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Five Minutes With… Mona Ahmed Saleh

Mona Ahmed Saleh shares her views on Egypt, education and the January 25 Revolution that propelled her country – and the library – to international prominence

Mona Ahmed Saleh is a linguist and intercultural communication coordinator at Egypt’s famed Bibliotheca Alexandrina, where she specializes in events that encourage dialog and understanding. Saleh came to Roger Williams University in October 2011 as a visiting scholar as part of an intercultural partnership between the University and Egypt’s national library (see “Saving Alexandrina” in the current issue of RWU Magazine). In the following interview, Saleh shares her views on Egypt, education and the January 25 Revolution that propelled her country – and the library – to international prominence. 

On being a female academic in Egypt...

In Egypt, there are many women in my generation at the University getting their master’s or doctoral degrees and teaching courses – especially compared to 20 or 30 years ago. But as a society, there is still that expectation that after graduation, yes, you can find work, but your main objective should be to get married and have a family.

I have a very liberal family and they support my studies; but with others, I am still fighting this expectation all the time. For them, I am a bit different because my career is my more immediate goal.

You spent October 2011 as a visiting scholar at RWU. What was that experience like for you?

My visit to Roger Williams was very much a lifetime experience. During my visit, I attended 17 classes and met a large number of students from different backgrounds. It was a very rich and exciting experience to participate in a classroom and to interact with the American students. Some had a very good understanding of Egyptian politics; but others did not, so it was nice to be able to share my background with them.

Did you find the students’ general perceptions about Egyptian society to be accurate?

The majority of people I spoke to had a limited knowledge about the uprising and many of the ideas they have are very stereotypical.

Usually, when questioned about women in Egyptian society, I would ask what their expectations are about women. I always got one answer: women wear all black and are not allowed to move freely.

And then I would respond and say, ‘Well, what about me? I am here in the United States. I am not veiled, I am not in black.’ Yet I am an Egyptian woman who is educated and who travels.

I tried to give them an idea that not all women in Egypt are veiled and not all veiled women are confined to their homes. We work; we go to the universities. Although Egypt is a developing country, we are modern in many ways.

Do you think the uprising has opened the gate for growth of women’s rights – particularly their access to education and positions of political influence?

To be honest, no. I’m not optimistic that real change is going to take place.

I have a different understanding of the January 25 revolution. To me, it was not a "revolution," but rather a mob uprising with the blessing of the military.

I was not expecting from the very beginning that a real change would happen. There were many indicators warning the revolutionary youth that they were not on the right track. The media and the Egyptian “elites” also played a very negative role. They made the people live in an illusion that the uprising was a great revolution that impressed the world and that all our endemic problems would be solved overnight.

I hope that now – almost a year later – a number of people have come to realize that it was an Orwellian “Animal Farm” kind of revolution, where people revolted against dictatorship and corruption only to replace it with another kind of dictatorship.

How do you see the state of Egyptian society today?

Up to today, we still have demonstrations; we have strikes everywhere. The whole country is in chaos. Every now and then there is a sudden eruption of violence between the protestors in the street and the army and police forces. We have a number of new political coalitions and political parties but I think none of them has a vision or national plan for the country. So I think that we are at a very critical stage where nobody knows where we are going. I cannot predict the outcome fully.

And the role of women in the uprising?

Yes, women were part of the uprising, but you will not find women on the front line. You will not find women present in any new committees that were formed. You will not find women dominating the political television shows. You will find that women have suddenly disappeared.

What are your hopes for your country? How do you wish to see your nation grow?

I have dream of a liberal Egypt as it was before the 1952 revolution where people respect each others’ beliefs and views, where people value their differences and do not aspire to reach conformity, and where people care most about ethics and not religiosity.

I hope the next revolution will be a revolution in our education system and in our value and belief system.