Living in a democracy is something many may take for granted. Islam Shoman, however, has come to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship to experience democracy firsthand.
Shoman, 30, is an international student at Whatcom Community College from Cairo. He said he’s learning about the opportunities, rules and regulations associated with a democracy so he can return to his country with this knowledge and apply it to the democracy they are currently building.
In early 2011, Egypt joined the wave of revolutions sparked in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring.
Shoman said that the successful Tunisian revolution inspired Egyptians, especially an advocacy group called the Muslim Brotherhood, to protest the lack of human rights under former President Hosni Mubarak, who had been dictator for 30 years.
“We were risking our life,” Shoman said. “We were thinking of the future.”
The Muslim Brotherhood started in Egypt as a social religious group and worked to help the people of Egypt, setting up hospitals and teaching them how to read, Shoman said. The Brotherhood had been suppressed in Egypt under Mubarak’s rule, but they are a popular political opposition organization in much of the Arab world.
Before the revolution, Shoman participated in charitable work through associations that were part of the Brotherhood, helping those in extreme poverty and providing relief to those in need.
The revolution allowed the Brotherhood and groups associated with them to expand their charity work and freely help those in need on a much larger scale.
Shoman said Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian dissident employed by Google, effectively arranged the protests in Tahrir Square, which started Jan. 25, 2011, and continued for 18 days. Following the example of protests in other countries during this time, Ghonim utilized Facebook to arrange the protests.
Ghonim started a Facebook page titled “We Are All Khaled Said,” honoring the memory of a man named Khaled Said who was tortured and beaten to death by police in Alexandria, Egypt, Shoman said. He used this page to initiate the protests by creating the event “Revolution against Torture, Corruption, Unemployment and Injustice,” Shoman said. He then worked anonymously with other activists to coordinate and communicate the locations of the protests.
People gathered all over Egypt in major cities such as Cairo and Alexandria. Shoman joined the crowds of tens of thousands of young people on Jan. 25 in Tahrir Square, the center of the protests in Cairo. Speeches were given in the square, and the youth of Egypt demanded freedoms and basic human rights, such as freedom of speech, he said.
Egyptian protesters were focused on issues like police brutality, government corruption, high unemployment and poverty rates and high food prices, Shoman said.
As the protests gained attention and popularity, more Egyptians rallied to the cause. Shoman said that police killed more than 800 people, and this brutality led the protesters to change their purpose as they called for Mubarak to step down and leave Egypt altogether.
Shoman said Mubarak ordered the army to control the situation, but the military sided with the people and protected the revolution against Mubarak’s wishes. He had mercenaries attack the protesters on horseback in an attempt to show them that they were alone in their struggle and that the rest of Egypt didn’t support them, Shoman said. He added that Mubarak also let felons out of prison and armed them, trying to scare the protesters into giving up.
Shoman said that Egypt’s state-run media was ordered to lie and say that the protesters had a foreign agenda, and that they were paid and given Kentucky Fried Chicken meals to hold demonstrations. Leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other political groups participating in the protests were jailed.
On Feb. 11, 2011, Mubarak stepped down as president. The army was put in control until elections were held in June 2012.
After the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood resurfaced as a political party called the Freedom and Justice Party, and their presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected in a “new era of democracy, justice and freedom,” Shoman said.
Shoman became part of a youth committee after the revolution, and continued to help those in poverty.
This group also holds meetings to discuss the “empowerment of youth in society,” and teach courses to “qualify young people and provide them with all skills needed [to] work, [and teach] them how to apply [for] jobs and choose careers,” Shoman said.
Some of the volunteer work Shoman has participated in includes holding a market for people to buy food for much cheaper prices than they were used to, as well as providing activities for youth and working with the youth committee. He also helped the party by promoting election awareness “for people to know your vote is very important for our future,” he said.
Shoman said that some of his friends in the party are also taking classes at American colleges to learn essential skills that will help to build a democracy.
Shoman said he hopes to continue with the party and help to cultivate a new, open-minded generation with the freedoms Egyptians were deprived of for so long.
Shoman said that he and other protestors could not believe what they had achieved and that the experience of the revolution taught him to never lose hope. “If you need something to be right, don’t be afraid from anything,” he said. “Just do it.”
Photos courtesy of Islam Shoman
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