When Wendell Hassan Marsh boarded his flight from Cairo back to the U.S. two days before Christmas, he didn’t expect that a month later the friends he left behind would be caught in the middle of a historic protest to topple the 30-year regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
Marsh, a 2009 Morehouse College graduate, spent 15 months at the American University in Cairo on a Fulbright Fellowship studying Arabic and researching Arab-African relations.
“This has been a long time coming. There has been contained popular unrest for a long time and a lot of frustration,” said Marsh, who is now in Washington, D.C., working as a freelance journalist. “But no one expected it to come this soon; everyone seemed to think it would be more related to the elections in the fall.”
Marsh believes the uprising in Tunisia in previous weeks contributed to the flare-up in Egypt and represents a growing trend in the Middle East. “I don’t think they [the demonstrators] will get out of the streets until Mubarak leaves, and if it wasn’t for American support, he would have been out of power years ago.”
This 23-year-old multi-lingual journalist began his quest for knowledge about international affairs in the Atlanta public school system where he studied Spanish in elementary school and French in high school. While in 12th grade, Marsh received a scholarship to study for three months in a small fishing village in France. He returned to France as a college student, this time to Paris, then went on to Dakar, Senegal, where he also studied the Wolof language and freelanced for the news service allAfrica.com. Before graduating from Morehouse, he took a six-week international relations course in Geneva.
As a Fulbright fellow, one of the things that struck him about Cairo was the lack of opportunity for the middle class. “I can’t tell you how many taxi drivers I had who were Ph.D.’s, and Egypt is supposed to be one of the stronger emerging markets — multinational corporations have flooded the country, but that money is not trickling down. The people see that somebody’s making a lot of money and they know it’s not them.”
Marsh agrees with reports that put the average annual salary in Egypt at the U.S. equivalent of $2,000. He points out that there are government subsidies for rent and food for those who qualify, and college tuition at state schools is “virtually free.” But Marsh contends that many young people educated at state colleges are unemployed – the official employment rate of 9.9 percent “definitely” doesn’t apply to people under 30 who graduated from state universities. “I would say about half of them are unemployed, and that’s why there is so much rage and frustration.”
Marsh has his own frustration, “in a way,” wishing he had not left Cairo in December. His journalist friends who remain there are receiving numerous offers to report on the situation, and Marsh says he would like to be among them. He also is concerned for the safety of his friends, some of whom he finally reached by phone after days of trying. “One of my friends, who lives 40 minutes from downtown, said the neighborhood militia killed a looter last night. Neighborhoods are protecting themselves, because there are no police.” Marsh said another friend told him there was no access to banks or grocery stores and people were running out of food.
When he was awarded the Fulbright Fellowship in 2009, Marsh was one of 3,500 students in more than 150 countries in the program. Morehouse issued a news release stating that Marsh had graduated Phi Beta Kappa and that during his senior year, he oversaw digitization of the student newspaper. He was also director of new media while at the same time creating and editing videos as an intern for the Atlanta weekly newspaper, Creative Loafing.
For a guy who describes himself as “half jock and half nerd” in high school, being captain of the football team as well as a scholar studying French abroad, he feels fortunate that he “didn’t fit in with either group.”
Marsh plans to return to Egypt—he hopes as a journalist, to report on the “nuances” that are not being covered. “For example, you don’t hear about the Christian influence or the sub-Saharan influence in this region.” He also says before the protests, numerous political issues that were not being widely reported in the West, including repression and torture of dissenters.
“It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people, and I definitely will go back in some capacity, sooner or later, probably sooner.”