Yaser Elnawan, 40, the owner of Gondola Italian Restaurant in Mount Airy, is from Egypt and has four brothers and a sister who still live in the area of Alexandria, the country’s second-largest city.
“They are so excited,” Elnawan said of his siblings he kept in contact with during days of street protests. They were climaxed by controversial Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s decision last Friday to step down.
“They can’t believe what happened — it caught a lot of people by surprise,” the local businessman added of developments in his native country which he never thought would be witnessed.
Elnawan, one of only two local residents known to be from Egypt, came to the United States in 1998 and has been in Mount Airy since August 2005. Originally a dishwasher, he recalled moving up “from one spot to another” and eventually opening his own restaurant.
He appreciates the opportunities life in the U.S., and Mount Airy, has afforded him.
Back in Egypt, Elnawan was a math teacher with a four-year degree, but explained that he came to this country because of oppressive leadership of the type that caused protesters to finally hit the streets.
“It doesn’t matter how educated you are,” Elnawan said of conditions in Egypt. “It’s all about who you know.” He told of police arresting citizens for no reason and other acts associated with dictatorships, which he called the norm among Middle East countries.
“They will do whatever they want to do,” Elnawan said of Egyptian government officials’ constant abuse of citizens, who’ve had little chance of leading a dignified life.
“We are a rich country, because the people made it that way,” he said of Egypt.
“Our relationship was the same as Michael Vick and the dogs,” the restaurateur added in reference to the pro football star who served time in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring.
“But at least Michael Vick feeds the dogs — our regime (in Egypt) doesn’t.”
Elnawan said it was a matter of the people there eventually becoming “fed up after 30 years.”
He explained that suspicions even surround how Mubarak came to power in 1981, when popular Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated during a military parade by his own troops. Although Mubarak was right by Sadat’s side at the time “he did not get a scratch,” Elnawan said.
Meanwhile, Mubarak amassed a huge fortune during his 30 years in power, recent international reports have revealed.
When 18 days of street protests began in January, the local resident was skeptical that they would achieve a positive result due to the constant threat of a backlash from the Mubarak government.
Then as the movement dragged on, Elnawan became more hopeful it might lead to the goal of toppling a repressive regime. “I just got goosebumps” over what was occurring. “It was amazing.”
Had he still been living in Egypt, Elnawan said he would have been on the streets with protesters, and praised the country’s youth for taking charge to effect change.
“I am really proud of the younger generation,” he stressed. “I applaud them.”
The key was the peaceful way in which the protesters conducted themselves, in Elnawan’s view. “It did not cost us one life — it did not cost us one penny,” he said of the peaceful revolution. “And that’s a good deal for everyone.”
Yet all along he feared the government striking back in a big way. “I was sure that would happen,” Elnawan said of a scenario of people being shot down in the streets to quash the revolt.
He said one tactic the Mubarak government employed in an attempt to court support from the outside world was portraying the protesters as Muslim fundamentalists or terrorists.
“That way, they get the sympathy,” he said of the government’s strategy. “They’re using us as a boogeyman.”
While Egypt IS inhabited by Muslims, Elnawan pointed out that there are good as well as bad Muslims there, just as America contains both good and bad Christians.
Had the eye of the world not been focused squarely on Egypt, he believes the situation would have become violent. “One reason that revolution succeeded was the media,” Elnawan said. Without that saturation that included U.S. news teams, he suspects poison gas would have been used on dissenters rather than tear gas.
But, Elnawan said of the protest movement, “it started with peace and will end with peace.”
With the situation culminating with Mubarak stepping down on Friday, a ruling military council has taken control in Egypt and promises to turn over power to an elected civilian government.
Elnawan thinks the interim government should be supported. “It will get better,” he said of the situation in his home country.
“It will take time, but at least we are on the right path.”
Contact Tom Joyce at email@example.com or at 719-1924.