the same day, coincidentally, that the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979 and Nelson Mandela was released by the apartheid regime in 1990.
Vanderbilt clamored to humbly commemorate Mubarak’s resignation. Two dozen Vanderbilt students organized a Saturday night “Long Live Egypt!” party in to “celebrate the heroes in Tahrir Square.”
Sophomore Sami Safiullah isn’t North African or Middle Eastern, but he hopes that the change will affect the entire Arab and Muslim world for the better. He planned the party, he said, to “reach out to the Tunisian and Egyptian people as a personal encouragement for them to exercise their unalienable right to self-determination.”
“[The] relatively stable systems of democratic governance in nations such as Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and my native Bangladesh can hopefully serve as shining beacons of democracy throughout the Muslim world,” Sheikh said.
For first generation Egyptian-American and sophomore Mohamed Al-Hendy, the gathering was a “very joyous, momentous, once-in-every-thirty-year occasion to celebrate with friends,” even though “the future of my motherland is still in flux and under construction.” Al-Hendy’s fundamental hope for the Egyptian movement is to “keep the momentum going in order to establish a good democracy and ultimately make the people happy.”