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Bearing witness


Illustration: Sarah John

I can’t help recalling 2005 when President Hosni Mubarak was up for re-election for the fifth time. In a great concession to the nation (and the US) the state had tweaked the constitution to allow multiple candidates to run against him. Sort of. He had no real opponents, but it gave the ruling party a chance to ‘campaign’ and bludgeon home their point that Mubarak was the only one capable of leading Egypt. Billboards and posters around Cairo featured the ageing president in an open-collared shirt looking ruefully underdressed, with the caption: ‘a crossing to the future’. ‘What future?’ a cab driver said to me. ‘It should have said malesh [Arabic for “never mind”]’, a more honest, and therefore wholly original campaign slogan. ‘Of course he’ll win,’ concluded the cabbie, who saw no point in voting, ‘but maybe in six more years…’ None of us could imagine how dramatically this apparent resignation would turn into its opposite: a passionate demand for democratic change.

I’ve always tried to portray Egyptians in all their beleaguered humanity, the occasional highs and the frequent lows. I tracked their battles with the decay around and within them, the mounting frustrations, the loss of self-worth, the eroding sense of community and the reasons behind it all with as much nuance as could be mustered, predicting (like other students of human nature) the upheaval that was one day bound to come. But I too had grown resigned, frustrated and eroded and seriously doubted I’d live to see it. Now that I have, I must see Egypt with fresh and bliss-filled eyes. I have no urge to predict the outcomes of this uprising (or revolution as the case may be) only to savour an extraordinary moment of openness and clarity, and consider what it means.

On the one hand, you had people overcoming their fear of arrest and death in great concordant numbers. While a core group of young activists used social networking to trigger this uprising, internet access was unavailable during the state’s week-long cyber-blockade. They worked around it, while Cairo’s protests continued consensually to wax and wane, with people nimbly responding to rapid developments, making choices, taking actions individually yet in concert. They shared food and water, set up field hospitals, sound stages, TV screens and pirate radio stations. Egyptians reclaimed their streets, their confidence and dignity, revelling in one another’s company, dancing, singing, praying (Christian and Muslim alike) – even marrying – creating a city within a city. This uprising, however spontaneous, acquired a dimension of value-driven self-organization that kept the nationwide momentum alive and crystallized a collective will for genuine law and order.

On the other hand you had Egypt’s vice-president, Omar Suleiman, an old school spymaster, a crumbling monument to paternalism and the politics of intimidation. His comment, on the tenth day of demonstrations, as the regime jockeyed to maintain a semblance of control, said it all. In the midst of the turmoil, when peaceful protesters were clashing with police, several prison break-outs had occurred. Suleiman, having sternly warned the ‘young protesters’ to go home, added ‘we also call on all the inmates who escaped to return to their prisons’. Suleiman’s remark, spoken in the frank, unquestioning language of power, transcended hubris to achieve self-parody; he was laughed off the stage of history. Egyptians imprisoned by the regime’s deceitful and oppressive tactics had no intention of going back to jail.

To bring a tyrant to his knees, not with guns or guile but the ‘right’ that ‘makes might’ – what a glorious feeling, a joy so sharp it cuts both ways. You saw it on people’s faces, disbelief melting into an almost agonizing euphoria, righteous wrath fused with brotherly love. We watched strangers embracing, heard the roar of jubilation, and felt, at however great a physical distance, the surge of energy, the pure, heart-lifting release. V-Day must have been like this, only Egypt’s war was fought and won at home, alone.

Only Egyptians know what they’ve endured, and how it felt to be kicked when then they were down, or else ignored. But we can all taste their triumph, and thank them for reminding us that truth is the most powerful weapon we possess. The reverberations of Egypt’s transformative moment (itself inspired by Tunisia’s) are spreading far and wide, as people reassess their collective strengths. In moments like these, possibilities multiply and humanity, in great and small ways, is renewed.

New Internationalist issue 441 magazine cover This article is from the April 2011 issue of New Internationalist.
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