A professor from the College of DuPage whose career has been focused on Middle Eastern studies is able to offer a first-hand account of recent events including attacks on the American Embassy in Cairo and Muslim reaction related to an American-made anti-Muslim video.
Carol Riphenburg, a professor of Political Science at College of DuPage and a Wheaton resident, is in Cairo, Egypt on a Fulbright Scholar Grant. She is in Cairo to learn more about the political status of women in contemporary Egypt, the factors that impede their political participation and the impact of the January 25 revolution and subsequent events have on their political involvement.
Riphenburg's career has been devoted to study of the Middle East and she said she has traveled extensively over the years in the area including conducting research in Oman, Yemen, Afghanistan, and North Africa.
"In 2006, I received a Fulbright Middle East and North Africa Regional Research Grant and conducted research on women's networks as a senior scholar in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. In addition, I have visited almost every Middle Eastern country," she said.
In addition, to the work she has done she has presented papers at professional conferences, published articles related to the status or women and other aspects of Middle Eastern societies at numerous professional conferences, she said.
Glen Ellyn Patch was able to connect with Riphenburg through e-mail and asked her a number of questions about her reasons for being in Cairo and her experience – if any – with violence that has been reported in the media.
Patch Asks: How did you prepare for your trip?
Answer: I prepared for the trip by reading extensive background material on Egypt, following the news through major newspapers and journals, and brushing up on my colloquial Arabic. I got little rest following the uprisings throughout the Arab world on Al Jazeera English as they spread from one country to the next.
Patch Asks: How are things in Cairo now?
Answer: As of Saturday noon, September 15, calm prevailed in Tahrir Square and the environs of the American Embassy. Early that morning, under intensive pressure from Washington, Egyptian security forces cleared Tahrir and the route to the U.S. Embassy, putting an end to four days of anti-film demonstrations by forcibly dispersing protesters. By afternoon, all that was visible were nonchalant policemen with their large boxy trucks, four army armored vehicles with more vigilant soldiers in camouflage, litter, and a stray cat looking for leftovers in the garbage left behind. The protests were always limited to the small areas just described. The deputy chief of mission at the embassy, Marc J. Sievers, told Fulbrighters at an orientation session on September 18 that he judged the situation at the time manageable. He mentioned that the U.S. media is not always up to speed in dissociating what happens in one country from that of another. While our ambassador in Libya was killed, this was not the case in Cairo. No one was killed.
Patch Asks: How does what we see on the news compare with the reality of life in Cairo? Is the violence/protesting widespread or more contained to specific areas?
Answer: The protests were confined to specific areas and life in the rest of the vast city of Cairo went on as usual. I live in the area of the embassies, Garden City; and my local neighborhood saw nothing of the demonstrations around the U.S. Embassy and Tahrir. As I wrote in my blog: The sun is setting in a great golden ball of fire over Cairo and the Nile, which I can see every evening from my 14th floor apartment on the Corniche el-Nil. If I didn't have CNN and the BBC, I wouldn't even know about those people spending their time outside my embassy or in Tahrir. Such is the world's incongruity. I have not personally been harmed, hassled, of felt my immediate safety in danger. A cab driver did try to take advantage of the situation by suggesting a huge detour was necessary to avoid blocked off insecure areas. This was basically not true.
Patch Asks: What is the feeling of the "average" Egyptian? Are they concerned about the protests (backlash) or do they agree with it?
Answer: Egyptians are very religious and very emotional when it comes to their Prophet being insulted. They don't understand freedom of speech in this sense and can't understand why our government can't clamp down on the maker of the video. So, there is widespread support for the President Morsi's condemnation of the video. Some of the professors I have talked to, however, believe that the demonstrators damaged their cause by resorting to violence. What we have is a new, untested regime seeking to keep the support of religious conservatives. A youthful and secular minority has embraced the modern age and launched the uprising; but it has yet to convince the rest. The revolution has been sidelined by first the military and now the Muslim Brotherhood.
Patch Asks: Have you been at all concerned for your safety during your time in Egypt? Have you had to take special precautions while there?
Answer: I have had no immediate concerns for safety, except to use common sense. I avoid large groups or demonstrations, don't escalate arguments (so far I've had none), remain aware that unexpected and unpredictable events may occur, and pay attention to my local circumstances. While petty crime may have increased a bit since the fall of Mubarak, this is a safety issued in all major metropolitan areas.
Egyptians remain open and hospitable as usual. The protestors consisted of a very small minority out of this population of more than 85 million people. Those conservatives who were enraged about the film seemed to give way to young men who had issues with the police or saw an opportunity to engage in an event on an otherwise boring evening. Like most people, Egyptians like to be asked about their views and concerns and have their political opinion.
Patch Asks: Has your interaction with other Egyptians been altered since this incident? Are you still able to conduct your research and study?
Answer: My ability to do research in Egypt has not been altered in any way. An orientation session on September 18 at the Fulbright Bi-national Commission in Egypt office in Doqqi focused on research resources, embassy contacts, our role as cultural ambassadors, and health and personal safety issues. While presenters were transparent about the situation, primarily business went on as usual. The day was capped by a typical Egyptian dinner at Al Azhar Park in the midst of historic Cairo. At a restaurant overlooking landscaped gardens with a panoramic view of the Citadel at night, the group enjoyed a typical Egyptian dinner. This large, green public space was created as a gift to Cairo by Aga Khan IV; becoming an oasis in an urban desert. Mounds of rubbish amassed during 500 years in the city of his ancestors were transformed into Islamic environmental and architectural traditions.
Patch Asks: What is the average Egyptian woman's response to what is happening in Egypt from the Arab Spring to the recent uprising?
Answer: I chose to do research on women in Cairo because Egypt after the January 25 (2011) [uprising] had an unprecedented opportunity to transform itself and offer unparalleled opportunities to women and others in society held down for decades by an oppressive regime. The involvement of women will be key to enabling pluralistic, economically thriving societies to emerge in a region whose progress has been stalled for generations. Studying the women's movement at this juncture in Egyptian history is critical.
Patch Asks: From a political science perspective, what does this current situation - with the backlash over the video - allow you to learn about politics and different cultural perspectives?
Answer: Egypt's recent political environment has been characterized by many unpredictable events. This is no doubt due to the instability and period of transition that is occurring since the fall of the old regime as well as the ability of social media to influence the global village. Many worry that the political ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood will set women's rights back. Women's rights in Egypt are under pressure on religious grounds and the strong association of the local women's movement with the previous, now discredited Mubarak regime.
There are signs for optimism, however First and most importantly is economics. Egypt cannot afford to disempower half their population. Across the Middle East, women are increasingly well educated. Women make up 75 percent of the students at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science (FEPS) at Cairo University, my institutional affiliation. Thirty five percent of women are heads of households, which requires them to provide support for their families.
A second reason for optimism is that the Egypt's January 25th revolution mobilized women in unparalleled fashion. A new generation of women leaders is demanding a seat at the table, taking to the streets and the airwaves and using social media to make their voices heard. They are not going to be put back in the box. Sexual harassment is one issue that has emerged as front and center and stayed there.