From Egypt, with hope

A young economist learns a few things at Chicago, but even more on the streets of Cairo.

Nearly two years ago, while working on a story about an exchange program that brings Egyptian students to UChicago, I met a remarkable young man named Mahmoud Khairy. A student from Cairo University, he had come to Chicago to study economics for the spring quarter. Mahmoud was intense, intelligent, energetic, fun—and determined to seize every opportunity available to him, from classes with Nobel laureates to bike rides along Lake Michigan.

He also had a clear idea about what he wanted to take back to Cairo from his U.S. experience. In Egypt, a rising sector of academics and professionals had begun to call for economic and financial reform. “By studying here, I now have a more solid academic and professional background and I can join this movement,” he told me. “This new direction needs more push.”

After our interview, Mahmoud and I walked across campus together because we both wanted to keep talking. He asked me what newspapers I read and recommended his favorite sources for online news about Egypt and the Arab world. It was May, and he paused to admire the bright green grass and blooming flowers. He urged me to visit Cairo someday, and he kept in touch by e-mail when he returned.

As events unfolded in Egypt these past few weeks, many of us in Chicago wondered how Mahmoud was faring. Had he joined in the protests or watched from the sidelines? Given the outcome, was he optimistic or pessimistic about the future? The answer came a couple of days ago in an e-mail that I’ll never delete:

Subject: The Egyptian revolution
Dear all,
A lot of things I want to share and I can't find the words. After 18 days in Tahrir Square we finally wrote our own destiny. I was there almost every day at the square, we were beaten by the police sticks and smoked with tear gas, when the thugs attacked and held a weapon in the civil resistance to protect our homes and public institutions from criminals. This truly was an incredible time in my life, what I've learned in the past two weeks is more than I've learned in my whole life.
I saw the power of human will when we are united. I saw people's differences dissolve for the common good. I prayed on Friday under the protection of Christians from the police. And I stood in a human shield around a nearby church to protect it from possible attacks.
In the last two weeks not a single murder case, robbery, harassment, or even dispute has happened in entire Egypt. We discovered that this regime was the worst thing in us. For the first time in my life I can taste freedom, something that is taken as granted for most of countries around the world.
As I said there are a lot of feelings now and later I will share the details of my experience. But I'm pretty sure that the whole world will not be the same. A beautiful world will be built here and we will build a different kind of civilization that will last for another 7,000 years.
Here and here you will find the links for two short videos that are really worth watching and can give you a clue of what happened in Egypt.
Best wishes,
Mahmoud A. Khairy

Elizabeth Station

Photo courtesy Flickr user Mashahed / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

February 15, 2011