New Internationalist

Egypt: ‘What has happened to us?’

Web exclusive

Maria Golia on the question that has galvanized Egypt’s people – and their struggle to reclaim their dignity.

We waited so long for it to happen that when it actually did, it took everyone by surprise: a popular uprising, people saying in grand unison: enough!

Photo by Muhammad under Creative Commons licence
The protests begin. Photo by Muhammad under Creative Commons licence

As I write, Egyptians are entering their eighth consecutive day of demonstrations, not just in Cairo but around this country of some 85 million. While reports from the provinces are scant due to the state’s effort to silence the people, the world has heard the message being sent from Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, Suez and Beni Sueif: Mubarak must go! The only one who hasn’t heard it, apparently, is the president, who would rather watch Egypt go up in flames than step down. After four days of the largest and most confrontational demonstrations in Egypt’s history, Mubarak finally saw fit to address the nation. Dozens of people had meanwhile died in clashes with the police. Cairo was a war zone; police trucks lay everywhere overturned and in flames, the ruling National Democratic Party’s headquarters was gutted by fire – and the crowds were still gathering.

Egyptians were gobsmacked. This was precisely the same speech they'd been hearing for years, only delivered with a considerably ballsier edge

It was after midnight when he appeared. We watched with bated breath to see if he’d do the right thing, retain a shred of dignity and resign or at least promise he wouldn’t run for a sixth term of office, for god’s sake if not Egypt’s, nor would his smarmy son. We were dreaming. The man is 82 and frail but his performance for the state-TV’s cameras that night must go down in history as one of the most exemplary displays of how utterly power corrupts the human spirit. He stood there like some vengeful taurine wraith with cojones as big as the pyramids, and said the people would not have been able to express their displeasure had he not been so generous and lenient with them, that he commiserated with the poor, always had, that he would answer their pleas for change by firing his government and assembling another that would provide more jobs, lower food prices, etc.

Egyptians everywhere were gobsmacked. This was precisely the same speech they’d been hearing for years, only delivered with a considerably ballsier edge. Did he really think they would go for it? This time, the president was the one who was dreaming. The protests only grew in size and intensity. The police disappeared from the streets and the army was sent in – and welcomed as saviors. In Egypt, the police have earned a reputation as trained thugs, less protectors of the people than their terrorizers.

Indeed, that’s how it all started. With the police and the law that gave them overweening power.

Thanks to citizen journalism, bloggers and cell phone images, cases of torture, rape and deaths at the hands of the police have circulated freely, beyond the reach of state censorship, contributing to a growing contempt for a government that abused instead of served the people

Until now the biggest demonstration to take place in Cairo in the 20-plus years that I’ve lived there occurred in July 2002, when the coalition forces invaded Iraq. It was a big moment, perhaps several thousand protesters in Liberation Square shouting slogans, sweating profusely and defying the police who outnumbered us 20 to 1. But that was nothing compared to the turnout on January 25, a joyless public holiday known as ‘Police Day’. Internet activists had called for the gathering at a time when Egypt seemed to have reached bottom. Police brutality was out of control. Thanks to citizen journalism, bloggers and cell phone images, cases of torture, rape and deaths at the hands of the police have circulated freely, beyond the reach of state censorship, contributing to a growing contempt for a government that abused instead of served the people.

The year began with a church bombing, an unheard-of outrage that left the nation grieving, not only for the lost lives but for the loss of solidarity that had for generations characterized Egypt and contributed to their civic pride. The question on everyone’s lips was ‘What has happened to us?’

Penthouse and pavement

The gap between rich and poor is a constant of human history but the unfolding events in Egypt and North Africa suggest that basic human rights are as vital as food and water

The answer is multifaceted; economic strife and unemployment owing to mismanagement and corruption has worn people down. Over the last several years, inflationary food prices (a kilo of meat costs $10) coupled with derisive salaries (the minimum monthly salary was recently raised, following the most protracted strikes in Egyptian history, to $90) have left average Egyptians unable to properly feed and clothe their families. Health and education systems have long bordered on the pathetic. Millions of college students struggle through a decrepit educational edifice only to find themselves jobless and hopeless, lacking the money to live decently, much less marry. This is to say nothing of living conditions; the bulk of the population occupies substandard, insanely overcrowded housing with scanty water and electricity supplies, while the élite inhabit luxurious high-security compounds, where pets and plants are better off than average Egyptians.

The gap between rich and poor is a constant of human history but the unfolding events in Egypt and North Africa suggest that basic human rights are as vital as food and water. Egypt has been denied them by martial law since President Anwar Sadat’ assassination in 1981. The so-called Emergency law forbids public assembly (including strikes), curtails media freedom, and enables arbitrary detentions that are often prolonged and harsh. The ruling National Democratic Party’s contention that the law protects Egypt from terrorist attacks and organized crime, flies in the face of fact. Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to die in a car crash in Egypt than as victim of a militant attack or drug-ring complot. The Emergency Law mainly allows high officials to flaunt the justice they are meant to uphold.

Photo by Muhammad under Creative Commons licence
And continue. Photo by Muhammad under Creative Commons licence

In 2006, shortly after the last presidential elections, which were rigged and therefore poorly attended, I wrote that ‘Egypt’s political lassitude and social anomie suggests that rather than ensuring the public peace, the Emergency Law has undermined it, by discouraging people’s natural impulse to speak out to help themselves and one another. The suspension of due process has eroded the fabric of society and the civil rights on which it is based.’

The anger of the patient

It was little wonder that in the absence of justice people appealed to an unassailable god, and that religiosity became the only means of self-expression. In the years following that election I watched Egypt run downhill, saw people becoming increasingly dejected, heads bowed before the iron hand of the law. I saw how they had started doubting themselves and their better judgment, as fear and conformism replaced self-confidence and debate. Egyptians have always believed in their wit if not their power; but they were even losing their legendary sense of humor. Their submission, to me, signaled defeat.

But there is an Egyptian proverb, ‘beware the anger of the patient man’ and that anger was unleashed on Police Day. ‘Breaking the culture of fear,’ said activist George Ishaq in 2006, ‘is a priority’. And it has finally and irrevocably been broken. The demonstrations continue, despite police attacks and disruptive tactics like cutting internet access and phone signals. The state did not want people to communicate with one another, to fuel the protests, or to reveal their increasing lack of control to the international community.

The ploy failed, as desperate measures must. Journalist and citizens are penetrating the information-blockade. Al Jazeera (whose vivid, accurate coverage, against all odds, made it the sole media agency in the world to recognize the import of events in Egypt) took us to the morgues where the bodies of at least 100 protestors, including those of children, were lying after the protests of Friday, 28 January. Bloggers posted pictures of spent cartridges from the live ammunition used on the crowds, and reported how the tear gas canisters protestors lobbed back at the police were not only ‘made in America’ but past their expiry date.

A remarkable talent

Popular uprisings really need no technology, only a shared will for change. Egypt’s mass revolt was not organized by a political party nor driven by an ideology; it has lasted a week so far by sheer consensus and it won’t stop until the people achieve their aim. Egyptians of all ages and walks of life have joined the uprising; even the police left their ranks to join their fellow citizens.

Photo by Muhammad under Creative Commons licence
The people. Photo by Muhammad under Creative Commons licence

Egyptians have shown their remarkable talent for self-organization: protestors are cleaning streets, setting up field hospitals for the wounded, rotating neighborhood guards to protect against police thuggery, sharing water, food, tissues soaked with vinegar to overcome the effects of tear gas. They are printing and distributing pamphlets urging people not to loot and give the state reason to condemn their actions, or diminish the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in the name of change. They are camped out in the heart of Cairo, reading poetry in the centre of Liberation Square, a monumental, usually traffic-bound space which has finally become worthy of its name.

For the first time, Egyptians have realized the magnitude of their strength and humanity. Acting in concert, their heads are held high, their dignity restored

When the Egyptian people succeed in unseating their president, as they surely will, the repercussions will be felt around the world. The US and Israel will be obliged to admit that ‘stability’ without free elections and due process, is just another word for ‘oppression’. It’s a dangerous game to play with a country of 80 million people, most of whom are young and have never known another president besides Mubarak, or had a chance to participate in the decisions that shape their lives. Nor will it end here. Just as Egyptians were heartened by the bravery of the Tunisians, whose Jasmine Revolution was sparked by similar conditions, so Egypt will inspire other peoples whose patience has worn thin.

Clearly this movement marks the ignominious end of the Murbarak regime, and the beginning of something new. For the first time, Egyptians have realized the magnitude of their strength and humanity. Acting in concert, their heads are held high, their dignity restored. As if awakening from a protracted nightmare, they are looking around themselves and at one another and saying: this country – and its future – is ours.

Maria Golia writes the popular Letter from Cairo column in the New Internationalist.

Comments on Egypt: 'What has happened to us?'

Leave your comment