Living the Arab Spring: SMC student remembers the days of the Egyptian revolution

In January 2011, Santa Monica College student Ahmed Sayed found himself a witness to history. His hometown, the ancient city of Cairo, had erupted in mass protests against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. The historic upheaval now known as the Arab Spring had arrived in Egypt. Sayed, open with a sharp intellect, is an Engineering major who has resided in the United States since 2012 with hopes of being admitted into MIT. But the memories of the revolution that overtook his country remain vivid. "Everything started on Facebook. Facebook is very popular, people have enough time to waste on it," said Sayed with a smile one Friday afternoon.

"I remember watching and following posts saying 'we need to go out to the streets on January 25, 2011, because that day is the annual festival of the police. So everyone said we need to go out that day to protest the repression we face from the government, against the poverty and unemployment we face," he recalled. Sayed remembered how the local newspapers, heavily controlled by the regime, tried to smear the protest organizers as spies and saboteurs; but nothing can stop an idea whose time has come.

At the time, Sayed was a student at Cairo University and it is not difficult for him to describe why the Egyptian masses rose up. "When you graduate you can not find a job," he explained, "corruption was everywhere. There was no justice, you couldn't express your opinions. The country was controlled by the police. The citizens had no dignity."

According to Sayed, the population of Cairo can be broken up into three layers: The very wealthy, the medium level citizens, and the very poor. "The poor can barely survive every month, they are 60 percent of the country, 40 percent of them cannot read and write," described Sayed. "The medium income people eventually fall to the level of the poor because of corruption."

Supported by the U.S., Mubarak (and subsequent governments) never banned American films or TV, or even internet access. "We have virtual freedom, but not physical, we're like machines," said Sayed.

Sayed recalled how in Mubarak's Egypt, it was common knowledge that if you were taken to a police station, you might not come back alive. "We used to have mini protests on campus. The police would have spies pretending to be students, they would go around campus trying to see who wanted to start a protest." Once a protest organizer would be identified, a squad car would arrive, police would beat the culprit before his students and teachers, and then drive him away. If his classmates were to see him again, it would most likely be at his funeral.

In 2011 the Arab world was shaken when a revolution first overthrew the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia, igniting a fire that spread to Egypt and beyond. On the first day of protests, Sayed stayed home out of fear of the inevitable violence that would ensue. "I watched everything on the news the first day, on Al Jazeera, CNN, I was watching live and on Facebook," he said. On the second day of the protests Sayed stepped outside and witnessed security forces gunning down people in his neighborhood. "Police car would come, shoot protesters and drive off. It was random killing in the streets."

Sayed eventually joined the human wave of rebellion overtaking Egypt when he joined a couple thousand of his schoolmates to march and join the general demonstrations. "We moved from Cairo University to Tahrir Square," recalled Sayed. The mood among the crowds was described by Sayed as a "celebration" where for a brief moment gender and social differences dissipated. "We never felt that brave before. It was impressive that we had a lot of women, a lot of our students are girls. It felt like 'how can I step away from protesting when so many protesters are girls?' You almost felt ashamed as a guy if you stepped away."

Fear had disappeared due to social realities linking them all. "If you didn't die now you would still die of hunger or poverty," said Sayed, adding that Christians and Muslims protested together against the regime lording over their lives. "That was the secret of its power, you couldn't distinguish. Everyone had the same goal."

At first the protesters demanded reforms within the system, but once Mubarak unleashed the full force of his security forces and hundreds began to die, the capital and the country burned with demands for the full overthrow of the 30-year-old dictatorship. Sayed recalled how Tahrir Square itself, the center of protests, was dangerous because of regime snipers on rooftops aiming at the revolutionaries on the streets.

After days of riots, protests and street battles, Mubarak resigned. "It was a full week of celebrations, continuous celebrations all over Egypt. Everyone waved flags, congratulating everybody. Nobody went to sleep. Poor and rich, everybody was in the streets," remembered Sayed. "We had faith in the country again, people preparing to emigrate came back to help with the change."

The armed forces stepped in his place and promised needed reforms. But as Sayed puts it, "the army tricked us. But we had no choice but to trust them, there was no one else. The Muslim Brotherhood made a deal with them to hold elections." Before the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood had a reputation as an underground, Islamist party brutally suppressed by the regime. But after their candidate, Mohammad Morsi, won elections in 2012, disappointment soon set in. "People don't want a country controlled by religion. A country like Saudi Arabia is not what we want, that would not be a good situation for us."

Yet Sayed agrees that the Brotherhood were fairly elected because there were few political options and disagreed with the July 2013 coup, when General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi overthrew Morsi and established a new, repressive regime. Egypt remains a country with a proud heritage waiting for real change. "That is one lesson I have from America, that you have to respect who won the election, even if you don't like him," said Sayed. "It's the same now in Egypt like under Mubarak, if not worse. They arrest anybody against al-Sisi."

Now a student at SMC, Sayed has transitioned from the restless streets of Cairo to the fast-paced, consumerist culture of the United States. "Too much capitalism here," said Sayed half-jokingly. "Education is very expensive here, health is very expensive. Here you have higher luxuries, but you're so worried about bills, debts, loans, stressful work, there's so much stress here."

Even the rite of marriage or dating provides an interesting contrast. In Egypt it is common an interested man to first meet the woman's family who can then vet his prospects. A period of engagement then begins where the couple makes the effort to know more about each other. "When you know about her, if you get along with your fiance, then you marry. It's simple yet controlled by rules," said Sayed, but he added the insight of "it's not like here where you just live with her, but now I'm fed up and I'll find someone else. It's not like something you buy, or sell or rent, use it and leave it. You have to exert effort to marry, in order to appreciate what you have."

Sayed also emphasizes his nation is still a land of beautiful beaches, hospitable people, beautiful culture, and a proud heritage.

But Sayed warns that sooner or later, another revolution will erupt. "It's on hold because we are lost and afraid. But the anger is not done, it's not gone, it will increase because the current president hasn't learned from the past."