Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

Illustration by Henry Martin ’48

October 23, 2002:

Staying nonpolitical in Cairo
Students, fashion-conscious, wake up to protest

The American University in Cairo bills itself an independent, nonprofit, apolitical, non-sectarian and equal-opportunity institution, with an emphasis on the word "apolitical." In fact, one of the first things they sent me when I applied was a list of no-no's requesting, among other things, that I respect the university's history of absenteeism from political affairs and that I stay out of trouble.

Up until last spring, when Israeli-Palestinian affairs reached a new low and the prospect of military action against Iraq was first voiced, this would have been an easy enough task. But last April, when university students across Egypt demonstrated against U.S. foreign policy and Israel's increased military presence in the West Bank, even AUC students took to the streets in protest.

Traditionally, it has been fashion — not politics — that has captivated AUC students. In fact, the Caravan, the student newspaper, recently published a cartoon satirizing the emphasis AUC students place on their appearances. The first frame showed an attractive girl wearing big hoop earrings and clutching a piece of paper, above which was the caption: "When shopping for school supplies, be sure to make a list." The next frame showed a close-up of the list: "Cute Prada bag. Dior shoes. D&G dress. Peasant ensemble. Chanel face paint. If money left over, buy a pencil...maybe." If nothing else, AUC goes back to school in style.

Che Guevera designer T-shirts are also making the rounds here, and it's strange to see AUC students — the milk-and-honey elite of the Arab world — wearing clothes decorated with slogans like "the people's revolution" and pictures of assault rifles and hand grenades. "What's with that, anyway?" Asked Sean, an American student in my Arabic class. "Everyone's, like, prole-er than thou. But come the revolution, these guys are going to be the first ones up against the wall."

Or maybe the AUC students are going to be the ones advocating change. President Bush seems determined to test the hypothesis that AUC students are more interested in exposing their navels than in exposing themselves to arrest and interrogation — definite possibilities if they should stage public demonstrations.

In the past, the editorial pages of the Egyptian dailies have been critical of AUC, an institution they see as promulgating sleeveless tops, tight skirts, and McDonald's hamburgers in the guise of advancing a Western liberal education. AUC students are very conscious of this criticism, and, although they seem to cherish their outsider status, they would still like to prove themselves to their detractors. Most of students have friends studying at Cairo University, the overcrowded, more conservative college across town. Cairo University was founded in 1908 as the offshoot as the Egyptian nationalist movement, and although it is only eight years older than the American University — a foreign implant founded by Americans — it carries in the minds of most Egyptians a legitimacy that AUC does not.

"They make fun of us in the newspapers," an Egyptian girl in my literature class said plaintively. "They say we're not serious."

"You proved yourself last spring, and you will have to do it again this year." The literature professor told her. "The U.S. is about to bomb Iraq."

There were two AUC demonstrations last April, both protesting Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The first was unplanned and unauthorized: Students gathered during assembly hour, stormed the main campus gates, and poured out into the street, where they negotiated with the police for an hour until they were allowed to march. The second demonstration was a short one, spanning the not-quite-two blocks between its main campuses. By most standards, the protests would not have been anything special, but for AUC, with its history of political noninvolvement, they were revolutionary.

"What's the first thing they hand you when you come to AUC?" Our professor asked. "A list of no-no's. Don't engage in political activity. Don't protest. Don't demonstrate. They tell us to shut up, and we've always shut up. Until last April."

Last week the National Party organized a demonstration in front of the Mogamma, an immense, tan building in the city center that houses most of the government bureaucracy. The demonstration was held to commemorate the second anniversary of the Intifada, and several hundred people showed up. I had been studying in the AUC library, and when I saw throngs of people gathered at the Mogamma, and the troop-carriers lining the streets, I headed over to watch the demonstration. The crowd was divided along sectarian lines, with the Nasserite, Islamist, and National Party factions chanting separate cheers. A double ring of policemen — armed with riot shields and batons — hemmed in the demonstrators. Their job was to ensure that the protest did not spread into Tahrir Square, where it could disrupt traffic and subway service, paralyzing the city for hours.

Someone in the crowd burned an American flag, and the momentum picked up.

"The police won't let the protest get out of hand," Vanessa, an Egyptian-Canadian from my politics class, assured me. "They'll let them burn a few flags, but then they'll start moving in."

I asked Vanessa what would happen if the protestors tried to breach the police barricade.

"Tear gas." She said. "I was at the protests at Cairo University last spring, and it was a battlefield. I was so blinded from the tear gas I couldn't see my way home. My boyfriend was completely broken from the rubber bullets. The whole city's going to go nuts if there's war with Iraq."

In a little less than two weeks, AUC will be holding its own antiwar demonstration. The protest will be a legal one, meaning that it has been registered and approved by the government, and, like the march last April, it will be a silent one. One of the students in my literature class asked if she should bring anything with her to the protest.

"No, but wear black." The professor said.


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu