Live from South Bend . . . er, Cairo

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

The day before former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak relinquished power and fled Cairo in February, Notre Dame’s expert on North African politics and Islam was nowhere to be found.

CNN was on the phone at noon and again at 3 p.m., anticipating Mubarak’s resignation via a prepared statement scheduled that night on Egyptian state television. They wanted to line up their newest reliable source, Professor Emad Shahin, for comment on their morning broadcast.

No Shahin. Strange. Since the toppling of Tunisia’s dictator weeks before had fixed all Western eyes on the unrest in the Arab world and its simmering focal point, Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Shahin had become a media sensation. At the height of the anti-Mubarak protests he was appearing several times a day everywhere from The New York Times, Al Jazeera and Canadian TV to NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show.

Shahin had spoken with journalists before, but never like this. No ND expert within memory has become the overnight go-to for the international media quite the way Shahin, the Henry R. Luce associate professor of religion, conflict and peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, was this winter.

Shahin’s star was born when his prescient commentary on the Tunisian revolution for GlobalPost indicated that Egypt might well be next. The day he wrote it, thousands of Egyptians were flooding into Tahrir Square and were to occupy it for the next 18 days. And the morning after Mubarak seemed to defy expectations of his ouster by suggesting limited changes to his nation’s constitution, Shahin’s mysterious disappearance from campus was explained. He was in Tahrir, still doing interviews, having flown to join in the revolution with his countrymen.

Notre Dame Magazine took its turn with Shahin when he returned to South Bend shortly after Mubarak’s departure, as similar anti-regime protests were heating up in Iran, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.

NDM: You have become a trusted media resource as a political scholar, an Egyptian and a commentator with clear insights. How is this changing your life and your work?

ES: What happened in Egypt is changing the lives of Egyptians, myself included. For the past few decades, many Egyptians suffered from a feeling of despair and helplessness. An entire generation grew knowing only one president, who has been clinging to power for 30 years. The future was bleak, particularly given the fact that that ousted president had wanted to transfer power to his son. The biggest dream for the youth was to leave the country and seek a better life somewhere else.

Over the past two decades, Egypt started to experience the phenomenon of “boat people,” young people rescuing their life in unsafe boats heading towards Europe. The tragedy is that many lost it on the way, and they kept doing it knowing well that their chances of survival were minimal.

Now the opposite is happening. The youth are determined to stay and rebuild a new Egypt. Expatriates are being called to return and apply their expertise to improving the country. Egypt is becoming like a huge workshop that seeks to keep the spirit and inspiration of this revolution and to build on it to achieve a new political, economic and social revival. This should be the ultimate goal of the pro-democracy revolution.

All of this creates rich and exciting new research material for me as a scholar and for stimulating conversations with my students at Notre Dame.

NDM: Why was it important to you to comment to the media during the revolution?

ES: I wanted to convey several messages. As a scholar who has studied the political dynamics of the region for decades, I wanted to provide English-speaking audiences with an in-depth and objective analysis of what has been going on in Egypt and its implications for the rest of the Arab region.

I also wanted Egyptians who have taken part in this revolution to know that there is a deep appreciation and respect for what they have been doing and wanted to support them in their heroic quest for freedom, dignity and democracy. Finally, I wanted policymakers in the West to know that siding with the region’s despots does not provide stability or any protection for their strategic interests. What is more stable in the long run is to support the emergence of free and democratic governments in the region.

NDM: Why did you return to Cairo?

ES: My decision was not pre-planned. I simply could not stay away any longer and miss the unfolding of these historic and momentous events. It is one thing to talk and teach about revolutions and another to live and share them firsthand.

My time in Cairo was extremely productive. I went to Tahrir Square every day, talked to the protesters and shared their moments of frustration and joy. I participated in workshops focusing on how to build a new, democratic Egypt. While there, I gave several interviews and wrote some op-ed pieces analyzing the events in Egypt and the Arab world.

NDM: What misperceptions about Egypt have you encountered in your media work?

ES: Many pertain to the Arabs and Muslims in general. A common one is what is known as Middle East exceptionalism. It claims that Arabs and Muslims are not concerned about democracy and freedom or are not ready for it, and that the Arab and Islamic cultures are incompatible with democracy. The recent events show that the Arabs do want freedom and democracy and are willing to pay with their lives to attain them.

The other misperception readily connects Arabs and Muslims with violence. As you can see in Tunisia and Egypt, the demonstrators were always keen on maintaining a nonviolent nature to the protests, despite the repressive measures of the anti-riot security police. While they were being brutally attacked they kept chanting, “Peaceful, peaceful.” This gave them a high moral ground over the autocratic regimes and gained them the respect and support of the entire world.

NDM: Who do you see as winners and losers in this new moment?

ES: The winners are the people themselves and the youth in particular. People in the Arab world have the right to live in free and democratic systems where there is rule of law, transparency and accountability, respect for private and public freedoms, justice and transfer of power. These nonviolent revolutions are great accomplishments and an opportunity to unleash great potential for political, economic, social and cultural growth.

The main losers are the autocrats of the region and their external allies, corrupt elements, and all those who did not want to see the Arab region assume a normal and healthy place in the international community.

NDM: Should we in the West have seen this coming, and what should we watch for next?

ES: Unfortunately, the West has backed these authoritarian and repressive regimes for decades; provided them with financial, military and security aid; trained their abhorrent state security forces; and approved, explicitly or implicitly, of their oppressive and corrupt polices. So far, when it comes to democracy and human rights issues, the West has been on the wrong side of history in siding with these autocrats. It was concerned mainly with maintaining stability and preventing change that would affect its strategic interests in the region. It should have been expected that one day the people would rise up and repel this repression. Anyone who appreciates values, and not only interests, should have seen this coming.

As a scholar of the Middle East, I would urge all Americans to pay close attention and urge changes to steer U.S. foreign policy toward the fundamental values of the American people. America should always stand for freedom, democracy and the people’s right to self-determination.

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.