There was a time when political unrest a world away would not have been more than a blip on the radar of the American consciousness. Even action as dynamic as shifting regimes and civic disorder would not warrant more than a small paragraph on the bottom of an evening newspaper. But in the modern age – where international news streams straight to our computer and television screens, 24 hours a day – widespread protests like those that have rocked Egypt since January 25 have the United States’ full attention.
However, Tik Root, a junior at Middlebury College in Vermont, did not need the trappings of modern journalism to hear about the uprising in Egypt — instead of following the live stream on Al Jazeera or reading updates on Twitter, Root learned of the protests as they broke out around Alexandria University in Alexandria, Egypt, his home for the past four months.
“I knew there were tensions, but I never expected this,” Root said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours after arriving back to his parents’ home. The 21-year-old was planning on remaining in Alexandria until May, part of a yearlong study abroad program of intensive Arabic, until the escalating violence forced the students to evacuate. Citing the uprisings in Tunisia that began at the end of last year and ended in the ousting of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Root noted, “They set the bar pretty high. They made the Egyptian people realize the potential.”
Yet in the days leading up to the January 25 “Day of Anger,” Root was mostly unaware of the simmering dissent against the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak brewing on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. “I didn’t see it,” he said. “They shut off the Internet pretty quickly.” Indeed, the country was under a near virtual communications blackout as protesters took to the streets of Alexandria, Cairo, Suez, and other cities in mass uprisings that have continued on into February.
For his part, Root stayed to the sidelines of the rioting. “I wasn’t throwing rocks, but I definitely experienced the effects of tear gas,” he said, noting that his participation was far from passive, capturing pictures and video of the unfolding scenes on his Blackberry phone. This decision, Root explained, stemmed not from fear but from respect for Egypt’s citizens: “It’s not my country. This is something Egyptians need to do for themselves.”
The desires of the Egyptian people, for Root, are very clear: “They want Mubarak to leave and didn’t want him to make promises he couldn’t keep,” he explained, referring to the president’s repeated promises to appease protesters’ demands. This goal seemed, even in wake of the expulsion of most of the country’s police force, a little lofty. It was not until after prayers on January 28, dubbed the “Friday of Anger,” that Root, out in the streets watching the protesters, realized how momentous the revolt had become: “I realized they weren’t going to stop until they got what they wanted.”
Unfortunately, the nationwide unrest bred other problems in large cities like Alexandria, where armed thugs took to attacking and looting neighborhoods in the vacuum created by the ousted police. Root joined the watch Friday night, defending his neighborhood against the intruders. “We armed ourselves with whatever we could find,” he stated. Living in the area since September of 2010, Root felt that he could not stand by as his neighborhood was attacked, “We got to know these people. We were a part of this.”
By Saturday, the students were holed up in their rooms, awaiting transport to the airport and out of Egypt. Though the evacuation was “definitely stressful” and the climate intense, Root had mixed feelings about leaving the country: “It would have been fine if we had stayed, but it was probably the right decision.” Despite continued unrest in the region, he hopes to return to the Middle East soon.
Back on U.S. soil, Root has been following the developments in Egypt closely, optimistic that the protests he witnessed were not in vain. “I think it will succeed,” he said. “The Egyptian people deserve what they’re asking for.” He is not content, however, to be merely optimistic. Acutely aware of the burden placed upon them by their experience, Root and his fellow classmates have related their stories, images, and video to numerous media outlets, sharing the plight of the Egypt with the world before most Egyptians, who did not regain Internet access until February 1, were able to do so themselves.
Even as he prepares to return to classes at Middlebury, Root remains dedicated to the country he until recently called home, continuing to search for ways of imparting the struggle of Egyptian people upon the American consciousness: “We’re trying to help them tell their story.”