I haven’t been able to write much about Egypt’s revolution in the past few years. I have been too traumatized. But today I find myself in need of acknowledging the day, January 25 of 2011, when it all started. I need to assert that I was there. I was on the tarmac when it all happened. I was part of it from start to finish. And now it is a part of me, for better or for worse.
My husband, a Scot, asked me two days ago whether I regret the revolution happening. Are things better or worse, he asked. They are worse, I said. But the country’s political, economic and security situations can’t be the only measure of our revolution’s success. We failed in all that. We were ready to revolt. But we weren’t prepared to take charge. We simply didn’t have the wherewithal. I vividly remember thinking the day after Mubarak resigned: I’ve done my job. We’ve removed the dictator. Now I need to leave the rest to the politicians who know how to take this forward. But they didn’t. The “good ones” squabbled amongst them, leaving room for the baddies to move in quickly and spread more evil than we had ever seen.
Despite all that, despite everything the country is going through, the revolution was not a total failure and I will never regret taking part in it. I told my husband that the revolution created a generation of Egyptians who will no longer accept authoritarianism. They won’t accept it in politics. They won’t accept in religion. They won’t accept it from society. They won’t accept it from their own parents. Not all Egyptians have changed in this way. There are more than enough Egyptians who want nothing more than to be led and to be told what to do. That is part of our problem. But so many have changed. So many have opened their minds. No matter how small that change might be, it will grow larger and larger until one day, maybe, hopefully, we can have a better, more open, more tolerant, more accepting, safer and stronger society.
On January 25, 2011, my best friend Arwa (still in Egypt), our friend Adel (who eventually left for Australia and now, I believe, lives in Qatar), and I (now living in the UK) met up in a small restaurant where we had understood a demonstration would be taking place. There were police pickup trucks everywhere but no demonstrators. Eventually, Adel got a phone call from a friend who told him things were happening in Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo. We took a taxi and left. I’m sure I wrote in my blog those seven years ago what actually happened. But I have an image in my head of getting out of the taxi and seeing a line of armoured police blocking off the square. Then, somewhere just off the square, there was a small number of demonstrators chanting. We joined them. The numbers grew very quickly. I had joined different kinds of demonstrations ever since my university days. They were always small and very confined, either to the inside of the university campus or because they were surrounded by police who wouldn’t let them move from their place. The numbers on January 25, 2011 grew so quickly that there was no stopping them. For the first time in my life, I marched through Tahrir Square. It was exhilarating. That evening, we had taken over the square after many skirmishes with the police.
The next time I went to Cairo’s center was on January 28. It was such a bloody day. So many died. So many were injured. The police were relentless. One of my memories from that day was walking with Arwa toward the part of the city where we could see intense firing happening. On our way, we were met by a young man. We must have asked him what was happening. He was coming from that way. We spoke as if we had known each other always. He told us that so many people had died. We continued in that direction, stopping by the main government hospital in that area. The injured had started coming in. There was nothing for us to do there, so we continued to where the battle was raging. Why were we so intent on walking towards such immense danger? We wanted to be with our brothers and sisters. That is the only logical reason. By the time we got there, a bridge that separates one part of the city from Tahrir Square, things had calmed down. The sun was setting. It was time for the Maghrib prayer. People lined up on the bridge, someone called for the prayer, and we prayed. Men and women standing side by side, surrounded by a human chain of Egyptian Coptic Christians. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life. After the prayer, we lined up again to head towards Tahrir. I have no idea how, but suddenly Arwa and I found ourselves at the very front of the demonstrators, walking on a small bridge over the Nile headed for Tahrir. And just as suddenly, just as we reached the edge of the bridge, a menacing barricade of police were standing at the entrance of Tahrir, “protecting” it from their fellow Egyptians. We stopped. The tear gas was fired directly at us. We ran back across the bridge. I couldn’t breathe. I found a gap of fresh air at the side and went towards it, with Arwa hanging onto my back. I was panting. Someone poured Coke into my hands so I could wash my face with it. It makes the effects of the tear gas go away. As I was doing that I saw my friend Mohammed Ghaffari. I looked at him. He looked at me. We could see we were all right. We both shook our heads. We couldn’t believe what was happening. And then we started right back over the bridge and entered Tahrir. That night there were fires everywhere. Someone had set fire to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters in Tahrir. It was being looted. Others had set fire to car tires in the surrounding streets so that the police couldn’t get near. Arwa and I walked around fearlessly, allowing it all in.
Several days later, on February 11, we were demonstrating at the presidential palace when Mubarak resigned. That day, we hugged and celebrated with complete strangers who were not strangers. They were our brothers and sisters.
Less than a year later, so many of those brothers and sisters were at war with each other and with “the others”.
It ended for me and for many others on August 14, 2013, when hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators were massacred in Rabaa Square by the Egyptian army and police. Among the dead was a former work colleague of mine; one of the kindest, shyest, most soft-spoken and generous men you could ever meet.
It sounds horrible to say this, but it wasn’t the massacre that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was the reaction of too many Egyptians, the fact that too many people were rejoicing, that marked the end for me. I had it in me to fight against corrupt regimes. But I couldn’t find it in me to contemplate that those people rejoicing the massacre of political opponents were my people. I just couldn’t face it.
I’m living a time when so many of my fellow revolutionaries have, like me, left Egypt to live elsewhere. Some have left because they had no choice: their political activism was going to put them in jail. Others left because they needed a break. Others left because they wanted better lives for their families. I think some have left in order to be able to eventually and safely regroup.
I have close friends living all over the world. Some are in Australia. Others are in various countries of the Middle East. Some are in Turkey. Many others are in London. And even more are spread all over the United States; where they feel like they got out of the frying pan only to jump into the fire.
We are a generation of Egyptians who have dared to dream. Our dream often seems to have turned into a nightmare. But us dreamers, we’re out there. And we’ll continue to dream. We feel helpless, and often hopeless. But then several of us meet up and some of that hope and our dreams shine through. We have each other. No matter how far away we are, we have each other.
Egypt won’t change today or tomorrow. It might not change in our lifetime. It might not even change in our children’s lifetime. But our revolution has started something, no matter how small. It won’t all be for nought.