Westerners take to Egypt's streets for protests

1st February 2011, Comments 0 comments

They stand out in the crowds of Egyptian protesters -- a handful of Westerners who have ignored the advice of their embassies and stayed in Cairo in a bid to help topple President Hosni Mubarak.

"It is not a good day to see the pyramids," joked Matthew Hertz, a student at Cairo's American University in Cairo (AUC), originally from New York state.

One of AUC's campuses sits directly on Tahrir Square, which has become the focal point of eight days of anti-government protests aimed at ending the 30-year rule of Mubarak.

And though the university cancelled classes after bloody confrontations between police and protesters, some students have refused to fly home, excited at the possibility of experiencing history in the making.

"The press is trying to say it is not safe, the truth is we know the culture, we know the people are very kind to us, so we decided to stay to show to the world we are not afraid of Egyptians," said Mark Visona, an Italian-American student.

The few foreigners are islands in a sea of Egyptian demonstrators. Some of them carry their own protest signs in their native languages, including one expletive-ridden French poster calling for Mubarak's departure.

"We are angry against our own governments, that is why we are here," said Olivia, a Swiss and German national.

"There are so many governments out there, the international community, they are all talking about promoting democracy and human rights and they have not done anything," she said.

"This is not just about being a foreigner, or being Egyptian, this is about the rights of the people and we have to support Egyptians," added Olivia, a blue-eyed blonde.

Most of the demonstrators thank the foreign reinforcements, some even taking photos of them, but one woman's tone is different: "Who do you represent? What right do you have to speak in the name of Egyptians?" she asks.

But she is quickly shouted down by others, who offer their apologies for her behaviour.

In eight days of protests aimed at ousting Mubarak, demonstrators have chanted various anti-American slogans, including some accusing the long-time ruler of being a "US agent."

But the chants have not translated into threats or violence against the few foreigners dotting the massive crowds.

"I agree with a lot of the stuff they are saying," said Matthew Loggie, an American student studying Arabic.

"I would like the US to stop supporting Mubarak... And they (protesters) differentiate between the people and the government policy," he told AFP.

Foreign protesters were not, however, spared injury in violent confrontations between police and demonstrators on Friday. Eric Harroun, an American from Arizona, sustained a fractured wrist in one run-in.

Benjamin Selle, a French citizen who has lived in Egypt for six years, was in the crowd on Friday when police opened fire.

"There were around 30 of us in the front, we shouted 'silmiyya' (peaceful), but the police began firing at us," he said.

Selle and his friend were sprayed with buckshot. Tiny pellets embedded themselves in his hand and across his friend's back.

The experience did little to shake his confidence that the eight days of protest will eventually bring down Mubarak's regime.

"I think that it's truly the end of the police state," he said.

And he has no plans to leave Egypt, his adopted home, despite the encounter. "I have no intention of leaving," he said. "Ana fil bayt, I'm at home, as they say in Arabic."

© 2011 AFP

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