Egyptian-American Youth Affected By Political Turmoil
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
It was the cry of the original tea party activists in Boston: no taxation without representation. We'll talk about the District of Columbia's fight for full democracy and what it means to all of us. That's coming up.
But, first, more on the political turmoil sweeping Egypt, particularly Cairo, but also reaching to street protests outside the White House here in the U.S.
(Soundbite of protest)
Unidentified Woman: Hey, Obama, listen up.
Unidentified Group: Hey, Obama, listen up.
Unidentified Woman: Hosni Mubarak's time is up.
Unidentified Group: Hosni Mubarak's time is up.
MARTIN: This was just one of the rallies held in support of the thousands who took to the streets in Egypt. Joining us right now are two of those who were there. Ramsey Androus(ph) is 20 years old. He's a student of economics at George Washington University. And Mona Atia is an assistant professor of geography and international affairs, also at George Washington University. Thank you both so much for joining us.
Mr. RAMSEY ANDROUS (Student): Thanks for having us.
Professor MONA ATIA (Geography and International Affairs, George Washington University): It's nice to be here.
MARTIN: Now, you were both born here, but your parents were born in Egypt. So I was interested to know why each of you decided that it was time for you to actually, you know, with your physical presence, go out into the streets. Ramsey, do you want to start?
Mr. ANDROUS: Well, being a college student in Washington, D.C. and being in a school like G.W. that's centered towards international affairs, a lot of people have interest in the political process, specifically the Middle East. And being an Egyptian-American, specifically, I have never seen a break from apathy in my parents' country before. So I was very excited to go out and possibly be part of changing the country.
MARTIN: Professor Atia, what about you?
Prof. ATIA: Yeah. I've been involved with Egypt for a very long time, have a very close attachment there. My research is based there. So I obviously follow what has been happening, you know, for years now. And I also was very shocked and surprised to see the apathy be broken and for people to actually go out in the street and demand their rights. And to see that the protests didn't just stop on the first day, but, in fact, that they keep on going.
And the amount of determination and the real sense that this is a moment of change, that the revolution is happening right now is what drove us to go out there and support the people of Egypt in their quest.
MARTIN: Now, you both talked about apathy. Why do you think that has been the case? You both seem to suggest that conditions there would've suggested that there would've been some kind of, you know, some of kind of protest, some kind of confrontation with the government long before now. Why do you think that has not happened? Professor, I'm going to ask you that question.
Prof. ATIA: Sure. Yeah. Living under 30 years of essentially a dictator who has suppressed all their rights has really led people to be - to resignation. They resign themselves to their fate. And there's a real sense of just - there's no hope. We can't change anything. He'll never leave. So that was what daily life was like there for people. And so this is why it was very surprising to see that real shift.
I mean, there is, of course, the intellectuals and the key activists who have been working and the Muslim Brotherhood as well, who have been working for, you know, decades to try to institute change in the country. But to see millions of people actually go out in the streets and declare that they want Mubarak to leave is quite significant if you've spent any time in Egypt.
MARTIN: Ramsey, do you mind if I ask what your parents think about all this?
Mr. ANDROUS: That's an ever-changing opinion. At the beginning, Egypt truly is an apathetic country. And like, of any, quote, unquote, "democracy," they have the lowest voter turnout rate and people are generally apolitical. And my parents are - it was nice to see them protest.
MARTIN: They were out there too?
Mr. ANDROUS: No. It was nice to see the people protest in their opinion because there hasn't been any since the late '70s. And, but they're, like, OK, nothing's going to come of this. And then the next day, it was impressive that people were still out there. Then they got really scared when the army was sent out. But, overall, this is changing a lot of people's opinions on what's possible.
MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, what is it - can you give us an example, for those who have not followed Egypt as closely as the two of you obviously have, what it is that people are protesting? Why are they out on the street? What is exactly is it that has caused them to have this kind of reaction? Can you give it - just one example?
Mr. ANDROUS: I mean, young people, specifically people my age, 20 to 29, the official unemployment rate is supposed to be, like, nine and a half percent, but that's completely a lie. And it's probably in the mid 20s. And people just don't see a future for themselves. Most people graduate, like, school of business in college and they work as shoe shiners or they don't have the ability to go to school in the first place and there's not a bright future for most people.
MARTIN: And what do people blame for that? Why do they think that it is that way? What do they believe is the cause of that?
Mr. ANDROUS: The corruption by the government. I mean, Egypt has a 6 percent increase in GDP, but that all goes to the top 10 percent and there's a dwindling middle class, even a small one to begin with. And there's no hope for a lot of young people in Egypt for their future.
MARTIN: Mona, could you tell us what posture would you like to see your government, which is the United States, take in this sphere? As you've heard, I know you've been following the news closely and there are a lot of different opinions by, you know, the people who have a political profile, scholars and so forth who say the U.S. needs to tread very lightly here. What would you like to see happen? What do you think the U.S. government's posture should be?
Prof. ATIA: I think it's really important that the U.S. not come out on the side of the dictator and that people across the Middle East do not see the U.S. as supporting dictatorships while mouthing off about democracy. So, the stance that's come out yesterday from Hillary Clinton was actually a little bit warmer and more receptive to what was going on. But for the past six days, the statements coming out of the State Department have really been very lukewarm.
MARTIN: But should it be statements or should it be there's something else. Because I'm sure that it won't be a secret that there's - I don't know - that there's an appetite on the American public for further involvement in other country's affairs, given that we're already involved in two wars in the Middle East, which are very, you know, controversial to this day and long and ongoing and expensive? So, what do you think the government's role should be in this -should it be words of support? Anything else?
Prof. ATIA: The U.S. is very much implicated in what's happening. They give the Mubarak regime almost $2 billion a year in aid, most of which is military aid. So, to see, you know, first, what we saw with the police brutality and then, now, sort of the uncertainty about what the stance of the military is towards the people and what role they are going to play in restoring order and whose side they're actually on, that is quite significant.
But in terms of the U.S. government and the role that they should be playing, they do have a strong role to say to Mubarak, it's time for you to leave. The people have spoken. This is not the U.S. telling you what to do. Your people are telling you to leave, so you need to listen to them.
MARTIN: Ramsey, what's next for you? How are you going to be spending the next couple of days? Obviously you're watching matters there. What are you going to be up to?
Mr. ANDROUS: Tomorrow, Tuesday, in Egypt, is supposed to be the march of millions. It's supposed to be the biggest protest yet. I mean, as an American, Egyptian-American, all I can do is support from the sidelines and just hope for the best. I mean, I'm not on the frontlines, but I can write to my congressman and my senator. Know that $2 billion in subsidizing a dictator is not in America's interest because Egypt is not the country that wields the influence that $2 billion in aid we thought would.
And just generally if we're going to promote democracy in the Middle East we shouldn't be contradictory in supporting Hosni Mubarak.
MARTIN: And, professor, what's your - final thought from you, we have about a minute left, what are you going to be doing in the next couple of days?
Prof. ATIA: Next couple of days, I'm going to be watching, but of course I'm getting in touch with all of the people I know in Egypt to get a sense of what the pulse is all across. But, as well, there's a candlelight vigil tonight in front of the White House at 6 o'clock, hope to attend that. And people are trying to protest daily.
So, rally in support of the people on the streets who are risking their lives. So, generally we're watching closely, sending prayers and thoughts to the people of Egypt.
MARTIN: Mona Atia is an assistant professor of geography and international affairs at George Washington University. Ramsey Androus is a student of economics at George Washington University. That's in Washington, D.C. And they were just two of the hundreds of Egyptian-Americans who have held demonstrations here in the U.S. And they were kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. And we do hope you'll keep us apprised of events as they unfold. Thank you both so much for joining us.
Prof. ATIA: Thanks for having us.
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