Egyptian Conflict Hits Home For Some San Diegans
SDSU's Center For Islamic Studies will host a teach-in entitled "Political Change in the Arab World," on Wednesday, February 9 at 7 p.m. in ENS 280 at SDSU. The event is free and open to the public.
To many pundits and policy-watchers the uprising in Egypt seems to have come as a surprise. The iron rule of Hosni Mubarek for the past 32 years has kept the largest Arab nation relatively politically stable and a close ally of the United States.
But people who've lived in Egypt in recent years say they've seen increasing poverty, overpopulation, a lack of resources and high unemployment. It's a similar story in many Middle Eastern nations, one that is now reaching a tipping point, with the aid of political activism and the internet.
Today, we'll hear from San Diegans who have a deep interest in what's going on in Egypt. They have lived, studied or have family in the country and are watching the situation closely.
Dr. Mounah Abdel-Samad is assistant professor of public administration and Policy and Director, Institute of Public and Urban Affairs, School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University
Asser Bassyouni is law student at Thomas Jefferson whose parents emigrated to San Diego from Egypt.
Dr. Ahmed Shabaik is professor of Pathology at UCSD, he emigrated to the United States from Egypt in 1980.
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Demonstrations and now clashes between protestors in Cairo and other Egyptian city business we'll speak with local experts and get their thoughts on whether this up rising will be resolved or will escalate. Plus after several years of hard times, we'll hear what lies ahead for small businesses in San Diego. That's coming up this hour on These Days. First the news.
I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. To many pundits and policy watchers, are the up rising in Egypt seems to have come as a surprise. The iron rule you have Hasni Mubarak for the first 32 years has kept the largest Arab nation relatively politically stable and a close ally of the United States. But people who have lived in Egypt in recent years say they've seen increasing poverty, [check] a lack of resources and high unemployment. It's a similar story in many middle eastern nations, one that is now reaching a tipping point with the age of political activism and [check] they have lived or studied or have family in the country. And are watching the situation closely. I'd like to welcome doctor Mounah Abdel-Samad. He's assistant professor and corrector of the institute of public and urban affairs at San Diego state university. Doctor Abdel-Samad, welcome to These Days.
ABDEL-SAMAD: Thank you very much.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Asser Bassyouni is a law student at Thomas Jefferson school of law whose parents emigrated to San Diego from Egypt, and Asser, welcome.
BASSYOUNI: Thank you for having me.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And doctor Amed Shabaik is professor of Pathology at UCSD, and he emigrated to the United States from Egypt in 1980. Dr. Shabaik, welcome.
SHABAIK: Thank you very much for having me today.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me start with you, Asser, because you were in Egypt in December. Was this any sign that you noticed that something was -- might happen?
BASSYOUNI: There wasn't a sign, about, like protests starting. There was the normal sign that we've been seeing over maybe the past 5 or 6 years, there's just people that are fed up with unemployment, the high poverty rates. People just in general were tired of struggling day to day on the minimum necessities. People don't have enough money to have -- even just get meat from the butcher shops. That was the normal signs. People were fed up with the government, they know that there's a lot of corruption, money wasn't filtering down that was coming down from [check] protests or up rising coming. So --
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So it sounds to me as if you had the very strong feeling that this is a populist up rising against conditions, the conditions that people have to live with every single day. ; is that right.
BASSYOUNI: Yes, I would agree with that.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How's your family doing? Do you still have family in Egypt.
BASSYOUNI: Yes, almost all of my cousins, my aunts, my grandparents, they live there. So they're doing fine, I contacted them. They're struggling to also protect their property, their houses, their family members from the looters, people that are causing chaos on the streets. They're struggling to find food from the shopping markets because they said supply's going down a lot. So they have to wait for hours to just pick up bare minimum food.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And how are you contacting them? Just through cellphone? I mean is there still no Internet.
BASSYOUNI: Internet started coming back up yesterday. So people were starting to get in contact on the Internet. But I contacted them through land lines and through cellphones, so --
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Doctor is that Beck, as I said, you emigrated to the United States from Egypt in 1980, and I wonder -- since I would imagine you've kept in touch. Has the lifestyle of the average Egyptian declined since that time?
SHABAIK: Definitely. 'Caused -- there was no -- any improvement in the income that they got, and then that's in face of the escalating prices for all the necessities like living, apartments, rent, or food and other necessities for life. It keeps escalating, and I visit almost every year, and I noticed that there is -- every year there is more increase in the prices. And also less job opportunities and many of the university graduates from professional schools, many of them are not working. And there is no chances for a better life in Egypt.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I was reading that Egypt, of the Arab nations issue has the highest rate of college graduates who are unemployed.
SHABAIK: Definitely, yes. And there is about 50 percent of the population is under age 30, and many of those likely 30 or 40 percent of them are without jobs.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So given that situation, do you find -- do you find this up rising surprising? The timing of it or anything about it?
SHABAIK: It's -- you could feel it coming down the line, but when it's going to start, that's the kind of the point that nobody could predict. But that has been predicted long time ago. But when it's going to start because of the brutal regime and the very -- the iron fist that they rule the country with, everybody was afraid that if they start something, nobody else would support him or her. So now the youth through the social networking and -- were able to organize themselves and go down to the streets and take this bold move to start an up rising, which older generations started pureeing in and supporting these youth.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, have you been keeping contact with your family in Egypt? How are they?
SHABAIK: They're doing fine, yes. Actually, my son is down there right now, and he was from December and he was there and he went there to stay, like.
RIH2: Six months to study Arabic language, and he got caught into the up rising and he has been -- he's living with relatives and has been also patrolling streets trying to keep order in the neighborhood that they are living in right now. He has been briefly also to Tahiti Square where they have the -- on Friday, but that was likely before the chaos started and the -- and all that violence started.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Now, doctor Abdel-Samad, you're originally from Lebanon, but you have been studying the crisis in Egypt.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And tell us what you think caused this protesting and the rioting at this point.
ABDEL-SAMAD: I think it all started with the economic situation in Egypt. But it also has other factors that come and play a role. So you have a brutal regime that's there, you have high levels of corruption, you have a lot of people who are dissatisfied with the foreign policies of Egypt. All of these factors come to play a role in why Egyptian would do this. But the most important thing, I think, is that after the Tunisian revolution, the Egyptian people and other Arab countries believed that they could break the barrier of fear. So basically they could throw out a dictator. And so that really made a big defense. Because you can see the Tunisian revolution being replicated in Egypt, being replicated in Yemen, there are talks in Jordan, and the king of Jordan started -- removed his cabinet and appointed a new cabinet. You can see it in Syria saying I'm going to start reform, the president. So all of this is starting to take place. I think one of the major issues that why we are surprised with this is because no one could imagine that you will stand up to a regime like Mubarak's regime or a regime like San labia dean [check] really governized the people into the street, and made them choose that. I don't, we are going, we don't care, we don't have anything to lose anymore.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Doctor tell us, give us a lot bit of back ground about that Tunisian revolution, because I think that came and went for a lot of Americans without really understanding what was 457ing because it was very recent.
ABDEL-SAMAD: Yes, well, the Tunisian revolution, basically the revolution which was called the jazz mud revolution, started with one educated person who had a BA, who was working as a vegetable cart seller. And the municipality took his vegetables several times until finally he went [check] and he was slapped by a police woman, and that's like a very big thing, because he comes from a tribe, and that's -- his honor was basically tarnished. And so he put himself on fire. That started and his name is Abu Hazizi, and that really ignited all those protests in Tunisia. And the real good thing about Tunisia is they got together and they really pushed with these revolution and they brought down Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator. Now, this happened of course because some people within the regime told Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that he has to leave, and that's it. It really strengthened that. I'm sorry.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm sorry, I was just gonna say so it's your contention and that -- in the people in Egypt, disaffected people, struggling people, not satisfied with their government or their economy, saw what happened in Tunisia and said, you know, this is the time.
ABDEL-SAMAD: Exactly. Exactly. And I think also if I'm not mistaken there has been several cases where people have put themselves to fire in Algeria, I think in Egypt maybe also a couple of times. So they were starting, basically preparing the infrastructure for the revolution to put people out there on the street and start this revolution. So in that way, it came as a surprise to all of us. We know the infrastructure for that is there, but this is where it was a surprise.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Asser, as this uprising has continued, as Mubarak has said first of all he changed his government, then he said he would not run for reelection in September. But now is seems that the up rising will not be satisfied, people will not be satisfied until Mubarak leaves. What is your feeling about that? And about the rule of Mubarak.
BASSYOUNI: Well, I believe the reason they don't want to heave until he leaves because to them, he's the face of all the suffering they have had for the past 30 years. He's the face of the corruption. And also the police brutality and the fear that the people have of the police, they're afraid that if they leave, Hasni Mubarak for the next seven months he might do something to quell this up rising, to stop them from actually reach being their goals over the next seven months of he's made changes before and he made it in a way where he can still be in power, and that's what they're afraid of. That's why they want him out. And they're willing to speak with the is vice president because they think that way they could speak with somebody that's a little more moderate.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And doctor is that Beck, one of the curious things about this up rising is when it started there were clashes between protestors and the security police, who we were told the people did not like the security forces. But when the army came in, there was a time when there was a certain -- people were happy to see the army come in. Why was that -- there a problem with the security forces? What is that history?
SHABAIK: I think that because they have seen the brutality come to them down from the security forces and police, that we have heard about so many people died under torture in prisons and in investigations, and also these people seen that they had an upper hand with no limits, that they can do anything to the people in the streets, and when nay have them under custody. And nobody tells them anything. So that's kind of -- has been there for so many years that it probably created this kind of hatred between the people and the police and these security forces. And these security forces are not there to protect them but just there to protect the administration.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And as you say the takes in the square in Cairo, and the army standing around, the forces standing around with gun bus sort of not doing anything, there seems to be this stand off between the protestors and the government forces.
SHABAIK: Yes, yes. When they first -- when the military started pureeing into the streets, people thought that they would be protecting them also, but it looks like the military have a kind of a hard position now to stand beside the people, or the protestors or stay with the government. So that's why they are taking probably a very neutral position and they are not interfering. But I see this as a negative. It would be a negative sign between the in the relation between the people and the military because they will feel that the military also did not support them or did not protect them in the time of really -- real need. They prefer to stay maybe more beside the government. And I think it will have its repercussions also.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So this is it a very volatile time. We really don't know where the power is gonna come down. I'm wondering, when you speak to your relatives in Egypt, Asser, what are they saying to you.
BASSYOUNI: I think they're all very confused, even with the protests that Kim up recently in the last two days between the pro Mubarak protestors and the antigovernment protestors. They're very confused. They're like, we don't want know who is who, who are we supporting anymore? Because everybody's fighting amongst each other. So there is a power vacuum. And the only way that's really gonna be filled is if the opposition, the people that started the protest from the beginning all get together and work with the current government and having a transition government and having free elections that maybe they would have to be monitored by a third party that would make sure that it's actually free democratic elections.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And doctor Abdel-Samad, we just heard that there are -- there are people in neighborhoods in Egypt running out of resources because obviously there's civil unrest, and goods can't get in, trucks can't bring goods in and so forth. And there may also be some disruption in banking, people being able to get money from relatives in the United States , the money they have in the banks. So how long do you think that Egypt has before there needs to be some sort of stability or things fin to spiral out of control?
ABDEL-SAMAD: I think it's crucial that something happens in the coming couple of days. And so it depends also -- all of this is a game, it's like a game now, so it's an extension of politics, all these demonstration. If the demonstrator stays on the street for a long enough period, they will show the government they're very serious and they're going to take it to the end. So the government will have to make concessions, today, the prime minister of Egypt a minute was saying, we need to find a way to get Mubarak and keep his face, so basically not insulate him in going out, and I think there is a move now to kick Mubarak out of power, but in a nice say, saying oh, you have done a lot for the country, thank you very much, we appreciate it. And so on and so forth. So this escalation will reach a point where Mubarak has to leave, and I think this is where weaver starting to play politics with the revolution, with the people, with people's lives. Because you have noticed that the did not internerve, the police did not internerve, they're letting these people hit each other, and they're saying, okay this is what you want? Chaos? Do you want chaos or do you want a regime that controls what's happening? And I really don't think it will be a power vacuum in Egypt. They have a ruling party that's there, we have a vice president that's there, a prime minister, the army is there, and security forces are there, what's going to happen is, in best case snare quo is have some form of communication between the opposition and the regime to reach some compromise where basically they will have freer election or they might have something coming out of that. But I really don't think there will be a regime vacuum just like we are fearing that there will be a regime vacuum.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Doctor is that Beck, do you -- what is your reaction to the response of the United States to the up rising in Egypt? Do you think the Obama administration has hit the right tone or would you like something more?
SHABAIK: Well, I believe the United States came too late. I say it's 30 years late. It's not just now they should have started pressing the Mubarak's regime to reform in Egypt a minute. And I think they came now in the wrong time to say -- because Mubarak now does not care about the United States because he is in jeopardy. If he is thrown out of country, then what would this do to him? So I think now he is actually not relenting to the request, because he says my days are few, and I'm staying I'm gonna be out of here, why should I listen to them now? And if I go out, then it's -- or if I stay, in I succeed in staying, then it's probably they would have too come to me again because they know I'm their biggest ally here and their biggest supporter.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. And do people -- Egyptians see Mubarak and the United States linked that way?
SHABAIK: Definitely, yes. We have seen that many of the media channels, that people in Egypt were not happy with the western reporters because they feel that the United States have been supporting this regime for so many years. Although the people have been particularly -- the antigovernment people, they were very polite with the westerners, I have seen it yesterday that the pro Mubarak protesters were very rude to the westerners, if you have seen the segment from ABC on Christina Manpur and how the guy dealt with her. So that shows you that even the government supporters are very upset with the outside media because the transfer, the reality of the country right now, to the western -- to the entire world, and they are not happy with that too because they are being exposed now.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Asser, I'd like to get your thoughts on that too. How would you like to see the United States react to the situation in Egyptian?
BASSYOUNI: Well, I also agree with doctor sa wake, that the reaction now is too late, that Mubarak has the upper hand basically on how he would teal with what the U.S. is saying. But I believe what they're doing now is good, that they're trying to slowly say that Mubarak needs to be out, but I think they need to be firmer, if they say they support democracy in the world they really need to put their foot down and say, well, you need to do what the people want, you have to leave, and you have to promote free democratic elections. So they have to be firmer on their opinion, they can't just be on the fence how they are now.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is your biggest concern about the situation in Egypt? When you look at this coverage and the footage coming in from the square in Cairo, what is your fear?
BASSYOUNI: My fear, of course, is the violence that's going on right now that the people turning on each other, that's what I fear most. And I also fear if something doesn't happen, if this all just blows on, and nothing changes and that's the bigger fear. But I believe that a change is gonna come, and I think it's gonna be for better. So I guess I'm optimistic that something good is gonna be coming out. It might take a little bit, and there's obviously gonna be some casualties as we've seen, but hopefully it'll be for the better, and Egypt will become a lot better than it's been for the last thirst years.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I want you to ask you the same question, doctor sa bake, about your fears about what's going on in Cairo, and also add to that, the fact that is seems many Americans are concerned that there may be a theocratic dictatorship that results from this revolution that we're seeing going on in Egypt. I want to get your thoughts on that.
SHABAIK: Well, my [check] and the people that we hear about every day, however I'm also optimistic about the outcome, because I feel that the opposing forces to the protesters, which is represented by these government thugs that have been sent down the streets, the balance of power is more in favor of the demonstrators, they can outnumber those people. And those people did not go out because of beliefs, strong beliefs, they just went out because they have been given some money to go out and strike the protestors. Regarding a government coming out of this, I think I don't have much trust in whatever the government that we have right now, even if Mubarak leaves and then Omar [check] stays in power, he's still from the same school, and from the same party. Unless there is really real reform with the participation of all other factors in Egyptian society, that we'll not have a democratic government again. Regarding -- I see that most of the people in the opposition parties, they are more prodemocracy, and I don't think it will be any theocratic or autocratic government after that, if they succeed in getting rid of the -- the older regime. I'm not [check] people can also participate in a new government, but it should be new faces who do not really use the same tactics like the old regime.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And doctor Abdel Samad, you mentioned the fact that there seems to be this wave going through a number of Arab countries.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right now. We heard this morning Jordan and Yemen were -- there was unrest there, political unrest.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I know that there's -- there are many hopeful signs in these nations about establishing more democratic rule, which is long overdue. However, having that amount of unstability -- instability in that area of the world always makes -- it's a cause for concern, isn't it?
ABDEL-SAMAD: Yeah, it is, it is. Course it gets our gas prices very high and so people pay attention a little bit more. But yeah, in Jordan my analysis is that we will not see the same thing that we have seen in Egypt. Because the king of Jordan has really strong supporters among what they call the original Jordanian or basically the main tribes in Jordan. In Yemen we might see more unrest, because Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, represents the north and the south that used to be a different Yemen is really unhappy with how he is sharing power. So we might see more unrest in Yemen which might spill into Saudi Arabia or some of the gulf countries and that's where it really becomes interesting to watch and to see what's gonna happen. I think in general, [check] people are moving forward. And if I may go back for just a second, in how do you think the U.S. is responding to all of this. Two things, first we are a democracy, so whatever policies we have had for the last 30 years, they do change with new presidents and new cocaine. So one of the things that we need to do is put our public relation people to tell the Arab world and other countries that we are not always stable in our policies. So with the Obama administration, we're looking at gates yesterday -- sorry, not gates, the White House spokesman saying Mubarak has to leave yesterday. Not now. And so this is it a very, very strong statement that we're making nowadays. And we're really pushes the international community towards that. But we need to have public relation to show the Arab countries and everyone out there that we are really pro democracy, and we're supporting this. Of and that's really an opportunity for us to do something about it.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I want to let all of our listeners know that you're conducting something that I think is very important for people's who do not have a real strong grasp on the politics in this part of the world.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're conducting a teaching called political change in the Arab world, and it will be held next Wednesday at 7:00 PM at SDSU. And you can get more information on our website site, KPBS.org/These Days. Doctor Abdel-Samad, Asser Bassyouni, and Doctor Abed Shabaik, thank you all so much for speaking with us. I really appreciate you coming in today.
ABDEL-SAMAD: Thank you very much for having us.
BASSYOUNI: Thank you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, coming up, we check in on the issues facing small business in San Diego, that's as These Days continues here on KPBS.