During this week and in the coming weeks I will be writing some personal memoirs about the January revolution that were published in the preface to my essay about the revolution titled The State and the Revolution in Egypt: The Paradox of Change and Politics published by Brandeis University in the US on the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution one year ago.
The preface began with two paragraphs from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us,
we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven,
we were all going direct the other way [Hell]—
in short, the period was so far like the present period . . . ”
And from there, the author of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and other timeless classics went on to narrate the era of the French revolution.
Dickens was like anyone describing a revolution, and anyone who explores what has been written about the Egyptian revolution after the fact will discover that the most popular phrases about it is that it brought out the best and worst in us. After two years, there are those who shroud the revolution in wonder and joy; while a sizeable group is regretful and even apologises sometimes about what happened.
As for me, my revolutionary days have been over for a long time, specifically during 1968-1973. At that time, perhaps like everyone in my generation who was disturbed by what happened during the June 1967 war when Israel squashed our “revolutionary” political system led by the charismatic leadership of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The war ended in disaster for all three participating Arab states: Egypt lost Sinai and Gaza which, together, accounted up to more than 61,000 square kilometres — or three times the size of the Israeli territories; Jordan lost the West Bank; and Syria lost the Golan Heights.
In the aftermath of the war, all my delusions about the 1952 revolution and its leader evaporated. After the defeat, I became an activist in revolutionary politics with the sole focus of liberating the land that Israel occupied and forcing those responsible for the defeat — Abdel Nasser and his regime — to be held accountable.
On 21 February 1968, these sentiments boiled to the surface when the majority of my generation came out in the first demonstrations against Abdel Nasser. While I participated in protests and college wall magazines (there were no blogs, Facebook or Twitter) and I affiliated myself with several left-wing revolutionary groups.
My belief that the goal is to liberate occupied land did not change, even when I was drafted into the army in September 1970, I continued my political activism which focused on the need to avenge the 1967 defeat and liberate Sinai.
In January 1972, as demonstrations and mass strikes spread against the regime, I was on leave from my military unit to prepare for my MA at Cairo University. Since I was heavily involved in revolutionary politics, I organised protests and demonstrations for the following year.
In February 1973, the police arrested me and since I was officially still a soldier in the Armed Forces, I was handed over to military intelligence where I was put in solitary confinement for three weeks after which I returned to my military unit. By then, the countdown for the October 1973 had already started.
On 6 October 1973, my unit crossed the Suez Canal at 8pm and I was on the Israeli-occupied side by dawn the next day. This crossing of the canal marked the end of my personal revolution and start of my personal future. Nearly four decades later, an American friend asked me if I went to Tahrir Square during the January 25 Revolution. When I said I wasn’t, he was surprised because every Egyptian he had met told him they essentially lived in the square during the entire revolution.
Remembering that in the US’s political memory anyone who was not at Woodstock essentially did not live in the 1960s and the revolts by students and youth, I told my friend that if being in Tahrir Square is one of the qualifications of being “Egyptian,” then it should suffice that I was there between 1968 and 1973.
As a matter of fact, I was in Tahrir Square or nearby throughout the 18 days of revolution. To be exact, I was in Al-Ahram building on Galaa Street, 500 metres from the square or less than 300 metres from Abdel Moneim Riyad Square, which is considered an extension of Tahrir Square. It is where some revolutionaries lived when there was no room for them in the main square.
Throughout the revolution, I lived in my office on the 10th floor of Al-Ahram building, and Tahrir Square was a stone’s throw away. Beneath me was Galaa Street and 6th of October Bridge, one of the city’s main arteries that constantly brought forth fresh waves of revolutionaries.
At the time, perhaps like many, I was very troubled and surprised by the revolution. Today, after this much time has passed and perhaps in retrospect I should have not been surprised or astonished.