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UCLA professor, student with family in Egypt discuss its status

By Christopher Hurley

Feb. 11, 2013 12:22 a.m.

Under a night sky, Zeyad Zaky’s cousins guarded their neighborhood in Alexandria, Egypt with pipes and brooms from looters who were running rampant.

That year, Hosni Mubarak, the former autocratic president of Egypt, stepped down from his 30-year rule in the country, marking the climax of the Egyptian revolution. But Mubarak’s stepping down also created an immediate period of uncertainty where government functions, such as the police, were nearly nonexistent, said Zaky, a graduate student in mechanical studies at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Now, nearly two years later, his cousins have returned to their normal, daily lives, even though the state of their government remains tenuous.

Violent events in Egypt as well as in the nearby country of Tunisia – which some commentators have called the birthplace of the so-called “Arab Spring” – have caused some to question whether there has been real progress in the two years since the Egyptian revolution, and if there is a sense of failed expectations there, said Omar Hilmy, a fourth-year international development studies student, who also has family in Cairo, Egypt.

The scenes of unrest today appear to be similar to the violent scenes of the climax of the revolution in Tahrir Square in Cairo, said Nushin Arbabzadah, a visiting lecturer of international area studies with the UCLA International Institute.

During the revolution, Egyptian activists took to the streets and called on Mubarak to step down from power.

The Egyptian army, prompted by the protest movements, intervened and forced Mubarak’s government from power to establish a transitional government and prevent a civil war, said James Gelvin, a professor of history who specializes in Near Eastern studies.

Violent unrest has gripped some cities after a court sentenced 21 men, who participated in deadly riots the year before, to death.

There have been calls by the protesters, backed by the opposition, for President Mohamed Morsi to step down after the violent quelling of the protest by the army, according to Al Jazeera, a pan-Arabic news outlet.

Though the security forces’ response on behalf of the government was swift and brutal, Gelvin said he doubts whether the current government actually wields full control over the security forces left over from the previous regime.

“I would be very surprised if Morsi wielded full control over the deep state,” he added. The “deep state” refers to the large bureaucracy and security forces that were put in place under Mubarak and that have not changed despite Mubarak’s ousting.

Hilmy said each of the three times he has been in Egypt since Mubarak’s fall, he has witnessed the Egyptian people become less and less optimistic about progress since the revolution.

His uncle has not been able to find a job in his profession as an engineer for almost two years, Hilmy added.

Hilmy said the unrest may be attributed to both the overly brutal government response and the protesters for being too optimistic after such a short amount of time.

“You can’t expect the country to get better in two years after 30 years of misrule,” Hilmy added.

Much of the disappointment with the progress in the region actually comes from the Western world rather than those in the region itself, Gelvin said.

Zaky said that although his family is displeased with the status quo, they fear the disorder that might return if Morsi and the current government, dominated by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party, resign.

“It’s really going to be hard no matter who’s in power,” he added.

Egypt is still very much in a process of revolution, with various conflicts and issues being hashed out, Gelvin added.

The Egyptian Revolution is relatively young, compared to other uprisings, Gelvin said.

Arbabzadah said the situation in Egypt is very dynamic, with no clear consensus on what the future will likely hold.

Both she and Gelvin had differing views on the role that social media has played, and will continue to play, in Egyptian politics.

Arbabzadah said the biggest departure from the past is that, in the new age of social media, the Egyptian government will no longer be able to cover up violent responses to activism in the state.

But Gelvin, however, said one cannot put too much emphasis on the use of social media as it detracts from the heroism displayed by those who took the stand in Tahrir Square.

“They didn’t have to go out there, but they did, and they’ll be remembered for that,” he said.

While the recent unrest has left at least 32 dead, Hilmy said the unrest does permeate all aspects of Egyptian life.

Many of his family members conduct their daily affairs without much impact from the unrest in other parts of the country.

Despite the immediate problems faced by their country, Hilmy said his family is still very optimistic about the long-term effects of the revolution.

“Things might just have to get a little worse in the short run to get a lot better in the long run,” he said.

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Christopher Hurley
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