Lauren Clark is the epitome of grace under pressure. The warm, yet extremely poised and focused 25 year-old exemplifies a worldliness and savvy far beyond her years.
The daughter of Fayetteville residents Wanda and Michael Clark, Lauren made national news this past February when she was one of dozens of Americans who were evacuated from Egypt after anti-government protesters took to the streets of Cairo to demand an end to the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak. Lauren, a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, is eight months into a two-year graduate program at the American University in Cairo, where she is working toward dual master’s degrees in gender and women’s studies and migration and refugee studies.
Today, safe and comfortable in her mother’s Fayetteville home, Lauren talks about the social and economic conditions which spurred the revolution, conditions she noticed immediately upon arriving in Cairo in August 2010. “When I got to Egypt, I felt the helplessness,” Lauren recalls. “There was trash everywhere; no one cared about the environment.” Lauren says that pervasive resignation was the result of Egyptian citizens being fed up with the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who held a tight grip on the North African country for three decades until he was forced to resign February 10.
A recipe for the perfect storm
Under Mubarak’s regime, forty percent of Egyptians lived in abject poverty, many forced to eke out a living on less than $50 (US) per month. On top of that, food was scarce and public schools were in shambles, as no money was being directed to education, infrastructure, or social services. To make matters even worse, a corrupt police force regularly harassed, intimidated, and terrorized citizens. Lauren says she has heard many stories of police torture and people who were arrested and never heard from again. “The police don’t protect,” she says. “They use and abuse power and it’s easy to pay them off. Oppressed people oppress other people.”
But in late January, at least one segment of Egypt’s oppressed population decided they had had enough. Energized by a revolt in Tunisia just weeks earlier and a Facebook page which memorialized a 28 year-old Egyptian businessman who had been beaten to death by police in June 2009, Egyptian protesters gathered in the cities of Suez, Alexandria, and Cairo to demand an end to the oppression and poverty. Leading the protests were students, sanitation workers, and other members of Egypt’s quickly-diminishing middle class. “This is a people’s movement,” Lauren says. “It’s not an Islamic fundamentalist movement or anything like that.”
An activist at heart, a citizen of the world
Lauren’s mother, Wanda, a literacy coach for Fulton County Public Schools, and her father, Michael, an architect, had raised their three children to believe that travel was in itself an education. “We always went somewhere, even if it was just to another state to visit family,” Wanda remembers.
In high school, Lauren joined the orchestra. When the group visited Ghana, West Africa, her passion for travel soared. After graduating from Newnan High School, Lauren attended Spelman College, where her years were punctuated by summers spent studying in Jordan, Israel, Kenya, Mexico, and Germany. But Egypt, the storied land of the Pharaohs, held a special appeal for Lauren, and after she graduated from college, she set her sights on Cairo. Lauren arrived in Egypt in August 2010, and quickly settled into life in the North African country. “She does very well in very rural environments,” Wanda says, recalling the time Lauren spent with a Bedouin tribe in Tanzania that had only outdoor toilets. So it might come as a surprise that even after Lauren’s extensive travels to remote parts of the world, Wanda isn’t completely comfortable with her daughter living in Egypt. She quips about the “little guilt trip” she puts on Lauren and her sister Jasmine, who is studying at the University of Paris. “I tell them they have to email me at least once a day so I know they’re okay. And before they left, I made them watch the movie Taken,” Wanda says, laughing.
But in early February, when the world watched chaos unfold in Egypt and Mubarak shut down internet and phone service, neither Wanda nor Lauren felt the least bit lighthearted.
The people’s revolution
On Tuesday, January 25, an estimated 20,000 people gathered in Cairo’s Tahir (or “Liberation”) Square in a slew of anti-government protests. Although the first couple of days of the revolution were marked by a palpable, electric excitement, Lauren, who lived in the Egyptian city of Zamalek, declined invitations from friends and teachers to go to Tahir Square, for fear that the protests would get out of control. And they did.
Within days, fights had broken out between protestors and riot police. As Mubarak played a game of cat-and-mouse with those calling for his ouster – all the while refusing to step down – riots grew more intense, with police using water cannons and tear gas to repel protestors. Mubarak instituted a 3 p.m. curfew throughout the country. Lauren watched from the sidelines.
“I was trying to ride everything out,” she says. “I thought it was going to be exciting.”
But Lauren’s excitement turned to panic when her friend and coworker, a controversial Egyptian filmmaker, was arrested by Mubarak’s police and thrown into jail. He was eventually released, but Lauren realized her associations with perceived enemies of the government could put her in danger. When Mubarak severed his country’s technological connection with the rest of the world, Lauren knew the situation had become dire.
“I’ll never forget the day they shut down the internet,” she recalls. “The [American] school shut down, as did the banks. I didn’t have any money or support.”
Back in Fayetteville, Lauren’s mother, Wanda, began to worry, too. “The first couple of days (of the uprising) I called the director of the American University of Cairo every day. I began to worry when they had no telephone or internet service and I couldn’t communicate with Lauren.”
Wanda received brief solace when the Egyptian military barricaded American University, shielding her daughter from the chaos in the streets of Cairo. But when the U.S. government announced that it was sending Marines to surround the American embassy, Lauren knew the situation had reached an impasse. “The government doesn’t just send Marines unless something is about to happen,” she says. “That’s when I said, ‘Okay, I gotta go.’ I realized I could stay there and be useless or leave, and take what I need to take.”
What Lauren took, aside from some of her personal belongings, were DVDs, the footage on which would be used to create documentaries to expose the harsh realities of Egyptian life under Mubarak – the same material for which her friend had been arrested just a few days earlier. With the DVDs in hand, Lauren was ready to leave Cairo and head home to America until the situation stabilized. But she wouldn’t be going anywhere so fast.
In late January, as the chaos in Cairo escalated, dozens of countries scrambled to get their citizens out Egypt. Wanda, desperate to get her child out of the country before something worse happened, called everyone she could think of to help get Lauren home. She called the Red Cross, which told her such assistance was out of its jurisdiction. After a few more calls, she eventually contacted a local TV news station, which put her in touch with the State Department, and finally got Lauren on a chartered flight back to the United States.
A new day dawns in Egypt
On February 10, eighteen days after the protests in Cairo began, Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down. Although she is excited about the prospect of a revitalized, reunited Egypt, Lauren knows that lasting change will take time. Specifically, she cites the need for the country’s new government to recreate government laws, improve the public education system, and raise the standard of living for all Egyptians. “It’s one thing to chop off the head of a movement, but if the foundation is still the same, nothing changes,” she comments.
Lauren, who works with Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in Egypt, says any real, lasting change must also address the very deep-rooted racial, religious, and cultural intolerances many Egyptians harbor. “For example,” she says, “most people think there are two religions, Christianity and Islam. But there is a population of people in Egypt, the Nubians, who are not part of those systems. It’s going to take some reassessment of the system, in general, to create an atmosphere of inclusiveness,” she says.
Helping to create such an atmosphere is part of Lauren’s mission, both through her work with documentaries and with the refugee populations of Egypt. In fact, Lauren’s dream is to establish a refugee camp to work with displaced peoples. She left Fayetteville to return to Cairo in time for classes to begin February 20, a decision her mother has learned to make her peace with. “I thought she should stay ‘til the summer. I voiced my opinion, but the final decision is really hers. She has always taken up for the underdog, and she feels this is where she should be,” Wanda says.
Read more about Lauren’s evacuation and return to Egypt written in her own words “Traveling around to revolution”