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Foreign students eye Middle East struggle

The turmoil and strife half a world away -- first in Tunisia and now Egypt -- is fueling a mix of pride and anxiety in University of South Florida College of Arts and Sciences students with ties to Egypt.

Taysseer Sharaf and Osama Antar are hungry for information and finding it difficult at times to focus on their study abroad programs with the ever-changing developments at home.

“Can you imagine that at least 35 million people in our country are living below the poverty line,” said Sharaf, a math major due to complete his Ph.D. in 2014. “So what would you except from people, living without freedom, feeling unsafe from the police who were supposed to protect them, in other words almost living in a kingdom ruled by a corrupt king and his sons. I was feeling that this would happen but not as fast as it did.”

Antar, a senior majoring in biomedical sciences, agrees about the conditions but the escalation of events took him completely by surprise.

“I've always known about the poverty and suffering of the people, the high rate of poverty, the rising food prices, high unemployment, police brutality, etc.,” Antar said. “And I’ve known that it was a result of the widespread corruption in the government. However, I did not think they would be able to rise up against such an oppressive regime. When it first began, I thought it was another measly protest that would quickly be extinguished by the security forces as it always has been before. But as things started escalating, I clearly began to see that it was something serious.”

Antar has dual American-Egyptian citizenship, with a brother attending medical school at Cairo University, and so he speaks with a strong feelings and knowledge of both countries.

“I wish that Americans would see the value of a free Egyptian people, and maybe push the government to do what’s right in this situation, which is to directly advocate for the ousting of Mubarak and his regime,” Antar said. “That is the will of the people. There is no doubt that the Mubarak regime brought stability to the region, but at the cost of an oppressed people. As Americans, we value our freedom and democracy, and we should push for the Obama administration to stand by these ideals we all share, rather than other interests.”

Mohsen Milani, chairman of USF’s Department of Government and International Affairs and an expert on the Persian Gulf, said, “Mubarak’s era of autocracy has already ended, and we are witnessing the birth of a new Egypt, although it is impossible to know the salient characteristics of the emerging order.”

“When Egypt sneezes, the rest of the Arab world catches cold,” Milani said. “They definitely drew some inspiration from what happened in Tunisia, but I believe the discontent for the current regime has been churning over a much longer period of time. Regardless of its outcome, the Egyptian uprising has already jolted the Arab Middle East to its core.”

His colleague, USF Professor Abdelwahab Hechiche, is watching events unfold with great interest as well. He was born in Tunis, Tunisia, and is an expert on the Middle East and human rights.

“I feel a deep compassion for all USF international students separated from their families. They’re forced to learn about and watch passively natural and man-made disasters afflicting their respective countries,” he said. “To quote (USF) Dean Maria Crummett, ‘the global can be local,’” Hechiche said. “Today, our Tunisian and Egyptian international students, watching and worrying about the destiny of their respective countries, illustrate that reality. They are ambassadors, and it is part of their academic and human growth to live these painful and historic moments.

“If they realize how sectarianism, be it religious or ideological, can lead to fratricide within the same religion and/or national identity, I hope that they could consider taking advantage of the opportunities offered by USF’s diversity, to engage in a genuine and fraternal dialogue with all Middle Eastern international students, including Jews and Israelis, in order to reflect on tolerance, and peaceful coexistence in Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Muslim relations from the shores of Morocco to the Persian Gulf.”


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Government and International Affairs    
Author: Barbara Melendez