Jamal Badawi and Mamdouh Shoukri were born less than 20 kilometres apart in what is now the outskirts of Cairo, where they attended university before leaving for graduate studies in Canada. Decades later, they are distinguished Canadian academics - Dr. Badawi is an emeritus professor at St. Mary's University, and Dr. Shoukri is the president of York University. Saddened by what they see as Egypt's declining intellectual climate and growing inequality, yet heartened by the desire for change, the two men reflect on the turmoil erupting across Egypt.
Why the unrest did not surprise them:
Dr. Badawi: "Whenever I go to Egypt, I see the suffering. … In one sense, it's not rocket science, the way it was always worsening, and nobody seems to care in the government about the needs of the working people. You can tolerate so much, and Egyptian people seem to have been overly patient, always hoping some peaceful change might take place."
Dr. Shoukri: "The growing gap between the rich and poor, the population explosion having the average age of the country under 25 years old, the generations of unemployed young people. … You look at all these things and you worry if that was sustainable."
Why the demonstrations did surprise them:
Dr. Badawi: "It's not just a few troublemakers, it is the masses who are going out. There is no single party or parties among the opposition. It is the young people using the social networking, and that's really admirable. Some people might mistakenly think these are the poorest of the people fighting because of bread. That's only one element."
Dr. Shoukri: "If you look throughout the history, there's many things that characterize the real Egyptians, and a couple of them were related to the willingness of society to absorb or accept many sacrifices for the sake of maintaining stability. … The other factor, too, is that traditionally there is significant respect for authority."
What is needed to quell the frustration?
Dr. Badawi: "I don't think anything short of a major democratization or change [will do]- the right of people to elect, to have legitimacy, supervised by international bodies. People need really true change to be able to breathe, to have the basic freedom that we here in the West take for granted."
Dr. Shoukri: "I honestly think it is a push for more freedom, more freedom of expression, better institutions. Because again, even with the poverty and so on, there's a significant class of educated people who do understand these issues, and they want to be like other parts of the world."
What might the broader implications be?
Dr. Badawi: "I hope that the fall of tyrants will be like a domino effect, that Tunisia is one, then Egypt, and then we hear about unrest in Yemen, spreading to Jordan. Maybe that area of the world that has suffered a lot through these dictators, this might give impetus also to liberate other people who are suffering. I'm hopeful, and careful."
Dr. Shoukri: "I think it's a broad spectrum of people representing the entire society, making legitimate demands. I worry about the next phase - whether people will settle on some reform that will meet their demands and then the discussion will be how to move forward, or is it [that]some extremist groups can ride the wave?"