“What’s Going On In Egypt” at MIT

A not-so-geeky post from Shtetl-Optimized, a really geeky blog I follow on occasion:

Last night, the MIT Egyptian Club hosted a “What’s Going On In Egypt?” event, which included a lecture, a Q&A session with Egyptian students, Egyptian music, and free falafel and baklava.  I went, not least because of the falafel.

The announcement that Mubarak was leaving came just a few hours before the event, which was planned as a somber discussion but hastily reconfigured as a celebration.  As you’d imagine, the mood was ecstatic: some people came draped in Egyptian flags, and there was shouting, embracing, and even blowing of vuvuzelas.  Building E51 wasn’t quite Tahrir Square, but it was as close as I was going to get.

About 300 people showed up.  I’d expected an even bigger turnout—but then again, this was MIT, where the democratic awakening of the Arab world might have to wait if there’s a pset due next week.  Many of the people who came were speaking Arabic, greeting each other with “salaam aleykum.”  But only a minority were Egyptians: I met jubilant Syrians and Saudi Arabians, and pan-Arab pride was a major theme of the evening.

At one point, I overheard two guys speaking something that sounded like Arabic but wasn’t: “yesh khasa?  eyn?”  It was Hebrew, which I’m proud to say I now speak at almost the level of a 3-year-old.  The Israelis were debating whether there was lettuce in the falafel (there wasn’t).  Joining their conversation, I confirmed that we had come for basically the same reasons: first, to “witness” (insofar as one could without leaving campus) one of the great revolutions of our time; secondly, the falafel.

Two socialist organizations were selling newspapers, with headlines trumpeting the events in Egypt as the dawn of a long-awaited global workers’ revolt against capitalism.  Buying a $1 newspaper (and politely turning down a subscription), I thought to myself that one has to admire these folks’ persistence, if not their powers of analysis.

Finally the main event started.  An Egyptian student from Harvard presented a slideshow, which summarized both the events of the last three weeks and the outrages of the last 30 years that led to them (poverty, torture, suppression of opposition parties, indefinite detention without charges, arrests for things like having long hair).  He said that this uprising wasn’t anything like Iran’s 30 years ago, that it was non-Islamic and led by the pro-democracy Facebook generation.  Then there was half an hour for Q&A.

Someone asked about the protesters’ economic goals.  One student panelist started to answer, but then another interjected: “Look, the people in Tahrir Square just overthrew the government.  I don’t think they’ve had much time yet to think through their economic plan.”

Someone else asked about the role of the US.  A student answered that it was “complicated, to say the least,” and that the Obama administration seemed internally divided.

Perhaps the most interesting question was whether the students themselves planned to return to Egypt, to help build the new democratic society.  After a long silence, two students said yes.

No one asked about the future of Egypt/Israel relations, and the subject never came up.  But it seemed obvious that, if the students I saw were running Egypt, they’d be too busy modernizing their country’s economy to spend much time denouncing Zionist iniquities.

In general, I agree with Natan Sharansky that, for the US and Israel, it would be incredibly shortsighted to see only danger and “instability” in the Great Egyptian Twitter Revolt of 2011.  The variance is enormous, which makes it almost impossible to estimate the expectation, but there’s certainly large support on the positive half of the spectrum.

So, to my Egyptian readers: congratulations, best wishes, mazel tov, and mabrouk from the entire executive staff of Shtetl-Optimized.  May your revolution be remembered with those of 1776 and 1989 and not with those of 1917 and 1979.

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