On the first day of the protests in Egypt, Jordan Bellquist spent an ordinary day at home with Mama, her Egyptian host parent.
Bellquist, a radio-television-film and Arabic senior and Arabic Flagship Program participant, knew there were protests in Alexandria, but everyone expected them to be peaceful.
On Jan. 28, or the “Day of Wrath,” police turned violent and started using tear gas against the protesters in Egypt. The next day, Mama called Bellquist and told her not to go outside because then President Hosni Mubarak had released Egypt’s criminals to scare the protesters into submission. The criminals set fire to the police stations, Bellquist said.
The situation changed drastically two weeks after the “Day of Wrath.” On Friday, Mubarak announced he would step down from his 30-year reign, relinquishing power to the military until Egypt’s elections six months from now.
Mahmoud Al-Batal, the director of the flagship program and Middle Eastern studies professor, said Egypt had long suffered from Mubarak’s regime, which included using martial law, rigging elections, stealing the wealth of the country and limiting power to a small group of cronies.
“[The government] lost the trust of the people,” Al-Batal said. “And no one challenged them, including the U.S. [In 30 years,] anyone who ran against him was thrown in jail; that is why he was disliked.”
After the “Day of Wrath,” Bellquist received a call from her program officials who informed her she had to move to the U.S. resident director’s apartment with other flagship students. Not all of the students had landlines, the primary method of communication because of the lack of Internet and cell phone service.
At the director’s apartment, the students had no access to any news sources. The director did not have a television set, and the government cut off Al Jazeera — one of the only stations broadcasting the protests — the day before.
Despite Bellquist’s lack of communication, one thing was clear from all of the Egyptian people she talked to: It wasn’t because of the curfew or the protesters that she couldn’t go out at night. It was that Mubarak had let out all of the worst people in Egpyt, she said.
“It’s hard for Americans to believe that,” Bellquist said. “But that’s what it was. He was the one that was destroying the country, and he did it because he wanted to scare the protesters into submission.”
The accusation did not come as a surprise to Middle Eastern studies senior Jasmine Bogard.
Bogard studied abroad in Cairo for six weeks last year. During her short time in Egypt, Bogard said that it was obvious the Egyptian people did not want Mubarak in power even before the protests started.
“He was a dictator. It was the huge elephant in the room that people avoided talking about,” Bogard said. “He’s been sick. It’s been the unvoiced question: What’s going to happen when Mubarak dies?”
In addition to an unpopular president and national government, Egypt also was home to a corrupt police force, reviled by most of the Egyptian population.
The police worried about U.S. citizens’ safety in Egypt. Nothing dangerous could happen to someone from the U.S. because it would affect Egypt’s livelihood, Bogard said. To prevent anything from happening, her group had Egyptian police as bodyguards. For Bellquist, however, the experience with Egyptian police ran much deeper.
She encountered Egyptian police while out one night with a male friend. While there is no law in Egypt banning public affection, Bellquist said the police could put people in jail if they demonstrated a public display of affection. Although they did not show any affection, Egyptian police stopped Bellquist and her friend and harassed them, asking Bellquist for her passport and her friend for a bribe.
In light of the corruption and authoritarian rule, Bogard, who followed the situation on Al Jazeera, BBC and Twitter, said the protests against Mubarak and the police’s totalitarianism unified the Egyptian people.
“It wasn’t, ‘I’m a Muslim, I’m a Christian, I’m this, I’m upper class or I’m lower class,’” Bogard said. “One chant that was being said a lot on the Internet and on Twitter was, ‘Muslim, Christian, we’re all Egyptian.’”
To Al-Batal, the youth protests, in particular, signify a new understanding in Egypt.
“These protests indicate that there is a new generation in Egypt, the young people, and they are sending the world a message that they are not willing to live under the oppression and dictatorship of the Hosni Mubarak regime,” Al-Batal said.
On Friday, Egyptians and their allies all over the world rejoiced, optimistic that one day soon, they would have the democratic elections and official representation many had dreamed of for 30 years. For Bellquist, the announcement meant she was one step closer to going back to Alexandria, back home.