|Across the US, people have been showing their solidarity with the protesters in Egypt [GALLO/GETTY]|
“Down, down with Hosni Mubarak! Saudi Arabia is waiting for you!”
The rhyme and rhythm is lost in translation, but the protesters’ chants are often catchy and straight to the point. Many are identical to those being used in Egypt. Most are in Arabic, but some are in English.
Across the US, people have been showing their solidarity with those who have taken to the streets in Egypt to demand an end to the presidency of Hosni Mubarak. Americans of mostly Egyptian and Arab descent have been organising rallies and marches of their own.
In Washington, the protests began last Friday when close to 100 people gathered under the snow at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The following day nearly 1,000 people rallied in front of the Egyptian embassy, before marching seven kilometres in the cold to return to the White House.
They were out again on the following days – albeit in smaller numbers – and they plan to keep making their voices heard for as long as the protests continue in Egypt.
‘With us … or Mubarak’
So far, the slogans in Washington have been aimed mostly at Mubarak and his associates. However, the demonstrators also want Barack Obama’s attention. For starters, they are calling for the US president and his administration to take a concrete stance on the situation in Egypt.
As one protester, Mohammad Mansour, put it: “Obama needs to be clear … either he stands with Mubarak, or he stands with the Egyptian people.”
In the early days of the uprising, US officials had nothing new to say in public. Mubarak’s status as an “ally” was repeatedly reaffirmed, and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, assured the world that the Egyptian government was “stable”.
By Sunday, Clinton was calling for an “orderly transition to a democratic regime”. But the following day, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, clarified: “We’re not picking between those on the street and those in the government.”
On Tuesday, after more than a million people descended on the streets of Cairo and waited for what they hoped would be a public resignation, Mubarak took to the airwaves and promised to enact reforms before stepping down in September.
Shortly after the Egyptian president spoke, Obama made a televised address of his own in which he told the people of Egypt: “We hear your voices.”
But rather than calling directly for Mubarak to step down, he said: “An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.”
For one of the protesters outside the Egyptian embassy in Washington, the message seemed clear. As he wiped his brow in disappointment, he said: “So he supports him staying until September.”
Riding the wave
Youssef Tadros is a student who says his family in Egypt is not protesting because they are worried about the security situation and protecting their livelihoods. He thinks the situation will deteriorate every day that Mubarak remains in power.
“From now until September, for all intents and purposes, there is going to be anarchy because there is no legitimate leader in Egypt,” he said.
“If we let Mubarak stay on, and we let this die down, we’re not going to be able to build up this type of steam again. We need to ride the wave while it’s going.”
Others agree and want US officials to do everything in their power to help.
“I’m pretty disappointed in the Obama administration for supporting this dictatorship,” said Dalia Naquib, another protester.
“I think they need to stand up for what the US is about, which is democracy, and tell Mubarak he needs to step down.”
Propping up old friends?
But Obama administration officials remain cautious in their choice of words. They do not want to jeopardise the “close partnership” between the two governments that is so highly valued in Washington.
That alliance dates back to the 1978 Camp David Accords and the subsequent peace treaty signed by Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar al-Sadat and Menachem Begin, the then Israeli prime minister. Shortly thereafter the US began supplying Egypt with over $1.3bn in military aid every year – making it second only to Israel in terms of the amount of US military aid received.
When al-Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Mubarak came to power under the banner of his predecessor’s National Democratic Party. The country was put under a state of emergency that has lasted for the duration of Mubarak’s presidency.
The country’s ties to the US – and, indeed, Israel – have grown stronger over time, but there is concern in Washington that this could be reversed if the Mubarak regime crumbles. And, with many Egyptians convinced that the US has been largely responsible for keeping Mubarak in power and with widespread opposition to Israel, the Obama administration is justified in thinking that some things are likely to change.
The protesters in Washington want to see an end to US military aid to the Mubarak regime. One of the signs being carried in front of the White House bore the inscription: “Dictator made in the USA.”
Mariam Aziz held a sign equating the $30bn in US military assistance to Egypt with 30 years of dictatorship. She questioned the justification for that kind of support and called on Obama to support the Egyptian people instead.
Spreading the message
Like many of the protesters in North America, Aziz feels it is important to show solidarity with her counterparts in Egypt. She has been helping to organise the daily rallies in Washington via Facebook – and says there is a close correlation between the number of protesters who show up to those demonstrations and the number of confirmed attendances on the relevant Facebook pages.
The internet has helped to keep expats informed of the situation in Egypt – something that may seem ironic given the limited access most Egyptians now have to it.
Noura Suam is a graduate student who recently moved to the US to study conflict resolution. A Facebook group for Egyptians living abroad has been her primary source of news over the past week. Group members regularly update the newsfeed with whatever they may have heard in the news or, more crucially, from their friends and family back home.
Although many of the protesters we spoke to have been able to stay in touch with their loved ones using landlines and some mobile services, the connection is often poor. Others have trouble getting through at all.
“It took me almost seven days to reach my family in Egypt,” Suam said. “They told me my brother is in the streets trying to protect the neighbourhood with some other guys.”
“I think people here in the US need to know more about what is going on in Egypt and they need to be more supportive because we really need change.”
Building awareness outside of her country is important for Suam, and the internet has been a crucial tool for her and countless others. “Facebook, Twitter, talking to people personally, blogging – this is the way we communicate with people right now.”
‘Egypt is everybody’
Those demonstrating in the US know that their rallies pale in comparison to the street protests back home, but they want to show their support.
“I’m proud of what’s happening in my country,” Suam said. “I’m really … jealous that I’m not in Cairo right now with the people, but also I’m worried.”
She is particularly concerned about protesters in Egypt clashing with the police, warning that such actions could provoke a group of people that is often undereducated, underpaid and simply following orders. “People need to communicate with the police and not attack them; they are not the enemy,” she cautioned.
Hassan Mohammad, who has lived in the US for almost 35 years, credits the youth of Egypt with starting a “revolution” that would not have been possible when he was young. “What’s happening now is making me feel good; it’s great, something I never dreamed was going to happen.
“He [Mubarak] wants to destroy Egypt before he leaves. He thinks he inherited Egypt from his parents, he thinks Egypt is his. No, Egypt is everybody. Egypt is Egyptian; it is not Mubarak.”
All Mohammad wants from US officials is for them to ask Mubarak to “get out now”. He says Egyptians can do everything else themselves.
The protesters realise that their actions will have little to no bearing on what happens in Egypt, but they want their compatriots to know that they are not alone. Their ultimate goal is to convince the Obama administration to start standing squarely on the side of the Egyptian people, by calling for Hosni Mubarak to step down now.