New Internationalist

Daring to Care: Notes on the Egyptian Revolution

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Yahia Lababidi reflects on a triumphant People’s Uprising.

The following was written hours after Mubarak’s frankly contemptuous last speech, and several hours before the exhilarating news of a Free Egypt, the next evening. Everyone was crest-fallen that the President, who had once boasted he had ‘a PhD in stubbornness’ had not announced his resignation, and rumours were circulating that things were going to turn vicious the following day. It was even suggested this was all part of the regime’s cynical strategy: to raise hopes, and frustrate them, until demonstrators lose patience and turn violent. Then, those in power would have the excuse to fire on them, Tiananmen Square-style. I was not convinced. I believed with all my being that Love – for life and Egypt – would prevail and the peace, civility, and tenacity that marked this People’s Uprising would triumph. And so I wrote this piece…

Photo by: Ahmad Hammoud under a CC Licence
Photo by: Ahmad Hammoud under a CC Licence

Overheard in Tahrir Square – Muslim brotherhood man to secular woman: ‘There was a curtain between us that made us fear each other and misunderstand each other. After spending these days here, fighting together, eating together, and bearing the cold I can see that we are not different and that we may have different ideas but we can easily communicate and respect each other.’

The mark, and success, of a true revolution is not merely overthrowing an old regime, but ushering in new ways of thinking and being

I know I’m not alone when I say my heart has been, and remains, full-to-bursting with the remarkable series of events taking place back home. The mark, and success, of a true revolution is not merely overthrowing an old regime, but ushering in new ways of thinking and being. Which is why it’s so uplifting for me to see so many of the false barriers being toppled: say, between men and women, whom we saw out at the protests, chanting for equality, in unison, and even praying side by side in the streets; or Muslims and Christians, who came together as Egyptians, in respect, and protected one another. As Egyptian writer Ahdaf Souief says: ‎‘They said we were divided, extreme, ignorant, fanatic – well here we are: diverse, inclusive, hospitable, generous, sophisticated, creative and witty.’

Unleashing a pent-up creativity

With the promise of freedom in the air, we witnessed a renewed vitality in the streets of Egypt and a sort of cultural revolution, or the unleashing of previously pent-up creativity. From the start, Egyptians’ playful spirit and irrepressible wit were on full display during the 25 January People’s Uprising. ‘Please leave, my hand is hurting me,’ read one banner; ‘you must leave because I need to cut my hair,’ read another. Mubarak’s paltry concessions were answered with pithy ridicule: a banner depicting a computer and the message ‘cannot install freedom, please remove Mubarak and try again’. Our fabled love of language was a mainstay, before and after things got ugly – courtesy of the regime’s rent-a-mob. Al Jazeera reported poetry readings at Tahrir Square. Egyptians heartily sang the punchy poems of Fu’ad Nigm, who in his verse uses puns and colloquial speech to critique the state and mock its corrupt leaders.

Photo by Frame Maker under a CC Licence
Photo by Frame Maker under a CC Licence

As they recited poetry, people were admirably organized and generally festive – singing, dancing and staging improv-theatre –showing us all that a revolution could be a work of art, and a way of life, even. Demonstrators not only camped out in the square, dubbed Liberation City, they set up open-air clinics, barber shops, hosted a wedding, shared food, jokes, news, and frisked one another for concealed weapons. To the naysayers, who insisted that the uneducated masses were not ready for democracy, the Egyptian uprising, which has been referred to as a Dignity Revolution, paradoxically demonstrated that civilized behaviour was not the monopoly of the educated. On the contrary, our illiterate were educators in courtesy and a kind of natural sophistication. Speaking of the awe-inspiring scenes in Tahrir Square, another acclaimed Egyptian writer, Alaa Al Aswany, summed it up thus: ‘Revolution makes everyone more beautiful, it’s like love.’

Clever, and often bitingly witty, the street verse that proliferated was spontaneous and does not really survive translation. But, to anyone listening, it was obvious that these were a people for whom poetry matters, and, considering the immense personal risk involved in protesting, that words were also actions. To offer just a flavour of this ephemera, here are a couple examples: ‘Shurtat Masr, yâ shurtat Masr, intû ba’aytû kilâb al-’asr’ (‘Egypt’s Police, Egypt’s Police, You’ve become nothing but Palace dogs’; or the more blunt ‘Yâ Mubârak! Yâ Mubârak! Is-Sa‘ûdiyya fi-ntizârak!’ (‘Mubarak, O Mabarak, Saudi Arabia awaits!’)

Overthrowing old fears

On a psychological note, I think it fair to say that fear has ultimately been at the heart of these past decades of state-sponsored psychological warfare. Which is to say, this People’s Uprising has really been about, finally, overthrowing the tyranny of our old fears – Mubarak and his henchmen representing just a particularly stubborn symbol of these – no more, no less.

It is not without significance, then, that the youth should have led the way in the revolt of the insulted and injured masses. After all, it is the nature of youth to be fearless, and laugh in the face of danger; just as it is the nature of each successive generation, through subtle rotations, to act as a corrective to the previous generation. (With around 60 per cent of the Egyptian population under the age of 25, we had a lot of youth to count on.) First, the young held our heads still to show us a new vision of Egypt, and then they gently took our hands and showed us how to achieve it. That the youth helped us realize our dream is because, against all odds, they dared to care.

Mubarak’s paltry concessions were answered with pithy ridicule: a banner depicting a computer and the message ‘cannot install freedom, please remove Mubarak and try again’

To be sure, on 25 January 2011 we surprised ourselves as much as the rest of the world. Our passivity is legendary, and it has been said that the Sphinx is more likely to lose its temper, before the Egyptian people revolt. Yes, our resignation ran deep and, moreover, was justified by an equally entrenched fatalism. Yet, suddenly unburdened of our obstinate insecurities – or ‘mind-forged manacles’ in the formulation of Blake – people came together with a newfound sense of their own possibilities, and discovered the invincibility of unity.

One of the many arresting images that emerged from this revolution is a photo-shopped close-up of a man’s chest, mid-costume change a-la-Superman. Except, underneath his unbuttoned shirt is not the iconic S (for Superman) but rather a luminous image of the million-strong demonstration in Tahrir square. This is how we all become heroes, by drawing on our considerable strength in numbers or transcendent power of The People.

The whole is greater…

Nor has it been a weakness that this has been a leaderless revolution, since people seem to have intuitively grasped, early on, that here the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Wael Ghonim, a key figure in sparking the revolution online, wisely shirked this mantle and underscored the point in his address. Before a surging sea of demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square (which earned back its name, Liberation Square) to grant the recently released activist a hero’s welcome, an emotional Ghonim spoke briefly and from the heart:

On 25 January 2011 we surprised ourselves as much as the rest of the world. Our passivity is legendary, and it has been said that the Sphinx is more likely to lose its temper, before the Egyptian people revolt

‘This is not the time for individuals, or parties, or movements. It’s a time for all of us to say just one thing. Egypt above all.’ At which point he and the crowd chanted those three words several times: Egypt Above All. Egypt Above All. Egypt Above All!

Those, like myself, who watched from faraway parts of the world (where they thought they were building new lives) suddenly felt distances collapsing and were sucked into the vortex. It took an (inner)quake like this for us to realize that maybe ‘you can never go home again’ but you can never leave home, either. After having nearly lost hope in the possibility of change, I’m now beyond proud of all those gallant Egyptians cleaning our streets, literally and metaphorically, and paving the way for a Free Egypt – soon, now – where we may live with liberty and dignity.
Considering how many people were involved, it is remarkable how little blood was shed, and how it seemed to unfold naturally. The nonviolent protests in Ukraine came to be known as the Orange Revolution, the peaceful regime change in Czechoslovakia, which overthrew the communist government, was referred to as the Velvet Revolution (or Gentle Revolution). Fairly early on, and fittingly, the almost flower-like people’s uprising in Egypt was given an evocative name: The Lotus Revolution – the lotus being a flower that was highly appreciated by Ancient Egyptians.

Return of the repressed

Somehow, I am reminded of Freud’s ‘return of the repressed.’ What’s a few decades in a civilization of several thousand years, like Egypt, I find myself thinking? The Egyptians have not quite been themselves, lately, and now they’ve decided to take back their country and their lives. This is who they always were: tolerant, patient, honourable and free. Despite the corrosive apathy of recent years, this incredibly peaceful, civilized revolution is how they are now proving, to themselves and the world, that they are heirs to greatness and citizens of the Cradle of Civilization.

The Egyptians have not quite been themselves, lately, and now they’ve decided to take back their country and their lives

Religious extremism and chaos, the bogeymen cited by East and West alike to justify an unfree Egypt for far too long now, can only grow in conditions of oppression and hopelessness. There is no reason to believe that is any longer the case. Egyptians marching towards the horizon of their hopes, pride and ownership of their country have a different agenda, and we’ve seen much to support this. As a case in point, a flyer from Tahrir Square reads: ‘This country is your country. Do not litter. Don’t drive through traffic lights. Don’t bribe. Don’t forge paperwork… Don’t harass women. Don’t say, “It’s not my problem”. Consider God in all your work. We have no excuses any more.’

Despite the drawn-out stalemate, I believe that every day Egypt is closer to climbing out of the dark hole that it’s been in, and blinking in the light of a New Dawn of its own making. What a difference a couple weeks have made! The Uprising truly has been the ultimate antidote to impotence or despair. If there’s one thing this has taught us – from Tunis to Egypt, to the Middle East and the world entire – it is that you never know when enough is too much, and also that one (Tunisian) man and one gesture (burning) is all it takes to get a Revolution in motion!

I believe that every day Egypt is closer to climbing out of the dark hole that it’s been in, and blinking in the light of a New Dawn of its own making. What a difference a couple weeks have made!

Kafka writes: ‘There is a point of no return. This point has to be reached.’ I believe that point of no return has been reached, and crossed (in our hearts, at least). Or, to put it in other words, also overheard in Liberation Square: ‘Whatever happens next, things will never be the same.’ Even amidst all the tense anticipation, there was no denying this shy, nascent sense of moral victory.

Words – such as Hope, Will, Change, The People, Freedom, Dreams, Future – after having been corrupted and nearly losing their meaning in our public discourse in Egypt, are now charged with so much lived idealism and practised heroism they have become incandescent. Poetry is suddenly the domain of the average person in the streets, and everyone seems to have awakened from a long slumber, more alive, with senses tingling brightly. In this struggle for the soul of Egypt, its personal and political destiny, between the power-lust of an 82 year old versus the longing of 82 million souls, I never wavered which side I was betting on.

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