Local outpouring of joy over ‘gentle revolution’

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / February 12, 2011

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At the soaring mosque in Roxbury Crossing, yesterday was a day of celebration after all.

Egyptians in Massachusetts had gone to bed Thursday with tears in their eyes after President Hosni Mubarak refused to step down. But they found themselves rejoicing at the news yesterday morning that he had ended his three decades of authoritarian rule.

Ahmed Elewa, a student at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, rushed to Roxbury from Worcester to pray and hug his friends. Mariam Ismail, a graduate student, wept as she watched the news from Cairo on the big-screen television in the mosque’s cafe.

“This is awesome,’’ said Ismail, a 26-year-old studying chemical engineering at Northeastern University whose family is from Egypt. “Egypt’s finally free.’’

After the resignation was announced midmorning, worshipers converged on the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the largest mosque in New England. The mosque draws thousands of Muslims from a wide array of backgrounds, including Americans and immigrants from Somalia, Indonesia, and Sudan. Egyptians especially wept, prayed, and greeted one another with a hearty mabrouk — Arabic for congratulations.

The sudden about-face caught the imam, Achmat Salie, by surprise, and he had to rewrite his sermon in time for the 1 o’clock prayers.

Many had feared widespread violence would erupt after Mubarak announced he would not leave, and they expected to pray yesterday for Egyptians’ safety. Instead, they beamed with joy and pride at the example Egypt had set for the world, calling it a demonstration that most Muslims are peaceful and wish for the same opportunities as everyone else.

“This is what we are,’’ said Atif Harden, an American and director of institutional advancement at the cultural center. “This was a peaceful change.’’

Around 1 p.m., the resonant call to prayer echoed throughout the mosque’s high-ceilinged halls. Dozens of men and women slipped off their shoes and quietly sat on the prayer rugs as sunlight streamed into the open room.

The imam, who is from South Africa, turned the sermon into a quiet celebration of Egypt and a prayer for the future of all nations. He quoted John F. Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. in a speech that praised Egyptians for saying kifaya — enough — to cruelty, poverty, unemployment, and oppression under Mubarak’s rule. He called them the “teachers of the Muslim world.’’

“It was a gentle revolution,’’ said Salie, standing at a podium as scores of worshipers sat rapt on prayer rugs in front of him. “We know that in Islam it is not the fittest that survive. It is the gentlest that survive.’’

The imam, and others, said the ouster of the regime should provoke some soul-searching among Western governments, including the United States, that supported him despite human rights abuses and corruption.

“This is not only a challenge for the Egyptians, but a challenge for all Western nations . . . who value democracy, who value human rights . . . to have a revolution of their own values,’’ Salie added.

For Egyptian-Americans, who straddle two nations, the dissonance between the US government’s ideals and its longtime support of Mubarak’s regime had been frustrating.

Ehab Ghaffar of Medford, 26, said he visited his parents’ homeland in 2005 and saw how the bureaucracy and government corruption were tearing the fabric of everyday life. On the streets, he said, people treated one another rudely. Men in business suits approached him in restaurants and asked for money.

“It hurt when you were there,’’ he said.

Elewa, the student at UMass Medical School, rushed to Egypt after the protests erupted nearly three weeks ago to care for his family and discovered that Egypt had already changed. In Cairo, he found conviction and kindness, a sense of solidarity and common good.

“It was amazing,’’ said Elewa, 30, who returned to Massachusetts this week. “There is this fresh sense of freedom.’’

As Egyptians celebrated, immigrants from other nations wondered whether such political change would sweep through their homelands as well.

Maha Abdelrahim, an 18-year-old freshman at Roxbury Community College, said she hoped the uprising in Egypt would inspire neighboring Sudan, her parents’ homeland. President Omar al-Bashir, who has been accused of war crimes there, has ruled since 1989.

South Sudanese recently voted to create their own nation separate from the north, where her family has roots. She said she wished the nation could remain united, as the largest country in Africa.

“I do hope that protests in Sudan increase,’’ she said, pausing over her science homework in the cafe yesterday before prayers. “Hopefully, finally something will come of it.’’

Nassar Ismail, Mariam’s 62-year-old father who drove up from New Bedford to visit the mosque yesterday, said that before Mubarak stepped down he was searching online for airplane tickets to join protesters in Cairo.

He rejoiced at the resignation, and canceled his plans. But he warned that the future is unclear, because nobody knows who will lead the nation next.

“Is it going to be another Mubarak or a true democracy?’’ he said. “That’s what everybody wants.’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mariasacchetti.