March 4, 2011

Arabs In America Express Hope, Fear In Revolution

From NPR:

Rebels in Libya continue to battle forces loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi for control of the country, while neighboring Egyptians and Tunisians work to move forward following the ousters of their presidents.

Meanwhile, across the U.S., tens of thousands of residents of Middle Eastern and North African extraction have been devouring news out of their native or ancestral lands — and wondering what the changes mean for them and their families.

"We are happy, for sure," says Egyptian-born Ahmad Attia, 39, who lives in Watertown, Conn., with his American-born wife. "But there are some fears. And this is very normal, because the revolution will take some time to reach its goal."

Ongoing situations in North Africa differ from country to country — with the most dramatic at the moment in Libya, where armed forces loyal to Gadhafi have taken on rebels. But Attia's emotions of exhilaration and pride, tempered with fear and trepidation, have been constant companions of many Arabs in America in recent months.

"We are liberated in the east of Libya," says Salah Huwio, 50, a Libyan-born businessman in Ann Arbor, Mich. "I am so happy, so proud. But Gadhafi is gathering his army and may come back and destroy everything."

Watching 24/7

Attia, who was 9 years old when Mubarak came to power, says he barely slept during the 18 days of Egypt's street revolution, mesmerized by unfolding events and longing to be with the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

"I was 24 hours watching CNN in English, and Al Jazeera in Arabic," says Attia, who has a doctorate in agriculture and worked for the Libyan government for 12 years as a scientist. "When it was announced that Mubarak was stepping down, I didn't know what I was doing."

He says he ran outside into the snow, crying and yelling, "Long live Egypt," before the New England cold and worry about his neighbors' reactions drove him indoors.

That euphoria remains, he says, but his attention and that of other Egyptians scattered around the world has shifted to the reality on the ground.

There are the coming political battles, including one over whether the Egyptian constitution should be amended to prevent those with dual citizenship, or foreign spouses, from leading the country.

"We don't like this," Attia says. "Being outside Egypt doesn't mean I'm half Egyptian."

He and others are also watching for signs of recovery in Egypt's tourism industry, a huge economic driver that has been largely dormant since protests began in late January.

Though Attia says his family does not need money, and that "Egypt is not a poor country," the revolution has meant that many people have been unable to work. And the country's borders are being stressed with Egyptians returning, and thousands of refugees coming from Libya.

"The support they need now is spiritual support," he says. "After every revolution there's spirit, but the fear that a split could come."

Attia set up a Facebook page this week for Egyptians abroad to share "comments, ideas and feelings — to see how we can help support them to stay together, and show we are still Egyptians."

It could be considered an online version of the traditional spirited Egyptian politics discussions that Attia says dominate post-dinner conversation in his native country — from the homes of those who can't read, to the highest levels of authority.

Regimes Ousted, But Revolutions Not Over

Tunisians tipped off the Arab revolts in December and were on their way to a new government a month later.

But Tunisian-American businessman Sami Guedoir, 49, of Manteca, Calif., says there are still big issues, including security, in the country he left in 1989.

"People are still in revolution, the Army is spread so thin, and monitoring the border is taking its toll," he says.

But he is convinced that some of the post-demonstration concerns — the desire of some to pursue vendettas and legal claims, worries about the transition becoming bloody — have diminished as the "hot, angry, excited" mood has tempered, he says.

There is suspicion among some in the country that the crush of refugees flowing into Tunisia from Libya is an attempt to "sabotage" the revolution, a sentiment Guedoir, chairman of the national Tunisian Community Center, doesn't share.

Still, he says he thinks refugees should be moved out from the ports as quickly as possible: "They should never have mixed a humanitarian crisis with politics."

Though Guedoir, who became a U.S. citizen in 1993, sees Tunisia's new reality as a potential boon to trade with his home country, he is adamant about what he believes is the main message from revolution in the Middle East — even though governance in the region remains uncertain.

"They were selling the myth of dictators or bin Laden," he says. "Tunisia has proven wrong the myth in the West that if you don't back a dictator, you'll have Muslim fundamentalists taking over."

Fragile Victories

In Libya, Gadhafi has unleashed an armed response to protesters, including aircraft attacks. But Huwio says he is convinced that civil war will not emerge in Libya.

"It would be hard to do that in Libya," he says, because of deep historic and familial ties between the country's people and tribes.

"How can we go and kill our uncles? Our nephews? Our cousins?" says Huwio, a 30-year U.S. resident who is in the construction business. "Gadhafi could not make that kind of problem between the tribes."

Born in Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city second only in size to Tripoli and that has become a hub of the opposition, Huwio is in constant contact with family there.

"Personally, in Benghazi, they don't need anything — things are going back to normal," he says. "People have become stronger and more organized."

His family in Libya is fine financially, he says, but relatives who are physicians — a niece and a cousin's wife — say there is a need for medicine and supplies to treat wounds.

People are being shot by high-caliber guns, he says. The brother of a Libyan friend of Huwio's living in the U.S. was shot to death last week by such a weapon during a funeral procession in Benghazi.

Common Sentiment

Huwio, Attia and Guedoir echo a theme common among the Arab diaspora: Changes in the Middle East have made them proud of and ready to celebrate their heritage.

"You have to tell the world that there is nothing to fear from Libya," says Huwio, a father of four who after 30 years in the U.S. had what he characterized as "the honor" of becoming a citizen six months ago.

His children, he says, don't know much about Libya, but they will.

"I was a depressed man, but now I have an identity," he says. "They are even using the flag that I grew up with — the independent flag — and that's what I open my eyes to."

Attia says many Egyptians have been disappointed in the Obama administration's response to revolution in the Middle East, but notes Americans demonstrating in support of the revolution.

"You cannot love this administration — they were always one step back from the revolution," he said. "But [Egyptians] do love the American people."

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