Friday, February 11, 2011

TURMOIL IN EGYPT Egyptians in Mass. worry for homeland

From left seated, Dina El-Zanfaly, Amira Hussein, and Lamya Youseff, along with Tamer Elkholy (standing, left), Islam Hussein, and Sammt Herbawi, followed the news in Egypt yesterday.From left seated, Dina El-Zanfaly, Amira Hussein, and Lamya Youseff, along with Tamer Elkholy (standing, left), Islam Hussein, and Sammt Herbawi, followed the news in Egypt yesterday. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / February 11, 2011
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Farouk El-Baz was stunned yesterday. Moments earlier he had predicted that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would step down and that the extraordinary youth-led revolution in his native land would succeed where older generations had failed.
“He’s not going, he said? He said that?’’ asked El-Baz, a world-renowned geology professor at Boston University, speaking into the phone. “Unbelievable.’’
Across Massachusetts yesterday, jubilation turned to dread among Egyptian immigrants after Mubarak dashed hopes that he was on the verge of resigning by declaring that he would stay until September, despite nearly three weeks of massive protests demanding an end to his 30-year regime. In coffee houses, laboratories, universities, and living rooms tears flowed, followed by anger, and by fear that the peaceful protests would turn violent.
Early yesterday afternoon, Mohammed Morgan, 37, a physician who lives in Braintree, was unable to sleep, so thrilled by the possibility of Mubarak stepping down. He had been awake since 2 a.m., frantically scrolling through the news on his iPad, calling his cousins in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and watching television at home with a friend.
“I can’t close my eyes for a second,’’ he said just before Mubarak’s speech. “This is history.’’
But after 4 p.m., his voice was somber. He worried that bloodshed would soon follow, and feared for his family’s safety.
“People are chanting, ‘To the palace. To the palace!’ ’’ he said, as the chants blared on the television news behind him. “This is horrible, horrible, horrible.’’
The uncertainty and swelling protests have kept immigrant families on edge for weeks. In Massachusetts, they have called relatives, followed them on Facebook, and stayed glued to the news around the clock.
Many are wondering when it will be safe to visit their relatives again. Many visit during summers or for holidays, weddings or funerals.
Amr Abouelleil, 36, a genetic data analyst at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, said he and his wife planned to take their toddler to a cousin’s wedding in March. But now they are unsure if it will be safe to attend.
The groom was recently injured when a police car rammed a barricade. He is recovering at home.
“I’m on the verge of tears,’’ said Abouelleil, who lives in Framingham. “The problem with Mubarak right now is that he’s basically repeating the same thing he’s been saying the whole time since this revolution started. It’s like he’s not listening to anything the people in Tahrir are saying.’’
Many locally had hoped today, when mosques will be crowded with worshippers gathering for Friday prayers, would become an occasion to celebrate a new direction for Egypt. Instead, Muslims and Christians from Egypt planned to head to mosques and churches to pray for their homeland, while students said they would hold an information session at 6 p.m. today at MIT’s Tang Center to educate the public about the revolution.
Many said they were still cautiously optimistic.
“Of course we are upset about the speech. But we believe that there is still hope,’’ said Dina El-Zanfaly, a 27-year-old MIT graduate student in architecture, who gathered yesterday at a Cambridge cafe to watch the speech over coffee and sandwiches, and plan for tonight’s event at MIT. “We are still continuing. We will be staying like that until we get what we want.’’
Immigrants in Massachusetts who long ago fled repression in Egypt have been riveted by the movement and hoped it would finally bring change.
Leila Ahmed, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, said her father, an engineer, suffered repression under the regime of Gamal Nasser, Egypt’s president from 1956 to 1970, when he advised against building a large dam, saying it would be ecologically disastrous.
In response, she said, the family suffered repercussions, such as having their bank accounts frozen. They sent their children overseas and they were unable to return for their parents’ final years.
“Egypt has suffered one dictator after another,’’ she said. “We really need to be free.’’
El-Baz, 73, who trained Apollo astronauts for moon exploration decades ago, said he was fearful for his family and those involved in the movement.
He faulted his own generation for placing too much faith in political and governmental institutions, for neglecting the people they were supposed to serve, and for allowing leaders such as Mubarak to stay in power year after year.
“People want him to leave, period. No more discussion,’’ said El-Baz, whose older brother Osama El-Baz, 79, was a top adviser to Mubarak. “Those people are going to stay there until he leaves. If he unleashes the army, there’s going to be a lot of blood.’’
Maria Sacchetti can be reached at