Mired in the past, Cairo lunges toward the future
"Our ruler for the last 30 years/His name is Hosni Mubarak/His description?/He's stupid, he doesn't get it/He's blind, he doesn't see/ He's deaf, he doesn't hear/If you find him/Throw him in the nearest garbage can/Set him on fire..." A tall man in a jellabiya and a traditional turban sang these lines in Tahrir Square one night last week, accompanied by a small crowd keeping the beat on pieces of scavenged metal. It was just one of dozens of impromptu chants ricocheting across the square that has become Egypt's revolutionary headquarters. When I asked someone in the group who the singer was, he answered, with finality: "An Egyptian citizen."
Hana Lotfi, a 35-year-old mother who was there with her husband and children, approached me. "The people have been quiet too long," she said. "And being quiet has done us no good. So we die here - we're already dying outside, what's the difference?"
Egypt has changed, it goes without saying. Things are being done and being said, on the airwaves and on the street, that would have been unimaginable last month. The nation is split, wavering, living "in two different time zones" - the present and the post-Mubarak - as one local academic recently put it.
After two weeks of street protests and violent clashes that have left hundreds dead and thousands injured, Egyptians are waiting - uneasily, expectantly, stubbornly - to find out if they are living through a stalled uprising or a real revolution.
There are the people who just want to go back to work, who don't trust the protesters, who fear foreign plots, who are deeply implicated in the regime, who find the dizzying pace of events unsettling. And there are others who have lost loved ones, who have fought the police, who have been thrilled by the sound of their own voices, shouting loudly what they never thought they could say, and now can't imagine turning back.
The country's de facto new head, vice-president Omar Suleiman, is betting he can outmanoeuvre and outlast a spontaneous protest movement led by young people and joined by hundreds of thousands of average Egyptians, a movement with little organised leadership and only one non-negotiable demand: the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.
Suleiman says the president must finish his term, but that he himself wants to negotiate with the opposition and begin political reforms. The protesters say they don't trust the regime to dismantle itself.
Neither the National Assembly for Change (a loose coalition of opposition groups led by the Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei) nor the leaders of the youth groups that laid the groundwork for the protests have been invited to negotiate with the government. They say that they would not have accepted anyway.
Two weeks after the protests began, one of the young men who helped plan them arrived in Tahrir Square. Wael Ghonim, a Google executive for the Middle East, was arrested on January 27, then interrogated, blindfolded and held at a secret location for 12 days. Ghonim, it turned out, was the administrator of the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook group, which had made a young Alexandrian man who was beaten to death last year by police the face and rallying point for Egypt's democracy movement.
In an emotional TV interview on the night of his release, Ghonim broke down in tears at the sight of the pictures of Egyptians who have died, sobbing: "It's not our fault. It's the fault of the people who have clung to power."
On the morning of Friday January 28 I sat in the living room of Ziad al Alami, an Egyptian activist and a friend of Ghonim's. Al Alami's mother, a student activist herself, put on trial by President Anwar Sadat after the 1977 bread riots, laid out a huge breakfast of jam, eggs, ful and bread. She told us to eat up because we'd be "running around all day". Everyone was too nervous to have much of an appetite.
The young people in the room included Sally Moore, an Egyptian-Irish psychiatrist. Like al Alami, she is a member of the youth wing of Mohammed ElBaradei's Campaign for Change. Omar and Salma Akl were also there, the niece and nephew of Osama Ghazali Harb, who left the president's ruling party in disgust in 2006 to found a new party called the Democratic Front. Akl, 22, had already been arrested once. She speaks matter-of-factly of being "ready to die for freedom". These young progressives had been co-ordinating, cautiously, with counterparts of their age in the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist group's younger members have increasingly been taking over the political initiative from its traditional leadership.
Other groups have helped to co-ordinate the protests. There's the April 6 movement, which started as a Facebook group, created by the activists Ahmad Maher and Ahmad Salah in support of industrial strikes on that date in 2008 in the town of Mahalla al Kubra. There's also the Justice and Freedom movement, another online group calling for "struggle in the name of democracy and freedom… social justice… and human dignity."
Cairo had witnessed its first genuine street protests in a generation three days before. Organised online by these and other young activists, The Day of Rage saw demonstrators overpower security forces and freely roam the city.
Now both sides - the protesters and the regime - were preparing for a revolution. The internet had been shut down the night before, text messaging was disabled and mobile-phone coverage was disappearing. We exchanged landline numbers, watched Al Jazeera, smoked cigarettes. The kids gave each other advice on how to stay together, what to pack in their bags.
Eventually we walked out, in cautious groups of twos and threes, towards a nearby square. When we got there it was empty. I've lived and worked in Egypt for seven years and like many here I've become steeped in the idea that Egyptians, while they have ample causes to revolt, most likely won't. That they'll always "walk along the wall," as the expression here goes. There are many jokes about the Egyptian ability to put up with too much.
Then, down a wide avenue, a crowd appeared: men and women, children and the elderly, many waving Egyptian flags, many out on the street for the first time in their lives. It was just one of many groups of thousands, that morning, converging on Tahrir Square.
Later in the week, government officials would invoke Egypt's unprotesting silent majority. But every country has a silent majority. Egypt's vocal minority has been the revelation, and it took a cresting of indignation, inspiration, worn-out patience and national pride to bring them out.
Ghonim's half-million-strong Facebook group was instrumental in planning the protests. Then the church bombing in Alexandria on New Year's Eve united moderate Christians and Muslims who were tired of sectarian tensions being fanned and "managed" by an authoritarian state. Finally, there was the sense that if little Tunisia could do it, a few weeks before, it was Egypt's duty to take the lead now.
On that same Friday, after dusk, a colleague and I heard that the protesters had taken Tahrir Square. We headed out, walking through the wealthy island neighbourhood of Zamalek towards the Kasr el Nil bridge. The atmosphere was fluid, electric: the city had been cracked open. The bridge, where tens of thousands of protesters fought central security, throwing tear gas canisters into the river, jumping on to trucks, disabling water cannons, was a battlefield full of jubilant boys.
Later, from the balcony of my friend's hotel room, we took in a view of Tahrir Square. The crowd ebbed and flowed, still fighting the police. Cars that had been set on fire crackled, sending plumes of flame into the sky. Looters stripped two small convenience stores bare.
Later that night, the president appeared on TV and gave a speech that seemed light-years behind the scene that was unfolding below us. He said there would be a cabinet reshuffle. He appointed his chief of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, as vice-president and the former air force chief of staff, Ahmed Shafik, as his prime minister, effectively handing power to a new military leadership.
It is hard to write about a popular uprising without suspecting yourself of lapsing into the maudlin or the celebratory. It is especially hard when everyone you speak to is an impromptu poet of the revolution.
I am thinking of the tour guide turned public indicter, who early one morning stood on a street corner yelling: "Mubarak didn't respect us! He didn't respect his nation! Mubarak, you belong in Saudi Arabia!"
"Calm down," a man in the crowd told him, solicitously, "for your own sake."
Or the young man who told me he travelled to Cairo from Mallawy, in southern Egypt, when he heard about the protests. "Four-hundred-and-fifty kilometres by train," he said, his voice hoarse from days of yelling, his eyes red with lack of sleep. He kept pointing to his dusty shoes, as if he'd actually walked to the capital. "I won't go home until Mubarak leaves or I die."
In the last two weeks, Midan Tahrir ("Liberation Square") has become a parallel world. Anti-Mubarak graffiti covers pavements, walls, army tanks. The atmosphere veers, from day to day, between the furious and the festive. There are many moving signs ("I was Afraid. Now I'm Egyptian." Or "I'm Sorry I was Silent"). But mostly the protesters seemed to have all entered a competition for wittiest anti-Mubarak poster. One placard says: "Control+Alt+Delete Mubarak." Or, as the protests have dragged on: "Come on, leave, I need a bath!" In response to state TV claims that the protests were being sponsored by the US and catered by the KFC fast-food chain, everyone in Liberation Square has taken to referring to the food they eat as "Kentucky."
Yet what has been most striking about the square is not the battle-scarred streets, the surreal, defiant makeover or the extraordinary lightheartedness. It’s the civic spirit that bloomed there immediately, an outpouring of civility and solidarity.
Burnt police trucks were turned into refuse-collection points. Volunteers protected the Egyptian Museum and its treasures until the army arrived to secure it. Women, who are often harassed on the streets of Cairo, were left in peace. Muslims and Christians said their prayers alongside each other. “I didn’t know these people existed,” a friend told me.
The first morning after the square was taken, I came across several young men and women, brand new plastic brooms in hand, sweeping debris off a side street. “We want to clean up our country,” they said, matter-of-factly.
Today, the square houses an expanding tent city. Small stands selling tea and snacks have been set up all around its perimeter.
You can even get a haircut at the Revolution Salon (a man with a sign and a pair of scissors). Teenagers with laptops scurry up and down to nearby apartments, being fed by sympathetic residents, sleeping on bare mattresses, documenting the revolution.
The square’s organisation has been voluntary and largely spontaneous. Supporters, kept constantly apprised of the protesters’ needs by telephone and, now that the internet is back, Facebook and Twitter, bring food, water, blankets and medical supplies.
On Tuesday, February 1, President Mubarak announced he wouldn’t run for another term and said he would ask parliament to amend the constitution to set presidential term limits. In his speech, he presented Egypt’s future as a choice between “chaos and stability.”
When protesters had taken control of downtown Cairo the previous Friday, the police vanished from the streets. Looting started almost immediately, and reports circulated that some of the looters, when apprehended, were carrying police IDs. Prisoners were released; the local press interviewed inmates who said they were told “leave or we’ll shoot you” by masked, armed men. Across the country, men set up neighbourhood watches, patrolling their streets with sticks, swords, metal bars and chains.
State TV, still a primary source of information for the majority of Egyptians, focused on the looting and chaos. It blamed the standstill the country has found itself in on the demonstrations.
It also began alluding to outside forces and foreign agents who are trying to spread fitna (strife) among Egyptians. Presenters interviewed “protesters” whose faces and voices were disguised and who said they had been trained in Israel. This is an old tack, here: to cast all demands for reform and for change as the work of outside troublemakers.
Misinformation and incitement are just two of the traditional tactics the regime resorted to. On February 2, groups of Mubarak supporters converged on the protests. I crossed them as I left the square: excitable all-male groups, holding identical sheets of paper with “Yes to Mubarak” printed on them. “Are you with or against Mubarak?” they yelled.
As a reporter working in Egypt, I’m familiar with these groups – a collection of unemployed youth, ministry officials, plain-clothes cops and informants, and the dreaded beltagiya (“thugs”) that the security services here deploy during elections and demonstrations to rough people up.
But I couldn’t imagine what was coming. I started to receive frantic phone calls from Midan Tahrir. I watched on Al Jazeera as boys on horses and camels charged the crowd. They climbed to the roofs of buildings around the square and threw masonry onto the demonstrators. But the protesters fought back. Emergency medical facilities were set up for the wounded. Protesters dug up paving stones to use as ammunition. They stripped a construction site in the square to build barricades and shields.
At the same time, a concerted attack on the foreign press and on human-rights activists was unleashed. Foreign and local human-rights workers were arrested at the offices of the Hesham Mubarak Law Center. They were handcuffed, blindfolded and transferred from one secret holding facility to another for close to two days. They, and others who were detained, reported hearing the screams of men being beaten nearby.
A journalist friend was attacked by a mob and punched in the face. Another was detained by the military overnight. The offices of Al Jazeera (long the government’s bête noire) were looted and destroyed. In many journalists’ accounts, the mob violence against them seemed to be directed by plain-clothes police or intelligence officers, who then took them into custody “for their own protection.”
The next day, Prime Minister Shafik apologised for the violence and said there would be an investigation. He denied that the government played any role.
“There is pre-January 25th Egypt, and post-January 25th Egypt,” a professor of sociology told me, standing in front of the charred skeleton of the president’s party’s headquarters.
A young protester heading into Tahrir Square made the same point: “This is our history. When my kids study Egyptian history, I want them to know I was here.” But that history is still unfolding day by day.
The country now lives by the rhythm of the protests: Fridays and Tuesdays are when the big turn-outs take place. The rest of the time Tahrir Square is a sort of carnival, open to all who want to dip their toes in freedom.
The US is calling for a “transition” headed by the new vice-president; President Obama says “progress” is being made. But the opposition groups and figures who have met with Suleiman, including the Muslim Brotherhood, say he has offered no credible commitment to change.
In fact, Suleiman told ABC television’s Christiane Amanpour that the calls for democracy didn’t originate with Egyptian youth. “It’s not their idea,” he said. “It comes from abroad. Everybody believes in democracy, but when you will do that? When the people here will have the culture of democracy?”
Suleiman and other government officials keep calling on the demonstrators to trust them and “go home”. But if anything, the protesters are making their presence in Midan Tahrir more entrenched with every passing day. After repelling last week’s attacks by pro-government forces, it’s hard to imagine them giving up the square without a pitched battle or the direct involvement of the army (which has promised, repeatedly, not to fire on them). Piles of stones are massed, ready for throwing, near every entrance to the square.
The question remains, however, of who can speak for the Egyptians protesting across the country; and who can formulate a strategy that goes beyond bi-weekly demonstrations. (There have been several calls for strikes, for example, and for marches on other locations in Cairo – but so far they have not gained traction).
In a country where political participation has long been meaningless and dangerous, the spontaneous, grassroots nature of the protests has been their greatest asset. As thousands joined, we’ve witnessed the emergence of a new non-sectarian, non-ideological constituency that simply wants Egypt to join the ranks of democratic countries.
But among the existing Egyptian opposition parties and groups, “No one can claim they represent this revolution,” says Abdel Rahman Youssef, a supporter of Mohammed ElBaradei who was in a meeting with Suleiman.
It is a coalition of representatives from the youth groups that planned the protests (including the Brotherhood) that today comes the closest to representing the protesters in Tahrir. Wael Ghonim, despite denying that he is a hero, has become exactly that. But he and his colleagues all say that now they are merely the messengers, not the leaders, of this movement.
The protesters’ demands, spelt out in giant banners in Midan Tahrir, are clear: Mubarak’s removal; the dissolution of parliament; the lifting of emergency law; a new constitution that allows for true democracy; accountability for the abuses of government officials; and free elections.
The pace of the government’s reluctant concessions has been plodding compared to the protesters’ spiralling expectations.
Mostly, they have responded with more of the same: a military man who has long been the president’s closest confidant; a security apparatus that continues to orchestrate para-state violence, to “disappear” dissidents and to pit citizens against each other; a state-controlled media that engages in spectacular misinformation.
This government has shown that it is willing to sacrifice everything: its citizens’ security, their livelihoods, their trust in each other, rather than carry out basic reforms. But as long as the protests maintain their momentum, its options seem to have shrunk to stalling or violence.
Having already unleashed many of their traditional techniques of intimidation, the authorities are gambling that they can wear out the protesters and sell the Egyptian public a revamped version of the status quo. But it’s doubtful this will satisfy the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who took to the streets in the last few weeks, envisaging an alternative future for their nation. And it remains uncertain who will provide the leadership necessary to fulfil their hopes.
“This is the country I’ve dreamt of all my life,” a 26-year-old university student called Fathy told me in Midan Tahrir. “I won’t give up until all of Egypt is like this.”
Ursula Lindsey, a regular contributor to The Review, lives in Cairo.
Updated: February 11, 2011 04:00 AM