x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A mother defies the looters, a daughter joins the barricades

Protests have brought out the best in some people.

It took a revolution for the father of one my former classmates to allow his only daughter to stay overnight at a stranger's place.

Well, she wasn't exactly alone when she joined hundreds of thousands of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square almost every night this past week.

"My father said that for great change to happen, small changes need to first take place," said my friend, who comes from a conservative Egyptian family and had never been allowed to mix with men or even stay at my family's home during our school days in Saudi Arabia.

But now, women of all ages and backgrounds have joined forces with men in the uprising against the government, and have endured their own share of harassment by riot police. Social and cultural restrictions have been put aside for the moment, with women seen as equal to men during protests, although there have been moments of chivalry.

Another friend, a mother of two, left her children with her elderly parents and hit the streets. She was one of the women in the human chain protecting the national museum against looters.

"People were very protective and when there were clashes, with tear gas and all that, an old mechanic let me and a few other women into his workshop and gave us tea and food," recalled the friend. "He wouldn't let us go outside until things calmed down."

The renowned feminist, human rights activist and writer in exile, Nawal al Saadawi, came back to Cairo and also joined the protests. "Women and girls are beside the men and boys," said the 80-year-old al Saadawi in a telephone interview with Democracy Now!.

It wasn't only Egyptian women participating in the events, with my Lebanese grandmother and aunt, who happened to be visiting Cairo, doing their part.

They treated boys in their neighbourhood, who were protecting the area from thugs, with warm food and drinks. They gave them Lebanese desserts and cookies along with milk during the late night shifts. My grandmother also has made it a habit to sit on her balcony, drinking coffee and eating nuts, watching and warning the protesters below of approaching danger.

Everyone is doing their small bit in the bigger picture, and how much clearer everything seems when there is a goal. "People are picking up the trash and not littering, a remarkable thing for Egyptians," said another childhood friend, who took a vacation from work in Saudi Arabia and headed to Egypt.

"You see, I think Egyptians are finally reclaiming their country," she said. "When they littered in the past it was because they felt they didn't belong and the country didn't represent them or their needs."

During my visits to Egypt, I have often been subjected to unwanted attention from men and used to dread walking through crowded alleys. But according to reports from my friends who are there now, most men are acting like perfect gentlemen.

For a moment, it seemed all we needed was an uprising to remind men in Arab countries about acceptable manners and etiquette. But then yesterday Tahrir Square erupted in violence and the worst side of human nature was seen.

As a voice of reason, the legendary Egyptian actor and classic heartthrob Omar Sharif has added his support for peaceful protest, which has struck a chord with me because I am a fan. Even though he sometimes cheats at cards (at least, that's what my grandmother reports when they meet in Cairo), I still like the fact that he spoke up, prompting other Egyptian celebrities to do the same.

It will be interesting to see how the world remembers these days. Back in 1952, the Maidan al Tahrir, or Liberation Square, was the site of another Egyptian revolution, one that turned Egypt from a constitutional monarchy into a republic.

I was hoping that this square would be dedicated to the people, but my optimism was dampened yesterday when needless violence erupted. Still, perhaps this time around, the square will be dedicated to the people and to a transient time in Egypt's history when gender, religion, age and background didn't matter so much.

rghazal@thenational.ae