As a graduate student in Alexandria, Egypt, alumnus Deen Novelli took part in the recent protests.
As eyes around the world watched controversy unfold in Egypt, so did Temple alumnus Deen Novelli but with a slightly different perspective.
Novelli found himself not only amidst the upheaval but a part of it. He participated in protests on Jan. 25 and the ones on Jan. 28-30.
“People have asked me to describe my experience [and I struggle] because words just can’t do it justice,” Novelli said. “You see this gentle person being bullied for 30 years, this moral, courageous person with no rights. [They] can’t voice their opinion, have no right to habeas corpus – speaking collectively of the Egyptian people – and then you see this person stand up and say enough is enough. It’s a beautiful thing – like reading poetry for the first time.”
Novelli graduated with a bachelor’s degree in strategic and organizational communications last year. But his interest in the Middle East, which led him to Alexandria, Egypt to further his education, developed before college but grew during his time at Temple.
“I was always fascinated and had a desire to go there and study – since high school and the Iraq war,” Novelli said. “At Temple I studied Arabic language, Islamic and Arabic literature. That fueled my interest.”
Prior to graduating, Novelli said he knew he wanted to study abroad somewhere. He was able find a program and was accepted at the University of Alexandria.
“I knew to let my preconceived notions go. I wanted to soak it all in, which meant [no] contact with the outside world,” Novelli said. “People talk about culture shock, but I didn’t really feel much of that. It was very community oriented – it’s not uncommon for someone you meet on the street to invite you in for tea.”
As a graduate student in Egypt, Novelli focused on Arabic studies as well as Islamic philosophy and described his classes as “intense.” He also worked at the America-Mideast Educational and Training Services, Inc., an American nonprofit educational organization for students in the Middle East and North Africa.
There, he helped students prepare for the Scholastic Assessment Test and assisted graduate students with their Graduate Records Examinations and English writing skills.
While there is still some uncertainty about what the country’s future holds, Novelli’s perception of what will happen next is positive.
“Above all, I see freedom of speech,” Novelli said. “They now have a voice and can express publicly – ‘[We] don’t like this, don’t like that,’ and it all starts from that.”
Currently, Egypt is under military rule, until presidential and parliamentary elections are held.
“We’ll see how that goes. I pray that they won’t fall under the curse of corruption [as Mubarak did],” Novelli said. “But anyone in charge in the future now knows that Egypt can stand together in unity and solidarity, and that they can’t mess up or there will be repercussions.”
History professor Peter Gran has focused his studies on the Middle East, comparative political economy and, more specifically, Egyptian history. Recently, he and Khalid Blankinship, a religion associate professor, led a discussion at Temple as part of the Dissent in America Teach-in series, “Egypt in Transition” – an analysis of the recent uprising.
“Roughly speaking, the general mood is to re-establish workers’ rights and the open market setting and to return to civil society is the model,” Gran said. “They want day care, schools, health care, viable transportation and a living wage.”
Gran said prior to the switch to an open market in Egypt, food cooperatives guaranteed the food supply, which made life in Egypt comfortable.
“In general, the open market environment was a great shock to Egypt and led to mass unemployment in the end of the ‘70s and the early ‘80s,” he added.
The conversion to an open market meant privatizing and eliminating these subsidies, which led to food strikes.
“[The food strikes are] still a living memory [for Egyptians],” Gran said. “Mubarak [was] quite skillful at diminishing conflict by running an expensive military state. We’ve paid for this – to hold Egyptians down, and the lid is breaking apart at the moment.”
According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. has funded more than $28 billion in aid to Egypt since 1975. Since the most recent controversy began, the continuation of this aid has come into question.
“The U.S. has to reassess [its] position,” Novelli said. “[Hillary] Clinton saying Egypt is a stable democracy was just wrong on so many levels. Young, old, dying on the streets, and this is ‘stable.’ The country’s biggest ally saying ‘stable government’ was a kick in the face to the Egyptian people. But at the same time, they knew that wasn’t the voice of the American people. [Egyptians are] a lot more intelligent than most people think.”
Gran said he feels Americans have little understanding of Egypt and its people, primarily due to a lack of American media coverage, with the exception of coverage of this conflict.
“Egypt is historically different from the United States, especially [its] culture structure,” Gran said. “Western tourists never notice modern Egypt. It’s always about the pyramids and the [Great] Sphinx. It’s a tragedy because [Egypt is] the center of the Arab world, and we don’t cover it.”
He said he feels that if aid money from the U.S. isn’t used as it is intended, there is no point in continuing the assistance.
“I was never sympathetic to the regime,” Gran said. “[U.S.] aid was used for repression. Very little was aid, and [most of it] never got near the Egyptian people. I’d be perfectly happy if they save the money. [They can] spend it in Philadelphia.”
Novelli has been stateside for about three weeks now, but he has still been able to keep in touch with friends in Egypt, mainly through the Internet. The experience continues to impact his life, and he has been consulted numerous times for an American’s perspective of the Egyptian revolution.
He gave a presentation at La Salle University about the grassroots movement in Egypt, and is currently working on an article for the Huffington Post.
Kara Savidge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.