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Locals keep eye on Egyptian news

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Posted on February 10, 2011 |
By Andrea Suozzo



MIDDLEBURY — In the days since Jan. 25, when Egyptians flooded the streets of their country in protest of President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian rule, many with ties to the country have been hard at work collecting as much information as they could from overseas.

Major Western media outlets are covering events as Egypt, a country that until recently was considered the most stable in the Middle East, enters its third week of anti-government protests. But as protesters began to target journalists covering the events across the country and news outlets faced coverage delays, many here in the United States were striving for a better picture of the situation in the country.

For more Egypt coverage:

Among those looking deeper are the five Middlebury College students who were evacuated from the college’s study abroad program in Alexandria, as well as Middlebury College history professor Febe Armanios, a Cairo native who has many friends and family members there.

“Sometimes I wish I was there,” Armanios said this week. “Hearing the stories, the frightened voices, was, frankly, scary. But I think it’s a very exciting time.”

Armanios said her relatives have landline phones, so even when the Internet and mobile networks were down in the last days of January, she was able to keep up with events. And she said she’s been glued to both Arabic and English coverage online.

But for those with fewer ties to the country, trying to find accurate information and analysis in recent days has been frustrating. That’s why Tik Root, a Ripton native and Middlebury College junior who was evacuated from Alexandria last week, took matters into his own hands.

As Root and the others struggled to find comprehensive coverage and to describe their experiences to others, he realized that he and the other students in the program had at their fingertips a unique opportunity to report on current events there: a knowledge of the Arabic language, friends and acquaintances on the ground in the country and technology that could cheaply connect them across the ocean.

So late last week, Root began sending out regular updates to an ever-growing list of students and journalists that collect extensive e-mail, instant message and Skype conversations — and even political cartoons. The information and analysis comes from Mubarak supporters; anti-government protesters; and the head of the college’s Alexandria program, Nehad Heliel, and her husband, Ashraf Mansour, a political science professor at the University of Alexandria.

“Our real goal right now is to get the Egyptian story out,” said Root. “They have a lot to say, and the media tends to be about six hours behind, especially with their analysis.

“Egyptians know immediately what it means. They can figure it out a lot more quickly than the analysts they’re getting on TV.”

This, said Root, is what he can do from outside of the country.

The updates, which Root is archiving in a series of publicly accessible Google Document files, tell the story that few outside of the country have the chance to hear: what it is to wake up in a country whose governance is in flux, to continue life, to join in the chants of “freedom” along with fellow Egyptians — Christian and Muslim, male and female.

“I want to be out there, to document this and help (the Egyptian people),” said Root. “It’s bittersweet being home.”

He admitted that, as an American, there is little he could do to help out within the country.

But that doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm for following events in Egypt.

“I’m excited to see what happens — excited for the Egyptian people,” said Root.

AN UNCLEAR FUTURE

Armanios was in Egypt just a few weeks ago, leaving Jan. 10. When she left, she said, she never expected protests of this magnitude to break out.

Still, she said, following the violent church bombing in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve, there had been days of protests against a government that would let this happen to the minority Coptic Christians.

That, said Armanios, set the stage for the current protests, though they were helped along by the uprising in Tunisia.

“I think the fact that there were thousands of people in the streets in that early part of January, very bold and taking the brunt of dealing with the local police, empowered people to think that this was possible,” said Armanios.

And, said Armanios, on Monday she was able to show her students an online video by a female youth leader in the country that many are suggesting was another spark of the protests. In the video, the woman talks about going out on Jan. 25 to change Egypt and seek justice.

The video is not only accessible to the world as an illustration of the grassroots sources of the Egyptian revolution, Armanios said it communicated to her students things about Egyptian life that they may not have otherwise understood.

“(My students) were struggling with the concept of what it’s really like to live under an authoritarian regime,” said Armanios. “But she was talking about sacrificing herself, saying I’m going to go out there and whatever happens, happens.”

But, said Armanios on Monday, that does not mean change is immediate, or even definite — the government has not yet made substantial concessions. She’s not yet sure if she’ll be able to go back to Egypt this summer.

“I was just telling my students today, if you hear anyone who tells you with absolute certainty that they know where Egyptians are heading, you should not believe them,” she said. “There are so many options on the table.”

Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.

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