By Diane Ballard
After Marissa Benedict graduated from UT Knoxville in 2010, she and her husband, Cade (Knoxville ’09), moved to the Middle East for him to polish the Arabic language skills he’d picked up as a global studies major and during a summer in Yemen.
They chose Cairo, thinking it would be a stable destination. Oops.
Along came the Egyptian revolution, which toppled longtime president Hosni Mubarak. But the couple continues to enjoy their adopted hometown despite its unsettled political fortunes.
Marissa, a nurse, was in Aswan at the time of the January 25 Revolution (though that’s the popularly used name for the event, Cade Benedict says January 28 was the first day of major demonstrations), but Cade experienced it firsthand with a friend. Here’s part of his account, beginning near the center of the action:
The path across the Nile was a world of confusion, filled with journalists, foreigners, and protesters. The status of Tahrir Square seemed a big mystery. No one knew who controlled it. Every once in a while, the mass of protesters on the bridge would break into a stampede—run away from the square. Despite the chaos, everyone was extremely welcoming. Some pointed out that the tear-gas canisters fired at them read MADE IN THE USA. However, they were quick to make the distinction between American citizens and the U.S. government and didn’t hold it against us.
A building along the Nile erupted in flames, and the whole bridge began to cheer. The building was the National Democratic Party headquarters, Mubarak’s political party and the sole ruling party in Egypt for 32 years. My friend and I turned to go down the river rather than enter Tahrir Square. We passed several security vehicles on fire. Looters poured out of the burning building carrying computers, vacuum cleaners, anything they could get their hands on. We continued on to the Hilton for a break.
While looking out the window, we saw tanks rushing down the road. We heard they were going to protect the “TV Building.” We left the Hilton to check it out. When we got there, protesters were hanging out on the tanks with the army, smoking cigarettes, telling jokes and laughing, and hoisting Egyptian flags. It was a bizarre scene that quickly changed. Within minutes a tear-gas canister, fired by the security forces, which are distinctly different and separate from the military, landed about 10 yards from us. The protesters, with us included, took off at a sprint. My friend and I made our way to his apartment to discuss the day’s events—a day we’ll never forget.
Cade says though Mubarak was ousted, true regime change has yet to occur. “The military has held the real power in Egypt since the early 1950s, and that is still the case. For democracy to prevail, the military will have to relinquish much of its power. The question is whether they will be willing to do so, particularly if it means risking their vast economic interests. The military is involved in the production of everything from toaster ovens to bread.
“Another question is whether the populace will be willing to accept the results of an election. The unity that defined the revolution, when groups from across the political and religious spectrum came together in support of a common cause, has turned to widespread factionalism.
“I think it’s going to be a long, difficult, and messy process.”