International Opinion

Democracy Inside—and Outside—an Egyptian Classroom

By Adam Herzig — July 12, 2013 6 min read
An anti-government protester flashes a victory sign in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, on Feb. 11, 2011, after President Hosni Mubarak resigned his post after three decades of authoritarian rule.

As Egypt is once again roiled by conflict and regime change, Adam Herzig shares memories of teaching in a school near Cairo during the nation’s 2011 revolution. The students’ names in his Commentary are pseudonyms.

Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011, was a national holiday in Egypt, but for the 5th graders in my class there, it was less a celebration of National Police Day, which commemorated the deaths of 50 Egyptian police officers in 1952 in a standoff with British soldiers, than simply a day off. Even though a group of revolutionary youths had called for protests that day against President Hosni Mubarak and his regime, nothing too out of the ordinary was expected.

As a new teacher at the American International School in Egypt, I was a tad nervous, since I didn’t know what to expect. I went to Tahrir Square and was blown away by what I found—so many passionate speakers with voices that I was sure would go unheard.

The following day, my class was abuzz; protesters were on the streets, and there was a real sense that the country could launch a revolution and finally end Mubarak’s 30-year reign.

 I woke up to that morning to no cellphone service or Internet, and I realized that my life in Cairo was about to change immeasurably. What I didn't realize was that my role as an educator would change even more."

Many of my students were elated that they had witnessed something so exciting in their country. Tunisia had been a topic of conversation since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had fled office in early January after protests there, and my students had been optimistic and hopeful that their nation, too, would go the way of the Tunisians. To me, it was clear that this was not going to happen. Mubarak had too tight of a grasp on his government, as well as his people. I asked the students if it was possible for a regime to fall simply because people stood in Tahrir Square with signs.

“So if the military and the police are both on the side of the regime, how can regular people ever win?” I asked the class.

Mohammed raised his hand: “It’s easy: Mubarak is so old that as soon as he walks out he will get beaten up. Then he will get beaten up again, and again. Eventually he will have to leave.”

This comment disappointed me. Mohammed was the class secretary, democratically elected per the outlines in our classroom constitution, and I had hoped that he would have answered in a way that referred to some of the lessons we had learned in class. But, over the next few weeks, I realized that Mohammed had been right, because that, effectively, was what happened. It was the first of many lessons my students taught me about what it means to fight for democracy.

The following days moved forward. Although there were still protesters in Tahrir, no one seemed too fearful, until Friday, Jan. 28, which had been labeled by revolutionaries as a “day of rage.” I woke up that morning to no cellphone service or Internet, and I realized that my life in Cairo was about to change immeasurably. What I didn’t realize was that my role as an educator would change even more.

The next four days were akin to living in a war zone. We were cut off from the rest of the world, as well as news about our city. Vigilantes defended our streets, while looters and convicts attempted to break into apartments. We barricaded our doors and waited. Night dragged on for hours as I lay in bed listening to the fights below and staring at the flashes of street fires flickering against the walls. I thought about my students. Their fathers were defending the streets like all the other Egyptian men who were not in Tahrir Square fighting for their freedom. Their mothers were probably trying to keep things as normal as possible, and they were left with fear as their world turned inside out.

Our conversations about democracy and protesting seemed so far away. As I drifted to sleep I thought of Mohammed, and I wondered if Mubarak was getting beaten up right now, and if he was, how many more times would it take before he went away.

The following Tuesday the teachers at my school were evacuated to a resort town on the Red Sea, and I called each student. I let each one know that I missed learning with them. I reassured them that our classroom was still there waiting for us, and we would all be together again soon.

It was then that I began to struggle with the big question: How do I teach children who have lived through a revolution and seen their country go through great turmoil? I told them to pick a revolution to research, and I had them keep a diary of each day. They were to write not only what was happening, but also how they felt and what they predicted would happen.

After a week, the teachers returned to Cairo, and I went to Tahrir Square, unable to stay away. There, protesters had created their own working democracy, complete with their own police, hospitals, media, and public relations apparatus, and, most importantly, their own social contract, just like my classroom. The square was a fledgling democracy trying to stand on its own. Its members continued to “beat up” Mubarak every time he came out, and eventually it worked. He stepped down on Feb. 11, 2011. The community soldiers of the revolution proved that, in the words of Internet activist and the new revolution’s hero, Wael Ghonim: “The power of the people was greater than the people in power.”

When the students returned, we rewrote the Egyptian constitution and sent it in to the army. We studied revolutions and extremism, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi. We role-played. They were overjoyed with their visions of the future. Now I look back on the optimism of those first few weeks, and I am in awe of how quickly it had transformed from hopelessness, with a renewed sense of liberty.

Just as I was questioning my next best steps, Amira, our newspaper editor, demanded that our class president, Fatima, step down. Fatima and Mohammed came to me immediately, scared of what this might mean for their rule. They asked if they had to resign or if they could just say no. I told them that there was nothing written about re-elections in our classroom contract, so if they did not want to hold new elections, they had to win approval from three-fourths of our class “senate.” That day at lunch I watched as the “cabinet” lobbied members of the senate in secret meetings around the playground and in the lunchroom. The exact details of the discussions are still unknown, but by that afternoon, our class had held an emergency meeting in which the senators stood up and said that they would not support class re-elections and that the current administration would stay in office until the end of the school year.

A “day of protest” was scheduled for the following Thursday, but, to avoid chaos, the senators drafted a bill outlawing all protests. Just as debate began in the classroom, the Egyptian army decided to pass an ordinance of its own. The army declared that no protests that affected traffic or business were to be allowed. The coincidence seemed uncanny.

I asked the class what they thought about this new nationwide ordinance. Was it right for a country that was trying to establish a democracy to outlaw protesting? Some students said yes, because protests cause fires and people get hurt. Others said no, including the senators and the president. Protesting, they said, was important because people had a right to have their voices heard. Amira quickly replied: “If you really feel it is wrong, why are you trying to pass it in our classroom?” The class was silent.

The bill was never signed, the administration fell into a slump, and Amira spent more time on her science project. Life moved forward. I look now at media reports from this city I have called home for more than three years, and I see the people’s tireless protesting and dedication to their democracy has again begun to yield results. What the Western media likes to call a military coup is far from the truth for the students I teach and their families. What has happened in recent weeks in Egypt is an extension of the revolution of Jan. 25, 2011.

Egyptians, including my students, stand on the brink of a democracy that will stretch beyond the clutches of extremism. If they can storm forward through a potential civil war, they will have the chance to build a true democracy, one that I will be proud to have been a tiny part of, in my own way.

A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week


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