True Democracy

Conor Mercadanteby Conor Mercadante ’14

“And with that, I’ll turn things over to Conor,” Professor of History Magnus Bernhardsson said as all the eyes in the classroom shifted to me. I paused for what seemed like an eternity, nervously scanning the faces in the room, and looked directly into the large video screen in front of me.

“Williams College is a small liberal arts school in northwestern Massachusetts,” I stammered, quickly launching into the script I’d memorized in tour guide training for the Admission Office. I’d delivered the same lines countless times with prospective students and their families. This time, I was describing my school for a group of Egyptian students halfway around the world.

I watched the Arab Spring of 2011 unfold like most Americans did: on a television. I was familiar with Cairo’s pyramids and ancient pharaohs; I knew substantially less about Egypt’s aging autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the footage of people parading through Tahrir Square struck me as universal. Their courage, passion and commitment were laudable. Their spirit, unity and togetherness were moving. Their thirst for freedom was inspiring. I set out to educate myself about the nature of the movement that captured the world’s attention.

In the fall of my sophomore year, just months after the resignation of President Mubarak in Egypt, I enrolled in Professor Bernhardsson’s “History of the Modern Middle East.” Undecided in my major, I had very little expectation that the course would change my academic future, but that’s exactly what it did.

Professor Bernhardsson organized his course around experiential learning. Sure we talked as a class about pressing issues, read assigned books and sat through several lectures. But the most memorable moments allowed us to connect with the material on a personal level and relate to it in a new way. We followed current events through media outlets based in the region. We simulated peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. And—perhaps most importantly—we conducted three videoconferences with Egyptian college students at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

As I finished my tour guide spiel for the AUC class at the other end of our videoconference, one of the Egyptian students stepped forward to follow suit. The college is an English language school in Egypt’s capital, and the 15-person group speaking with us was composed largely of Egyptians, with a few internationals from the region as well. Several of them had joined the throngs of people in Tahrir Square just months earlier. A number of them were there when new of Mubarak’s resignation broke. All of them were excited about the dawning of a new age in their country.

The conversation began slowly, as both classes battled a combination of shyness and nerves. After a short while, however, the dialogue picked up steam. We discussed the word “revolution” and its applicability to the Arab Spring in Egypt. We debated the veil, its implications for gender equality and its cultural significance. We covered Egypt’s upcoming round of parliamentary elections and the students’ hopes for their budding democracy.

These were kids my age, and yet they were helping to overthrow a dictator and putting their own well-being on the line for the cause of freedom. Their conviction and enthusiasm emanated from the screen. Several of them became quite emotional as they spoke, rising to their feet and pounding the desks in front of them. Others responded to shared thoughts and opinions with approving applause or dismayed groans. They cared about their country and the future of their homeland in a way that even a red-blooded American like myself simply could not fathom. I felt almost sheepish as I watched them talk about liberty, equality and individual freedoms. Here I was, a citizen of the country that laid claim to all those principles, and I didn’t appreciate them the way the Egyptian students did. They conveyed to us the true meaning of democracy in a way that no textbook or American election ever could.

Egypt’s revolution has not gone exactly as the students from the AUC might have hoped back in the fall of 2011. Regrettably, hope has yielded to frustration, excitement to anger and a new beginning to a familiar outcome. Even with a new round of elections on the horizon in 2014, there are no guarantees that the country’s second try at democracy will go more smoothly than the first. Yet the emotions I observed during that videoconference two years ago ran deep, and sentiments like that do not disappear overnight.

The example set by the students during our videoconference continues to inspire me today. It led me to embrace my country’s own political system with energy and appreciation, culminating in the swell of pride I felt upon casting my first vote in a presidential election in 2012. It inspired me to become a history major with a focus on the modern Middle East. It gave me a newfound appreciation for my own freedoms that I much too often take for granted. If those feelings still resonate within me, then I am certain they still stir the hearts of the Egyptians.

Conor Mercadante ’14 is a history major with a concentration in justice and law studies. After graduation he’ll be starting a job with the NBCUniversal Page Program in New York.