Web Exclusives: Raising Kate
a PAW web exclusive column by Kate
Swearengen '04 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
|Illustration by Henry Martin 48
October 23, 2002:
nonpolitical in Cairo
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
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
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
"They make fun of us in the newspapers," an Egyptian
girl in my literature class said plaintively. "They say we're
"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
"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
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 email@example.com