Students from more than 100 countries live and socialize at International House while studying at New York’s universities. The peaceful atmosphere seems a world away from Egypt, where millions have demonstrated to force President Hosni Mubarak from power. Yet, for Middle Eastern students at the house, it all hits very close to home.
"I thought he’d be assassinated. That’s mean, but I thought he would end up like that because that’s what happens to people who rule like that," says Mary, an Egyptian law student who was born the year Mubarak came to power. "Honestly, I didn’t think people would go on the street. I would be scared to go on the street given how the regime is. They beat up people. It’s pretty scary."
Mary says her 55-year-old mother has watched Egypt’s public life and infrastructure crumble since she was a student in the 1970s. She is a middle-class businesswoman who also supports the uprising. But Mary says that Egypt’s wealthy class continues to support Mubarak because they're afraid the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist political movements will come to power.
"They fear that the bad we know is better than the bad we don’t know. I agree with that statement, but not in this case. If the people taking care of the country are not corrupt, it will work out."
Mary doesn't believe Mubarak's recent promise to step down in September, despite his 2006 declaration he would stay in office for life.
Haleem, a 29-year-old international affairs student from Lebanon, adds that even if Mubarak does step down, it will not necessarily not mean that a democratic form of government will emerge.
"There is a difference between democracy and liberalism. It’s not only about having free and fair elections. It’s also about the range of freedoms you can have in your country - any kind of freedom," he says. "Ask any Egyptian and he can tell you what he is deprived of. Transition is not an easy thing. We can see for example what happened in the Iranian Revolution, and I cannot really rule out the Iranian case to repeat itself in Egypt. It can have also many spillover effects, either on Israel, and if on Israel, it can also have some impact on Lebanon. The Middle East is like a system in itself, and I include North Africa. It’s a dynamical system. We can’t predict."
Avner, a music student from Israel - which has had a cold peace with Egypt since 1979 - is divided over recent events.
"As a human being, as a person, living in a democratic country, I think there is probably nothing worse than living under a regime you don’t believe in and there is nothing you can do about it," he says. "On the other hand, I think we’re afraid of what’s going to happen in Israel. People are afraid that some regime that’s unfavorable to Israel will rise. In my opinion, I don’t think Egyptians have an incentive to make war on Israel. I think if an agreement was made they’ll honor it."
Because of Egypt’s reliability as a staunch ally, Washington has supported Mubarak, giving his government billions of dollars in military and other aid over the years. That is one reason why many who oppose Mubarak also oppose the United States.
The situation poses a dilemma for Cairo-born Nesrine. She supports the uprising, but is in New York on a scholarship paid for by the Egyptian and American governments.
"For me, I felt freedom here that I never felt in my own country. I wear whatever I want. I say whatever I want. I am not afraid. So I am enjoying things here and this is the psychological thing. I can be anything in this country if I wanted," she says. " And at the same time there are people dying. So it’s really not easy. I cannot say I hate the U.S. but I love my country at the same time."
Nesrine has contemplated staying in the United States once her studies are complete, but now feels she would rather go back home. While she can't predict the outcome of the upheaval in Egypt, she is certain about what she wants.
“I hope for a future that will take away all the pain and all suffering, all the long lines and corrupt bureaucratic offices. I hope for better education, for water to reach everywhere, for new buildings to be built, new factories, new job opportunities, a better future, people getting married, people smiling again. I just want a better future that will take away the pain that the Egyptians have been suffering for 30 years.”