By Susan Shinn, Catawba College News Service
Students at Catawba College may not fully understand the protests occurring in Egypt, but they'll be much more aware of the situation should their wallets be affected. This was the consensus of a forum, "Insights into Egypt," whose members Wednesday night, Feb. 2, discussed the impact of the protests in Cairo.
The event was sponsored by Catawba's Department of History and Politics
and included Dr. Michael Bitzer, an associate professor and department chair; Dr. Sanford Silverburg, a political science professor who is an internationally recognized expert on the Middle East; Dr. Gary Freeze, a history professor; and Freeze's son Matt, who spent six months at American University in Cairo.
The impromptu forum, Bitzer said, was organized late Tuesday afternoon at the request of students who wanted to learn more about the developing story in the Middle East. "It was very much a last-minute thing," Bitzer said. "We sent out a mass e-mail and put up flyers. It made perfect sense for the department to do it."
More than three dozen students attended the 9 p.m. forum to listen to the panel's remarks and ask questions.
The recent events in Cairo, Tunisia and Yemen represent a revolt against an autocratic regime in favor of a different style of government, Silverburg said.
He described the Egyptian economy as "terribly sluggish," with an inequitable distribution of wealth that's placed most of the population in despair.
Panel members were quick to note that this is a secular protest, not an Islamic protest.
There has been an attempt, Dr. Gary Freeze said, for our country to want to "Americanize the world." But while Egypt has some Western values, it is also deeply infused with Islamic values. "Democracy is not necessarily part of that trend," he said. "You are seeing different ideas not just clashing, but blending."
Matt Freeze spoke of many of the protesters as disenfranchised, educated youth. There are engineers, lawyers and physicians with no jobs and no prospects, he said. Through Facebook, a massive movement has been mounted, he said. "I've seen the protests and they're as scary as they look."
"The thing that has astonished and fascinated me about this whole process is the technological aspect of it," Bitzer said. The Egyptian government has shut down Internet, Wi-Fi and cell phone access, amid calls for this "fundamental freedom" to be restored, he said. "There is the Western idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Where does Internet access come in?"
No doubt, most Americans would say it's in there somewhere. Bitzer continued, "The role of technological capabilities is fundamentally reshaping what we as political scientists understand about revolutionary activities."
So what does all this mean for Catawba students, the panel asked? "The question is what is the impact on the pocketbook?" Freeze said.
"What will happen to oil production and what will happen to gas prices? What you have is an unknown." Freeze called Cairo a touchstone of the Middle East, and said that such unrest could spread throughout the region, even into the rest of Africa. There are two things that students should understand, he said. "It may impact your pocketbook, and many of these protesters are just like you.
"The people I met in Cairo are amazing people that you'd welcome to Catawba to be part of your community."
Silverburg noted that students often have a lackadaisical attitude about the Middle East — until the transport of oil and goods is interrupted. "Then, all of a sudden, you're going to be concerned," he said. That goes for everything from gas to Egyptian cotton towels, he continued.
Responding to a question from a student, Silverburg said he doubted that American troops would be sent to Cairo, given the U.S. presence in other parts of the region.
Matt Freeze said that the protesters would welcome the presence of the Egyptian Army, which is seen as safer than the highly militarized police force.
As of Thursday, the army had positioned itself between pro-government and anti-government protesters after violence erupted Wednesday night.
There may not be a rational explanation for the protests that have erupted throughout the region, Silverburg said, citing an economic despair that has led to the need for public violence.
Another factor may be that the infrastructure in Cairo has not kept up with the population, as well as the fact that people cannot find jobs, Dr. Freeze added.
Silverburg said he expected President Hosni Mubarak to leave office soon, with a new parliament in place by September, when elections will be held.
The main issue in Cairo, Matt Freeze said, is that there are many disparate groups with no voice. In this country, however, that's not an issue. "We have ways of getting our voices out."
Silverburg noted that the three power centers of Islam are Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus. "The Syrians right now are thrilled beyond belief," he said. "They don't like Mubarak."
He said that the Syrians would be assuming power lost by the Egyptians, and this would also be an area to watch.
Matt Freeze said that there is a yearning for democracy among Egyptians. "They want anything but Mubarak. They're almost willing to try anything."
Senior Zach Parisian of Fayetteville came to the forum to learn about the newest developments in the Middle East. He said he listens to National Public Radio whenever he's in his car. A history major, Parisian said he's not hearing the conflict discussed at all among students.
That could change, Bitzer said. "When gas hits $5 a gallon you will be intensely aware of what's going on in the Middle East," he said after the forum. If the Suez Canal closes, resulting in shipping delays, prices for all sorts of goods will rise. "It's still the same demand but a lower supply," he said.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn is a full-time student at Catawba College.
PHOTOS: Forum on Egyptian Crisis