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Interview with a U.S. student abroad in Jerusalem on Egpyt

Sloane Speakman is a junior at Vanderbilt University, who spent most of January in Cairo. She has transferred, for the semester, to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she started classes this week. The SFPA interviewed her about her experiences in Egypt during the protests earlier this month.

Liz Furlow: You’ve been in Israel for more than a week, during which Mubarak stepped down. Are Israelis nervous about the political situation in Egypt?

Sloane Speakman: Very. I don’t believe I have met a single Israeli who has not expressed concern and anxiety for what is happening across the Middle East. They possess an immense fear of a religious takeover of the Egyptian government, most the notable possibility of course being the Muslim Brotherhood. Though my experiences in Egypt (made the rise of the Brotherhood seem like) an unlikely possibility, the Israeli people are growing increasingly nervous.

A more surprising sentiment I’ve encountered has been the lack of enthusiasm from the Palestinian population. I was in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City when a Palestinian started running down the alley saying that Hosni Mubarak had stepped down. We expected this news to be greeted with celebration by the Palestinians in the Quarter, but rather it was met with a seemingly more cautious excitement than we anticipated — although one Arab vendor did give us a free pastry when he saw how excited we were.

When in Ramallah, I even encountered a couple Palestinians who told me they like Mubarak and were sad to see him go. One of these men, however, was also a fan of Saddam Hussein’s, so I’m not sure how widespread this sentiment is felt throughout the West Bank. The mood of the country seems to be quite tense at present, just waiting and watching to see what will happen.

Furlow: What has been reaction of Israelis and Egyptians to the U.S. government’s role in Egypt?

Speakman: The inconsistency on the part of the U.S. government certainly did not do anything to ease anyone’s nerves or concerns. The Egyptian population, at least what I heard from Tahrir, was at first shocked, then angered by the lack of U.S. support. They called them hypocrites, claiming to be supporters of freedom and democracy, yet continuing to back Mubarak, and often times changing sides and using ambiguous language. After a few unpopular statements from Secretary Clinton, the opinion of the U.S. became largely irrelevant on the streets. I suspect, however, that the next steps of the United States will ultimately play a critical role in the formation of Egypt’s new government, for better or worse.

Israelis seemed to have been equally surprised by the U.S.’s inconsistent stance on the situation. They, however, are confident in their alliance with the United States and seem to believe that the U.S. will intervene on their behalf to help maintain the peace between themselves and the new Egyptian government, whoever that may end being.

Furlow: With the uncertainty in Egypt, there’s been a lot of discussion about the Muslim Brotherhood possibly gaining power. What did you see in Egypt, in terms of the general feeling towards the Muslim Brotherhood?

Speakman: Personally, I was shocked once I had left Egypt and had access to mainstream news to hear all of the talk of the Muslim Brotherhood. I heard about the protests the day before they happened and had several discussions with Egyptians in shops and cafes, and the Muslim Brotherhood hardly mentioned.

It seemed to be a genuine movement for individual freedoms, as well as a protest of police brutality, which resulted in the death of an Alexandria man last year. Even when I prodded protesters on this topic, they really didn’t have much to say. Most agreed that the organization should be allowed to exist, but had little interest in their political ideology and few said they would vote for them.

From my personal experiences, most of the claims made in the media regarding the Muslim Brotherhood seem largely unfounded, and I would be surprised if the Brotherhood were to gain a majority in the new government or even experience majority support for political leadership for that matter. That said, however, the longer the scramble to create a government drags on, the more emotional the protesters become, which could result in their identifying with a religious cause, resulting in greater support for the Brotherhood. It’s not impossible, but improbable.

Furlow: Obviously there’s been a big change in your academic plans for the semester — are there a lot of students who were supposed to be in Egypt at the Hebrew University?

Speakman: There are about 10 students from the American University in Cairo at the Rothberg International School of Hebrew University, none of whom I knew before arriving in Jerusalem. Most of them are from the various campuses of University of California, two from Princeton, one from Michigan, and myself. It’s been nice having other evacuees in Jerusalem, as the adjustment has been harder than I anticipated. I had been mentally prepared to live for an extended period of time in an Arab society, so the abrupt change has been cause for a lot of adapting on my part. I admittedly knew very little about Israeli society, the Hebrew language, and really the Jewish faith.

Furlow: What have been the biggest differences between Israel and Egypt so far?

Speakman: First, Israel is drastically more expensive than life in Cairo. That was by far the biggest initial shock. That, and the cold weather. I didn’t even own a jacket when I was in Egypt, so I had to buy one once I got to Israel.

Beyond that, the cultures are drastically different. I think I underestimated this difference when deciding to transfer to Jerusalem. Israel is an incredibly heterogeneous society, with people coming from all over the world to settle in the Holy Land. You’re just as likely to hear Russian or French on the streets as Hebrew or Arabic. The cultural adjustment was by far the greatest challenge. Even once I had decided to transfer, the internet in Cairo was still not working, so I was unable to look up information about the culture, the food, basic Hebrew, the weather, anything. I certainly felt more at home in Egypt.

Liz Furlow is a staff writer for the Vanderbilt Hustler. She is a member of the Student Free Press Association.

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