Where the Egypt revolution began

The protests that began in Egypt on 25 January 2011 seem like a miracle, inspired by Tunisia and tapping into longstanding grievances but essentially appearing out of the blue.  Certainly, the scale of the protests is unprecedented in modern Egypt but the groundwork for what is happening this week was laid by a number of civil society activists — bloggers, human rights workers, political organizers, and non-governmental organizations — who labored in isolation under difficult circumstances over many years to create the political consciousness now manifest on the streets. Egypt had been ideologically bankrupt for the entire Mubarak era, which began nearly thirty years ago: with Gamal Abdel Nasser there was pan-Arabism, with Anwar Sadat there had been peace with Israel and the economic reforms called infitah, but with Mubarak there was nothing — not a single idea beyond ‘stability,’ which is really just stagnation and the absence of war.  But until recently, few Egyptians felt that there was anything they could do to effect political change.

The Tunisia revolution that overthrew Zine al-Abidine Ben ‘Ali in early January 2011 inspired Egyptians to believe it could be done.  But it was worth recalling what the climate of protest used to be like in Egypt, when the crowds were smaller and the choices seemed more stark.  The notes below come from journals I kept when I went to Egypt in 2005 on assignment for Travel + Leisure (the article can be read here) to write about the art world that had flourished in the sliver of space available to civil society.  The kefaya movement that led the protests I saw has remained one of the leading secular, pro-democracy movements in Egypt and has played a significant role in the current demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

Cairo 30 March 2005

En route to al-Azhar today, my taxi headed east on Abdel Khaliq Sarwat Street. It was 3.40pm.  The traffic was terrible, as always, and the sun burned my neck through the taxi window.  Ahead on the left I saw a towering neo-classical building that I had never noticed before.  At first, because of its style, I mistook it for the Courts, but those are on 26th of July Street.  Then I saw that it was the Journalist’s Syndicate, with what appeared a new sign on an old building.  As I considered the possibility that the journalists had received an elevation of their status since my time here in the 1990s, I noticed the demonstrators gathered on the marble steps watched by a phalanx of hundreds of riot police and, across the street, senior military officers lounging on plastic chairs, walkie-talkies in hand.  We drove on, but two blocks later I got out and walked back.
The demonstrators numbered perhaps 150, the riot police at least twice that.  The demonstration was tightly organized: the protesters stood on the steps facing the street and the shabbily-outfitted conscripts formed a tight semi-circle four or five deep at the base of the steps, effectively preventing the demonstration from proceeding anywhere else or allowing passersby to join, though there appeared little demand to do so.  There were a few press, some people holding up video cameras or digital cameras.  The boys in riot gear looked more confused than violent – and they were boys, too, perhaps drafted in from the countryside.  Their unpadded plastic helmets wobbled from side to side on their slender heads, the plastic face masks pushed back.  They clutched shields that offered protection against fists and small stones, perhaps, but looked certain to crack under assault from even a makeshift weapon.  Their batons looked like broom handles.  I stood behind them and took out my camera, holding it above their heads.  I could not understand the speeches in full detail but many of the demonstrators wore the yellow badges with red lettering that said ‘kefaya’ meaning ‘enough’ which has become the one-word slogan of the reformers.  Though they have been spurred, in large part, by the prospect of Mubarak running in October for a sixth five-year term – and they were not bashful about shouting his name – they were also saying they’d had enough of a whole host of other things, including America, the CIA, and Israel.  A young officer stood next to me taking notes in Arabic, with only ‘down dow USA’ written in English.  The letters and misspelling suggested little familiarity with the language and I thought about why they were taking notes instead of recording it, as I was with my iPod.
Almost as soon as I’d joined the crowd and taken out my camera another officer – older, heavier, more aggressive – tapped my shoulder and said in Arabic that to take photos I had to follow him.  I figured the more I seemed like a tourist who just happened by the better, so I indicated I didn’t understand him.  ‘Photo inside,’ he said in English and then forcefully grabbed my arm to lead me away.  I shook loose and walked beside him, but then I pointed out the handful of Egyptians who were taking pictures so he stopped to talk to them and I walked a few feet away, taking pictures.  He never approached me again.
An impassioned plea, a child sitting on a man’s shoulders exhorting the crowd while someone held a megaphone to him, a round of ‘Baladi, Baladi’ and it was over.

Cairo 7 April 2005

A revelatory conversation with my friend Ahmed.  I met him near the Windsor Hotel and he looked heartier, a bit tired and overworked perhaps, but with the same partial beard and receding hairline that, miraculously, had receded no further in the last seven years.  I had been thinking, on my walk to see him, that I would always have Cairo within me and so, in a way, needed nothing from it.  The photo studios are in the part of Cairo that I saw when I closed my eyes in Hong Kong and dreamed of moving here: Studio Vart, Pension Roma, the long shuttered cabarets like Kursaal with its dusty ‘Bar B.Q’ sign at the entry and vaguely tropical isle exterior decorations, the Diana cinema, the Windsor hotel, the Davies-Bryan building with the old Stephenson pharmacy and miniature Venus de Milos…all these faded institutions shaped my early memories of Cairo.  But I remembered them as if I’d never left them and so, I thought, Cairo will never leave me.
And then Ahmed. ‘We are headed towards a brutal dictatorship, like Latin America in the ‘70s.’  He shrugged.  ‘This is the most likely scenario.  The regime is finished and there is no plan for what happens next.  Whatever it is, it won’t be a smooth transition.  No one wants chaos: not the people, not the Americans.  The options are the military or the Islamists, so it will be the military.’  I jokingly asked if it wasn’t a military regime already.  ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but it will be a hard regime, not like the one we have now.’
I wrote a novel about this, a novel set in the illusory tranquility just before regime change.  I wrote this novel but forgot to look at Egypt through its eyes.  It does not matter whether Attar is correct in his prediction.  The revelation was that this is, in fact, the end of an era.  That is for certain.  Mubarak may survive another couple years or he could be gone by the time this article appears, but everything hinges on whatever happens next.  Egypt has only managed this twice before (three times, if you count the easing out of the figurehead Mohamed Naguib) and never with more time to prepare and less actual preparation than now.  But all of this – Townhouse, the expanded cultural space, the Kefaya protesters, the new projects and NGOs – could end tomorrow.
The Egypt I have known is Mubarak’s Egypt: adrift, deteriorating, but with the occasional flickers of hope.  There is the widespread belief that things can’t continue like this but no urgent, palpable feeling that change is coming.  In the dying days of the Mubarak regime, deferring change is the one policy he can still effect.  When he’s gone, change of some sort will come.  With it, the official portraits I see around – portraits so much a part of the landscape that I no longer register them – will be taken down, as Sadat’s were, and some new era will begin.

Many of Egypt’s leading civil society activists are maintaining Twitter feeds with updates on the current demonstrations.  Here are a few:

Alaa Abdel Fattah: twitter.com/alaa

Mona Seif: twitter.com/monasosh

Wael Abbas: twitter.com/waelabbas

Hossam al Hamalawy: twitter.com/3arabawy

Wael Ghonim: twitter.com/Ghonim

Mahmoud Salem: twitter.com/Sandmonkey

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