On Friday night, three hours into the celebration, I saw a man in the masses on Qasr El-Nil bridge say to his wife as he took off his glasses and wiped his face, “ah…meshayna keteer ya Hosny [ah…we’ve walked so far, Hosny]. I’m not sure he was just talking about Thursday, or the past 18 days.
On Thursday night premature celebrations began at dusk. The flags were unfurled, the triumphant car beeping began. Children were paraded on shoulders and car roofs, totems of hope and pride. There was an air of certainty. Mubarak was going to make yet another TV appearance; what could he possibly have to say other than goodbye?
(In hindsight the fact of Mubarak himself appearing was a big clue that our hopes would be dashed; the pilot’s hubris would never permit Mubarak to announce his own defeat).
We watched the speech in El Boursa, an area of street cafes that takes its name from the stock exchange at its centre. The place was already packed when we arrived twenty minutes before Hosny’s address was meant to begin, full of men and women carrying flags and other items in red, white and black. We chose a café that had two wooden boxed televisions next to each other, both of which dated from approximately 1986. At one point the electricity failed, prompting roars of outrage from the clientele. It eventually returned, but a waiter had to spend five minutes with his finger pressed on a button, apparently to tune it into the satellite receiver.
After completing this onerous task he immediately and accidentally pressed a wrong button, turning the TV off. He slapped himself on the forehead and a look of pure anguish passed over his face. It was that kind of night.
When the speech was late in starting a customer demanded that state channel 1 be checked in case the problem was with Al Jazeera. Acres of satellite stations, of Turkish soap operas and animated preachers were traversed without channel 1 being found, as customers threatened mutiny.
We made it back to Al-Jazeera in time. Hosny started half an hour late. When he did eventually appear spiritual entreaties of ya rab, ya rab bandied around the café, and a rare and intense silence descended on the café. The prayers didn’t work – or at least they didn’t take effect for 24 hours – and even before Hosny had said the last word of the big fuck you that was his speech, El Boursa – and all of Egypt – erupted, and the final march began.
When this did begin?
In another street café on another evening in the blur of days that was this week a fire-eater appeared, accompanied by a girl of around 5 or 6.
As the man twirled the lit batons and recited a stream of barely audible poetry or perhaps prayer, the tiny veiled girl periodically chimed in with him, emitting a “ha!” in the pauses as she scratched her right calf with her left leg sandal and scoured the cafe’s clientele for money-givers. Then she scuttled over and took the charity – and on one occasion, a plastic bag of sandwiches – before resuming her position beside the man, who meanwhile hacked up a phlegm of the fire and petrol he had ingested. A final round of the customers and the pair disappeared into the darkness. They couldn’t have left with more than LE 20.
Mubarak’s Egypt was (was; so strange, so sweet) a labyrinth of hate and danger, a place where fortune was never a matter of chance, where guilt or innocence was decided at birth, where honesty was weakness and deceit the foundations of the fortress. Mubarak almost – almost – succeeding in doing the impossible: stripping Egyptians of their pride, slowly and systematically, over the course of 30 years.
His fingerprints are everywhere. On the bodies of desperate migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, on shanty homes in informal areas, on instruments of torture in police stations, on school books which reinforce the prejudice and lies and ignorance which were the bulwark of his rule and most of all they are all over the little girl, the fire-eater assistant, another Egyptian who Mubarak has robbed of a childhood.
For three years I covered protests of various sizes, but which never exceeded two or three thousand. Courageous people who braved the vicious police response, or the heat or simply persisted even when there were more riot police than protestors.
Some of these activists – Kamal Khalil, Aida Seif El-Dawla, Laila Soueif, Mona Mina to name but a few – have been protesting for decades. What faith and fortitude to never give up to keep going on and on and on in the face of both regime brutality and public apathy, what strong hearts.
Because it is a terrible thing to go a protest and recognise everyone there, including the state security officers watching from behind the line of riot police who smoke and smirk at the chants because they know that they are winning, that activists are not reaching the public no matter how hellish their circumstances are.
Ever since January 25th I have been trying to work out how the revolution happened, when something snapped. I’ve concluded that there wasn’t a single snapping point, but several, and like it or not I am going to list them below.
Said’s death at the hands of the police in June 2010 galvanised public anger against the Interior Ministry, a group of thugs masquerading as a law enforcement agency. Crucially, Said’s family bravely and selflessly transformed the tragedy of his death into a tool that was seized on my Internet activists and used against the regime.
The We Are All Khaled Said Facebook Group
Wael Ghoneim and the other admins of the Arabic version of this group did an incredible job in maintaining the momentum generated by anger at Said’s death. The movement eventually gained a life of its own and was critical in translating online participation into a physical presence on the streets.
The obscene crudity of the State media response to the Khaled Said campaign, and the allegations it made against Khaled Said and his family were breathtaking even by NDP standards. The subsequent attempt to discredit and slander the Tahrir protestors was so shockingly shameless that even some state media presenters quit in protest.
Mahalla April 6 2008
Thousands took to the streets of Mahalla in 2008, three died, hundreds were arrested, 49 men were subjected to a show trial. The Mahalla protest was the first mass riot in Egypt since 1977 and critical in giving people the confidence to reclaim public space and challenge authority.
It also gave birth to the 6 April Youth Movement and was showed how social media such as Facebook and Twitter could be used to mobilise for protests, building on the critically important work of activists (Manal Bahey El-Din Hassan, Alaa Abdel-Fatah, Wael Abbas, Nora Younes and others) who demonstrated that the Internet can provide a public space for organising where repressive authorities make “real life” organisation impossible.
The Tunisian revolution raised the bar. It made the impossible a certainty.
The January Alexandria bombing protests
These were my first riots and the first time I saw the police succumb. I remember Dr Moftases and I commenting that the riot police have numbers but are absolutely useless in terms of strategy. We remarked that all it would take is a series of large, simultaneous protests to bring the police in Cairo to its knees. This turned out to be true.
Egypt’s amazing workers have been integral to Egyptian activism. It was the strikes and protests which intensified in recent days that gave Mubarak the final shove.
January 25th & 28th
The momentum of the Tahrir sit-in was maintained in part because people who protested for the first time on these two days were the victims of the police’s excessive use of force. It galvanised their anger.
The stupidity of the regime
What kind of dumb fuck cuts off the Internet and mobile phone network in a nation whose main hobby is talking? People had nothing else to do. They took to the streets.
I was at Maspero when the news that Mubarak had finally been forced out arrived. Annoyingly a man shouted out that it was only a rumour and then my mum called to congratulate me, so in the course of three minutes I experienced emotions that almost killed me.
Then we took to the streets and the sky was a sea of red, white and black, and fireworks. And – best of all – the new chant was erfa3 rasak fow2, enta masry [hold your head up high, you’re Egyptian].
Nothing has changed in Egypt other than the president. Psychologically the lifting of this burden is enormous but the regime is still in power. The security apparatus has taken a blow but is still functioning and economically the country continues to screw over the have-nots.
I still want, and insist that the NDP be banned.
I’m also still unsure about what the army wants and whose interests it has at heart (this is the institution that prosecutes bloggers and Facebook users, remember, and has been accused of torture in the past 18 days).
Despite the uncertainty, I cannot help but be proud, be grateful though that Egypt is experiencing a respite (however brief) from injustice, that the country I love so much has fought back, as I always hoped it would.