USF Foreign Students Eye Middle East Struggle

The students are watching the protests and historic change with a mix of pride and anxiety.


By Barbara Melendez News Writer


TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 3, 2011) – The turmoil and strife half a world away _ first in Tunisia and now Egypt _ is fueling a mix of pride and anxiety in University of South Florida students with ties to those counties.


Wael Kilani, Taysseer Sharaf and Osama Antar are hungry for information and finding it difficult at times to focus on their study abroad programs with the ever-changing developments at home.


Separated by what would be a 10 hour flight and six hours behind events, Tunisian business management major Kilani is finding it somewhat difficult to concentrate on his other role as a member of the USF tennis team – especially when events at home are constantly changing.  At 22, he has spent his entire lifetime with one leader who has been in power for 23 years in a place where criticism of the government routinely led to arrest and prison. 


“No one really talked about politics, only soccer, it was too dangerous,” Kilani said. “Tunisia is the first Arab country to abolish slavery (1848), to establish a constituti­on (1861), to abolish polygamy (1956), to legalize abortion (1973), to fund a Human Rights league (1976) and to kick out its dictator and this without the help of any foreign nation on January 14th, 2011.  I’ve never been more proud to be Tunisian.”


His father, Abderrazek Kilani, is a prominent lawyer, the head of the nation’s Bar Association, and participated in a strike by thousands of Tunisian lawyers in early January – one of many protests. 


“Before, it was very dangerous for him because he defended people and told the truth,” his son said.  “Now he is being considered for a role in the new government.”


Few Americans know that Tunisia is a tourist destination with beautiful beaches, “great people and a climate like Florida’s but without the humidity,” according to Kilani. The largely secular nation of 10 million people is far smaller than Egypt with its 80 million people, a far greater population living in poverty and religiously, far more conservative. These conditions are all too familiar to Egyptians Sharaf and Antar.


“Can you imagine that at least 35 million people in our country are living below the poverty line? So what would you except from people, living without freedom, feeling unsafe from the police who were supposed to protect them, in other words almost living in a kingdom ruled by a corrupt king and his sons,” said Sharaf, a math major due to complete his Ph.D. in 2014. “I was feeling that this would happen but not as fast as it did. I totally support the revolution and wish I could be there.”


Antar agrees about the conditions but the escalation of events took him completely by surprise.


“I've always known about the poverty and suffering of the people, the high rate of poverty, the rising food prices, high unemployment, police brutality, etc. And I’ve known that it was a result of the widespread corruption in the government. However, I did not think they would be able to rise up against such an oppressive regime. When it first began, I thought it was another measly protest that would quickly be extinguished by the security forces as it always has been before. But as things started escalating, I clearly began to see that it was something serious,” said the pre-med senior majoring in biomedical sciences.


Antar has dual American-Egyptian citizenship, with a brother attending medical school at Cairo University, and so speaks with a strong feelings and knowledge of both countries.


“I wish that Americans would see the value of a free Egyptian people, and maybe push the government to do what’s right in this situation, which is to directly advocate for the ousting of Mubarak and his regime.  That is the will of the people. There is no doubt that the Mubarak regime brought stability to the region, but at the cost of an oppressed people,” he said. “As Americans, we value our freedom and democracy, and we should push for the Obama administration to stand by these ideals we all share, rather than other interests.”


Mohsen Milani, chairman of USF’s Department of Government and International Relations and an expert on the Persian Gulf, says “Mubarak’s era of autocracy has already ended, and we are witnessing the birth of a new Egypt, although it is impossible to know the salient characteristics of the emerging order.”


“When Egypt sneezes,” Milani says, “the rest of the Arab world catches cold. They definitely drew some inspiration from what happened in Tunisia, but I believe the discontent for the current regime has been churning over a much longer period of time.  Regardless of its outcome, the Egyptian uprising has already jolted the Arab Middle East to its core.”  

His colleague, USF Professor Abdelwahab Hechiche, is watching events unfold with great interest as well.  He was born in Tunis, Tunisia, and is an expert on the Middle East and human rights. 

“I feel a deep compassion for all USF international students separated from their families.  They’re forced to learn about and watch passively natural and man-made disasters afflicting their respective countries,” he said. 

“To quote (USF) Dean Maria Crummett, ‘the global can be local.’ Today, our Tunisian and Egyptian international students, watching and worrying about the destiny of their respective countries, illustrate that reality. They are ambassadors and it is part of their academic and human growth to live these painful and historic moments. 

Added Hechiche: “If they realize how sectarianism, be it religious or ideological, can lead to fratricide within the same religion and/or national identity, I hope that they could  consider taking advantage of the opportunities offered by USF’s diversity, to engage in a genuine and fraternal dialogue with  all Middle Eastern international students, including Jews and Israelis, and Israelis and Palestinians who are worried about the future of the Peace Process, in order to reflect on tolerance, and peaceful coexistence in Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Muslim relations from the shores of Morocco to the Persian Gulf.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.