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As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced yesterday that he would not immediately step down from his post, History Professors E. Roger Owen and Serhii Plokhii were examining the nature of the Egyptian democracy movement in a discussion for Harvard faculty and graduate students.
At the beginning of the talk, entitled “The Arab Revolutions of 2011: A Historian’s Panel,” many attendees checked their smart phones and laptops for the latest news out of Cairo.
Throughout the discussion, Owen—who specializes in Middle Eastern history—emphasized the unique and transformative nature of the protests in the Arab world.
“There is a kind of existential moment going on, where [the protesters] are demonstrating themselves and saying very clearly that, ‘We are here, we don’t want to go back,’” Owen said. “This is a kind of personal liberation in Cairo and ... it has this explosive quality, this demand for freedom.”
The panel was particularly timely because of the near-simultaneous announcement that Mubarak would delegate many of his powers to current Vice President Omar Suleiman, but would not formally step down until September. Earlier in the day, sources inside Mubarak’s government had suggested that he would be resigning.
Owen said that while he was “surprised” by Mubarak’s announcement, he believed that the partial transfer of powers would satisfy some of the pro-democracy protesters.
Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations teaching assistant Soha Bayoumi, whose brother was injured in the protests, said she disagreed.
“From my friends there who have been tweeting and describing the emotions, it seems like everybody is outraged,” she said. “It cannot be seen as a concession.”
In addition to presenting their own interpretations of the movement in Egypt, Owen, Plokhii, and other professors at the event discussed the uprising from a historical perspective. Plokhii, who specializes in Eastern European history, compared the current movement to the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and 2000’s Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia.
Professor Erez Manela discussed the U.S. and the role of social networking tools in the protests.
“We are extremely lucky as historians to be able to witness what is going on in Tahrir Square, no doubt,” Owen said.
In Cairo last night, word spread that protesters were planning to march on Mubarak’s palace today. The military, which said in a statement yesterday that it is considering “what can be achieved to preserve the homeland and the gains of the Egyptian people,” may make another announcement in reaction to Mubarak’s decision to hold on to power.
But for Egyptians hoping for swift political change, Mubarak’s announcement may incite further anti-government demonstrations in the hope of his ouster.
“The people are hopeful. They are angry and frustrated because of what happened today, but they are still getting stronger and stronger. Tomorrow again we will see millions in the streets,” Bayoumi said.
—Staff Writer Kevin J. Wu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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