Pitt professor discusses Egyptian turmoil

By Olivia Garber

Fifteen minutes after the start of an on-campus lecture about the future of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak… Fifteen minutes after the start of an on-campus lecture about the future of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak made international headlines when he pledged to step down from his 30-year reign as Egyptian president amidst pressure from hundreds of thousands of protesters.

But the 75 people gathered on the fourth floor of Posvar Hall missed the breaking news, as Pitt visiting professor Moataz Herzawi lectured about the rise of activism in Egypt and the future of the country.

His predictions proved to be uncannily accurate. Although professor Herzawi was hesitant to make any definite claims about the country’s future, he said that if Mubarak stepped down, the Egyptian president wouldn’t immediately leave the country.

Instead, Herzawi predicted that Mubarak would stay in power until September, when Egypt is scheduled to hold its next election. Herzawi made the prediction at almost the same time The New York Times reported that Mubarak said he’d serve the remaining eight months of his term — meaning he will leave office in September.

Herzawi’s one-and-a-half-hour lecture, titled “Egypt in Turmoil: …What Will Happen Next?,” laid out many hypothetical situations that are now already beginning to become reality.

Now that Mubarak is not running for reelection and protesters are clamoring for his resignation, one audience member’s query about what would happen has become particularly relevant.

Despite additional pressure from foreign politicians asking Mubarak to step down immediately, Herzawi did not think that Mubarak would be ousted from his position in the near future.

“To oust Mubarak, the president, in eight days? I don’t think so,” he said.

Another audience member expressed concern for the state of Egypt if the president and his regime are removed from office. Because Mubarak has been in control for 30 years, the questioner suggested the possibility of another authoritarian party taking control.

Herzawi said most people aren’t thinking that far into the future just yet. Instead, they are focused on Mubarak.

If Mubarak were to concede power, Herzawi said, new leaders would have to incorporate some structures of the old regime.

A transition period is necessary if Egypt wants to avoid a “political vacuum,” he said. “The U.S. does not want to find itself with another Iran.”

President Barack Obama echoed those sentiments in a brief White House address yesterday evening.

“An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now,” he said.

On campus, Herzawi delivered a brief history of the nation beginning with Mubarak’s assent into an authoritarian role in the 1980s. He also described the people’s rise to activism on the street.

As an Egyptian who works with Cairo University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., Herzawi offered students an intimate perspective on the current conflicts rising in the streets of Cairo.

On Jan. 25, more than 100,000 protesters marched in downtown Cairo, shouting for democracy and an end to Mubarak’s 30-year regime. Since then, the Egyptian police and army have clashed with the protesters, culminating in more than 100 deaths.

Communication from the country has been limited during the turmoil, especially since Egyptian authorities shut off the Internet last Friday, spurring some students to attend the lecture in an attempt to glean more information about the situation.

A trio of juniors who were lucky enough to nab seats said they came to get more information about the protests in Egypt. More than 20 people were left standing or sitting in between the rows of chairs while others milled outside the doorway, unable to see Herzawi or his slides.

Lindsay Forman said she normally checks Al Jazeera English — the English version of the Arabic language news network closely covering the revolt. But the Egyptian authorities shut down broadcasts from the news center’s Egyptian branch, leaving Forman without her source of information.

Although headlines about the Egyptian conflict have dominated American news sources like The New York Times for the past week, Forman said there’s a difference between reading the quotes of Egyptians involved and actually watching the footage.

Her friend Eric Reidy reiterated the difficulty of finding images and video from the country.

“I’ve seen surprisingly few pictures,” he said.

Herzawi didn’t display any pictures during his lecture, instead using body language to express the points of his speech.

Although thousands of miles from the conflict, the professor is closely associated with situation. He said that he knows many people who are out on the streets in Cairo — one of his students almost lost her left eye during the protests, he said.

But as an Egyptian, he has witnessed first-hand the rise of Mubarak and the country’s path toward political turmoil.

“Egyptians can be known as the people who invented patience … but when they get up, they build the pyramids,” Herzawi said. He explained how after years of complacency, Egyptians had reached what he called the “tipping point,” which resulted in the protests that are happening now.

A large part of the movement involved the power of Facebook and Twitter. Herzawi called the social-media sites pivotal in the organization of the protesters.

“Where do [the protesters] go if all the streets are closed? Facebook,” he said.

It was on that site where more than 90,000 people said they would attend the original Jan. 25 protest, a figure that stunned Herzawi. He said that he expected about 25,000, of which he thought maybe 5,000 would actually show up.

During the question-and-answer period, one woman asked if Herzawi wanted to be among those in the protests.

“Yes, for sure, but my son begged me not to go,” he said.

Herzawi had planned a trip to Egypt and was scheduled to land sometime this evening, but the plane ride was cancelled because of the conflict.

Though he can’t be among them now, he definitely plans to be in the future.

“If they win, I’d like to celebrate with them. If they lose, I’d like to die with them.”