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Cairo Continues Course Toward Democracy
By Dalia Basiouny
I am very happy this morning. Yesterday was a magnificent peaceful day. There were millions demonstrating against the regime all over Egypt in the “Day of Departure” as it was dubbed. It is very hard to estimate the exact numbers that came to Tahrir Square, but I am sure that the numbers were more than Tuesday’s “Million People March”, which conservative estimates said exceed one million people, and Al Jazeera said two.
I decided to go early, in case they block the streets. The images of last Friday’s marches after the prayer and the violence that ensued are vivid in my mind. I want to be inside the square before the prayers. The friend who wanted to accompany me from Pyramids Road said she is going be late, as her husband cannot leave the house because there is a car waiting under his house to arrest him. This is not good news; they are arresting activists before the marches! I go alone toward downtown. I hear that they need more anti-biotic for those injured on Wednesday and Thursday nights. I want to bring some but another friend warns me that this morning the thugs attacked a friend of hers, took the medicine she brought and were about to abduct her. OK, I will not bring medicine or food, but I still want to go in.
The road is blocked two miles away from the square. There is a military checkpoint; they check people and inspect the bags. They want to know what’s on my camera, I said ‘nothing yet’. They let me in. I wait for my friend who comes from the other part of town by Kasr El Nil Bridge, the safest entrance to date. I get a phone call from Anna in New York, she wanted to make sure I am make OK before she sleeps. I received another phone call earlier from Sophie in Australia, making me promise that I will make sure I am safe. They too must have seen the images from Friday and Wednesday violence.
I run into a young friend. She seems a bit confused from what she heard on TV the day before. She asks me with innocence and sincerity “Are we right? How can we be sure that we are not destroying our country as they say on TV?” We talk a bit about that while walking toward the square, with hundreds of others.
All these people decided to come early, just in case. A good sign! Not so good when so many of us are crammed in front of a tiny entrance, at the checkpoint of the square. The people’s committees, under the supervision of the army, inspect every bag and parcel. They check our clothes and pockets. It takes time, and there are so many of us. A man comes in with a large bag, and says “I am a doctor, I am carrying medicine.” The crowd opens for him to pass quickly. People waiting start chanting slogans about the solidarity of the people and the army. Some chant against the president, but a few respond, as we are not yet in the safety of Tahrir Square, the truly liberated heart of Egypt. Then an impromptu chant arises “We want another entrance.. Open another entrance.” There are a few women in the crowd of men entering and they make way for us to go ahead of them.. one of the benefits of being a woman during the revolution. We are checked thoroughly and our IDs inspected vigilantly, to make sure we are here to support the demonstration not cause trouble. We are allowed in.
The square is busy, though it is only 10 am. It is usually not that busy this early in the day, another good sign. Our young friend who was a bit confused earlier, though she demonstrated daily since January 25th, leaves us. When she finds us again, she has a wide grin. Though a number of her activist friends were arrested at night, she regained her faith in the validity of her cause. Two groups of activists were being interviewed on TV on Thursday night. The four who were interviewed at Al-Mehwar TV were abducted after the show, and somehow they managed to inform the other four who were interviewed on Dream TV near by. These ran and hid in a mosque. They called the parents of the young woman with them to come get her. Later the three men found a way to return to the square, with stories.
The main story is about the celebrities they encountered on the TV show. The TV announcer who was said there are only 20 thousand gathered in the square, not a million, apologized to them, and said if she doesn’t say that, she’d lose her job. The main guest of the TV program is one of the intellectual celebrities, a writer and a publisher. His analysis of the situation was the reason my young friend was “confused”. This same man, after the taping, told the young activists “forgive me sons, I have no other choice.” I was happy to see my friend gain her faith in what she is doing, and start to realize that what she hears on TV is not wholly, and definitely not the whole truth.
Soon after it was time for “Salat El Gomma’” Friday prayer. Hundreds of thousands of people are going to pray together. A few thousands are not praying. Some are guarding the place.. The hubbub of the square calms down. The half million or more men and women praying create an amazing energy as they recite the Quran, bow and kneel together, row after row.
They perform both Zohr and ‘Asr prayers together, because of the unusual circumstances. Then follow this with the prayers for the martyrs. The prayers end with saying “Assalmu ‘Alaykom” to the right, then “Assalmu ‘Alaykom” to the left. The moment they finish, without missing a beat, and without a prior agreement, everyone in square shouts at the same moment “Asha’ab Youreed Esqaat al Ra’ees.. Asha’ab Youreed Esqaat al Ra’ees.. Asha’ab Youreed Esqaat al Nezam.” (The People Want the President to Step Down.. The People Want the President to Step Down.. The People Want to Topple the Regime.) Over and over and over. With power, with determination, in defiance! I am covered in goose-pumps as I shout with them, in a voice I have never used before “Asha’ab Youreed Esqaat al Ra’ees”. It’s hard to describe this energy; to be with a million people (literally) wanting the same thing at the same time. Their burning desire makes them all say it at the same exact moment! WOW! I am in owe of the power of the people. I am optimistic.
After the prayers we start to walk around the square. It’s very very busy, but my friend wants to make sure that more people are coming. This is our main card to pressure the government, our huge numbers today. That people would continue to come to demonstrate in spite of all the government’s tricks to deter them. The media war to brainwash the public for days; trying to connect the destruction in the country and the financial collapse to the peaceful demonstrators. In addition to days of surrounding people in the square, trying to starve them by confiscating food and supplies and beating up those bringing them in. They started a physical war using camels, horses, petroleum bombs, and eventual snipers killing and injuring many many demonstrators. All these tactics did not work out. People were flooding the square on Friday. Thousands upon thousands of peaceful demonstrators kept coming. Many performed their prayers in mosques in different neighborhoods and walked for miles to Tahrir Square. People feel triumphant as they arrived, just because they were able to enter the square. Most of the ones just coming in are telling those they meet; “There are as many people waiting to get in as those already in the square.” This is comforting to hear! We will be more than a million people. It’s hard to gage the number when you are inside it, especially if you are of a small stature. I climb on one of the fences and I am owed, with the sea of people swarming around the main circle in the center of the square and all streets leading to it.
The energy is even stronger than last Tuesday (February 1st, the Million People March). On Tuesday, there was a euphoric sense of a people discovering itself and its power for the first time. A bit of disbelief, a lot of relief, and a great sense of freedom. After all, we are standing in the center of Cairo, saying whatever we want about the government that oppressed us for decades and about the president, with the loudest voice possible, sometimes even on loud speakers. WOW! Can we really do that? Yes! We are doing that! Everyone on the square is doing it. To be here means that you crossed a few checkpoints and a larger number of fear barriers inside.
But being on the square on February 4th, “The Day of Departure” meant something even more. You not only conquered your inner fears, but also a lot of outside pressure. To be here means that you heard on TV, and possibly from friends, family member, neighbors, co-workers or even loved ones that this has to stop. These “kids” demonstrators are destroying our country. They are paralyzing the economy, and allowing foreign forces to infiltrate Egypt. You also heard or saw the news of the Wednesday massacre. It’s not just a matter of starvation, but you know that the demonstrators have been and could be attacked, physically, and even lose their lives. But they here, in millions! How refreshing!
Many many Egyptians had stopped caring about their country, because they saw that there is no use. It seems that the spark in their hearts has not been fully extinguished by years of organized government brutality, corruption, or brainwashing. They are here from every walk of life. They are here in spite of the warnings. They are here and THEY ARE NOT AFRAID. This is something I never thought I would witness with my own eyes. I was not afraid. Millions are not afraid anymore.
Many people are on the square because they are desperate. They have NOTHING. So they have nothing to lose. But there are so many here who have good lives. They are middle class and upper middle class. (I can tell from their shoes!) They possibly drove in fancy cars, or walked from the near by rich neighborhood. They talk to their friends in English, in perfect American or British accents. They are not politically inclined. But being on the square on Friday was about more than politics. It was about freedom and dignity and witness a country wake up from a long slumber.
Many demonstrators are talking on their cell phones. The bits of conversations overheard are mostly people giving directions on which checkpoints are safe or temporarily freed from the government thugs, or people justifying their presences in the square, and explaining to those at the other end of the line what they are experiencing: People are really very civilized, honey.. Sharing food with others.. No foreign presence.. Cleaning the square themselves.. Please don’t worry!.. No, no sexual harassment.. Off course no one gave me money to come here!.. I am safe mum, I swear.. I did not see any Kentucky.. Why don’t you listen to me?.. Believe me it’s not like what they say.. Are you stupid? My sister is as dumb as a shoe!
I can understand the bits of conversation. I too watched TV and had my fears. I too had to call my mum to assure her about my safety, and she repeated what she heard on TV about the horrible situation there. I too had to promise my friends that I will be careful and not try to be a hero if violence erupts. But unlike last Friday, this Friday is not a day of violence. There is no police presence what so ever. The army is surrounding the square to protect us, not to harm us. What a difference a week of resistance makes.
Hardcore demonstrators who haven’t left the square in a week, might not be able to get enough food, or even decent sleep on the rough pavements of the square. Some left their families without food for the week or even the day. No one promised them a job, or guaranteed them anything, but the triumphant look in their eyes shows that they have already won. Now they have something that no one can take away from them. They have DIGNITY!
The hours pass quickly with so many activities in the different parts of the square. Slogans, chanting, marching, political discussions, meeting people you know, or talking with others you just met. It’s close to 4 pm, and the square is still filling up with incoming people. I move toward the entrance of Kasr El Nile Bridge, still the safest entrance with the largest influx of incomers. I see droves of people entering. With a big crowd on the inside cheering them after they cross the checkpoints and inspections. The impromptu welcome committee is making up slogans to chant. Those entering are getting heroes’ welcome; many are clapping for them and chanting as they come in, rhyming couplets, with some drumming sounds created from empty plastic bottles. “Welcome, welcome to the heroes.. Welcome, welcome to the men”, “Muslim, Christian, We Are One”, “Where is the press..We are millions.” These rhyme in Arabic and sound very motivating when sung in unison.
The large number of people entering makes a man sitting next to me say on the phone “Yes, now we are 30 million!” It feels that way energetically, but as for actual numbers his math abilities need some sharpening.
There are a lot of men of every age group entering but there is a considerable number of women, and of families. My favorite was an elderly couple, in their eighties, walking slowing supporting each other, with content smiles on their faces, followed by their young grandchildren in happy outfits. A few people are in disbelief when they first enter. Not just because of the warm welcoming chants and clapping, but they are owed by the huge numbers and the rising energies. One woman was so overjoyed by emotions, her face was full of tears at the sight of Free Egyptians.
The energies keep rising, and people walking in groups around the square continue to make up chants and riffs on popular songs. They are brilliant! Translation would rob them from the wit and humor, and the subtext and intertextuality would require pages to explain. So I will only mention the funniest that was freshly invented yesterday: “Wahed..Etneen.. El Kentucky Feen?” (One..Two.. Where is the Kentucky?) They are referring to the news reports that accuse the demonstrators of receiving monies and daily Kentucky Fried Chicken meals from foreign entities. This rumor is particularly hard to believe, not just because of the integrity of demonstrators and their self motivation to revolt against oppression and brutality, but also because KFC restaurants have been closed in Egypt for quite sometime. And it is a logistical nightmare to airlift KFC meals for a million people, and deliver them to Tahrir while still warm!
It is February, but the day is very sunny, and it gets hot after a while of walking around in the sun, with a million other people. My demonstrating body and I find a vacant spot on a shady pavement to sit. We are absorbing all the amazing things taking place around us, the sights and sounds and words and looks in people’s eyes. The comments strangers exchange as if they have known each other for years. There is a sense of community, comradery and solidarity, a powerful defiance toward the regime and a feeling of freedom in “liberation square”, the literal meaning of “Tahrir”. Suddenly, I scream out with joy: “Dragonflies!”. My very sensible architect friend does not understand what I am saying. I point above our head. She sees the two huge dragonflies, but she still does not understand. The dragonflies keep circling over us, and one of them almost touches my outstretched hands. I am exhilarated. My spiritual friends and my new-agy friends would get goose pumps when they hear about dragonflies appearing in a crowd of millions. New age is a whole other language, I won’t attempt to explain. I am just so pleased to realize that that not only physical human beings are here, but the angels are also smiling upon us.
It is almost time for the curfew that is loosely followed by Egyptians. Part of the crowd is leaving, while other continue to come in. My friend leaves, and I start to walk alone, and I run into so many people I know.. co-workers, students, many artists, friends from college, and even a classmate from Junior high. I am so owed when I meet Egyptians who flew to Egypt this week to participate in the revolution, from Arab countries, Europe and the States. They left their jobs and their lives and came to witness this amazing moment. I met many of them. This balances what I read in the papers about artists leaving the country, and two of my friends who took their families and left. I understand how scared they were, but I am so glad to know that others were not scared to leave their comfortable lives abroad, and to come back just to stand in the square. One of them tells me with such a matter of fact voice “If this works out, I am not going back to Italy. I will stay.” Hhhhh! Egypt is no more a one way street; a country that pushes its people to leave, to immigrate, to find any kinds of jobs anywhere else. Legally or illegally they try to leave, some even drown in the Mediterranean while trying.
The sun sets and the energy of the square changes again. The nighttime crowd is cool. I meet some artist friends. One is playing music and others are in heated political discussions. One is on the phone explaining to a journalist why it will NOT be a chaos when the president steps down. More people, many more conversations. It’s like a reunion. I hear of them saying “I want a revolution every day to meet my friends.” I agree! Those in the square are my friends. I don’t know most of them, but we all share in creating this amazing moment of our history, just be being there.
I do hope that the eleventh day of the revolution will be the eleventh hour for this corrupt regime. I am happy, and so proud to be Egyptian.