The following is the original text of an article I wrote published in The Bridgton News this past week.
It is a reflection upon the past month, commencing with the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation.
Realization dawned slowly as I stared from across the room at the large brown eyes of my Egyptian friend growing steadily wider. The gravely voice coming from the old television next to me spoke deliberately, with a measure befitting an aging politician. My urgent pleas for translation were answered first by a roar of screams and shouts erupting from the people as they streamed out of their houses and shops and into the street: Mubarak had stepped down!
We had only turned the television on to laugh at the comedy of the state TV channel, joking that they had run out of propaganda, exhausted their story-telling abilities as a commercial touted Egypt as the ideal tourist destination for minutes on end. Suddenly the ad broke away to the now familiar face of Omar Suleiman…
Leaping into the arms of my two revolutionary sidekicks, bonded now for life over what we experienced together during those 18 days, a grin spread over my face that would stay plastered there until sleep brought the muscles of my face some relief. We couldn’t put our jackets on fast enough, running down the stairs two no three steps at a time, we burst out onto the street joining the jubilant crowds. There was no discussion, at this point it was innate, restraining ourselves from breaking into a run we made our way to Tahrir. Every ounce of apprehension and debate had vanished, it was clear that not a single person was sorry to see him go. My friends hugged and kissed those we met in the street, arms raised in victory, voices raised in celebration.
The now familiar checkpoints at the square’s entrance were in force, though the woman patting me down was shaking with excitement. I couldn’t help but embrace her in my sheer joy at witnessing this moment, in my relief and pride that this moment had arrived, achieved honorably and independently by the people of Egypt. The famous festival atmosphere of Tahrir was no longer ironic. The people were already packed in like sardines, chains of friends pressed one behind the other snaked their way through the human sea. To the steady beating of drums circles of young men arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, danced around the musicians, accelerating until they could no longer hold on, breaking into joyous leaps and shouts.
After a while we extracted ourselves and in a side street near Talat Harb Square, merely two blocks away, we stumbled into the midst of a dance party. The Tagammu party headquarters was blasting Egyptian music from their balcony to an overflowing street below, no doubt in a bid to stave off criticism for their inaction during the revolution. There we were, singing along in unison to the kind of songs that everyone knows the words to, dancing in the street by the sparkling light of fireworks and the sudden flames of lit aerosol (a typical form of celebratory flash here). In a country normally overcome by propriety regarding public physical displays, here the static bodies of men and women alike could not contain their joy and so movement flowed to the beat of familiar rhythms, painting new memories of these streets over the recently emblazoned images of destruction and despair.
Finally sitting at a cafe which had expanded to occupy half of the street, we reveled in the victory: no small feat, yet worth more as a symbol of what can be achieved than as a proportion of the work needed to build a democratic Egypt. And beyond democracy there are other real social changes being called for, changes vital to ensure the rights which have been so nobly defended over these days, for even this momentous evening did not pass without indignities. The oppression of the regime was replaced this night with the knowledge that the war was not won; Mubarak was only the first battle.
More than a month later the sentiment holds true. The Egyptian people craved a return to normal life. What is normal life? Work can be considered this, after all making a living is just that. In this sense much is the same, people tend their shops, go to their offices, the shoe-shiners are present on every corner crouching between street vendors. Flag sales have skyrocketed, the new hot item, along with head bands in red, white and black, 25 January I.D. badges fashioned after the notorious Tahrir Youth’s, and 25 January t-shirts, license plates, and on and on. The people own this revolution through and through, not only its roots, its perseverance, and its achievements, but its images and words, which captured so powerfully the imagination of the world. Yet where do these impressions lead us now? Normal life is a fiction, something soft to hold onto in the middle of a dark, cold night. Everything has changed. Egyptians are empowered now, Egyptians are citizens now. How to exercise these newly claimed rights? What to do with new found freedoms? And how to decide all of this while protecting one’s livelihood and family in the face of thuggery and a crumbled security apparatus?
I said shortly after Mubarak left that it seemed everything was waiting: waiting for the army to move, waiting for the protesters to move, waiting for the new Egypt to take shape, waiting for Gaddafi to leave Libya. There are dangers in waiting; the danger that nothing happens and the danger that whomever does move can affect the changes they want in no time. The problem is that time passes quickly while a whole country is glued to the television listening to the rambles of an outmoded dictator and worrying about hundreds of thousands of people fleeing across its borders.
Tahrir emptied (forcibly I must note) after yielding the ouster of another round of ministers and a vote scheduled for Saturday on constitutional amendments, it could seem from afar like Egyptian democracy is riding on a swift current, however emerging from the raging rapids of tear gas and Molotovs, banners and beatings, I would liken the moment now, more to, say, drifting around the murky bends of the Old Saco, than floating freely on the wide thoroughfare of the Nile.
The muffled cries of demonstrators, freedom fighters, martyrs-to-be? waft electric in the breeze to my room perched three blocks from the epicenter of this revolution. The emotional roller coaster of the last two weeks has just taken another loop at full speed, inspiring some to tears, shaking shoes into the air, and causing all Egyptians to grip even tighter to their dream.
In Tahrir this evening the festival was taken up another notch with the giddy expectation of victory smiles were wide, singing was full voice, and the people were infused with an energy like that which emerges in the last lap of a race. The mood was celebratory on the streets adjoining the square. Mubarak’s resignation is seen as a forgone conclusion here and it seemed for these hours that this goal was about to be realized. In the hour before the speech Tahrir waited. Sporadic chants, drums, and dancing echoed throughout this the largest waiting room on earth, punctuated by rumor induced hushes. Along pathways delineated by chains of men we forged our way through the crowd to cross the square, arriving in front of a loudspeaker just as Mubarak’s first remarks rang out. A nervous quiet settled over the people, gazing in the direction of the sound. I never imagined it was possible for so many people to be so quiet.
It seems that he didn’t even write a new speech but simply added a few flourishes and condescensions to the first one. The gall he has to claim a share of the people’s pain, the martyrs’ sacrifice. As the realization dawned that he would stick like molasses in his chair, few burst out only to be hushed, and one by one the shoes rose over the heads of the crowd, soles pointed at the origin of his voice, a gesture that is one of the greatest insults Egyptian culture has to offer. With disbelief and anger, exhaustion and determination, the protesters went back to business as usual with cries of ‘Irhal’ rising into the night. The elation of the evening was premature, this is a long distance race, one that many more may not finish.
What could the goal of addressing the people so be? On the eve of what was already expected to be the biggest day of protests yet, Mubarak has turned to the country and like a child stuck his tongue out, wiggling his fingers, and said ‘na, na, na na, na, you can’t get me’. He has lost any chance of retreating gracefully. This past Tuesday, two weeks into the revolution, 15 million people were in the streets demonstrating. This is twelve percent of the population of Egypt… 12%… again that is 12 out of every one hundred people in the whole country out in the streets actively demanding a free Egypt and the end of the Mubarak regime! It is not numbers he is waiting for, so what? The demonstrators have already alluded to marching on the presidential palace and if they do this tomorrow he may squeeze more blood out of the people.
I walked home tonight from the cafe carried in the wake of a of group of protesters heading for Tahrir. The people were chanting “bukra, bukra”… tomorrow, tomorrow, in Arabic.
Another day expressing the beauty of humanity in the center of Cairo, the center of Egypt, the center of the world. I was in Tahrir square for only a moment today, between meetings with colleagues to organize moving forward with our work with refugees, but it was enough to repair the doubts I never had about the soundness and sincerity of this revolution. Walking to the office this morning, the peace, joy and pride was thick in the air and spread across the faces of the people in the street. There was a line to enter Tahrir square in the early afternoon, Egyptians were queuing patiently on the sidewalk for over a block… Egyptians don’t wait in line.
… it was enough to repair the doubts I never had about the soundness and sincerity of this revolution.
While entrepreneurial youth have set up shop inside the mini-city that Tahrir has become, there is still the generous spirit present that have pervaded these demonstrations from the beginning. There is no struggle for resources here. I am struck again with how lucky I am. To have ever come to Egypt in the first place, purely by chance, to have fallen in love with the country and its people, to have kept my relationship with Egypt alive and to have decided only three months ago to come here, now. There is an Egyptian proverb that claims once a person has drunk the water of the Nile, that mother of all rivers, that person will always return again. I am so thankful I drank the water those years ago when I first set foot in this ancient land.
I would not want to be anywhere else on our planet during these times. Long live Egypt!