On 25 January Egyptians set out to recreate themselves, their polity, and the very notion of Egyptian nationhood. Dead for over 30 years, the political realm burst out from the popular uprising of the country's young women and men, fully armed, like Greek mythology had Athena spring from the forehead of Zeus.
It came almost surreptitiously, and like a bolt of lightning in a clear sky, Egypt found itself in the throes of a revolution, so vast, so astounding and unlike anything the country had seen in living memory, the only historical frame of reference available was the Revolution of 1919 against British colonial domination. The revolution which seemed to rise out of the depths of the virtual space of Facebook, Twitter and Utube, poured onto the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Ismailia, Tanta, Mansoura, Damanhur, Kafr El-Dawwar, Fayoum, Beni Sueif, Arish, and Marsa Matrouh, to name just some of the dozens of cities and towns engulfed in what some Egyptians have started calling "the Lotus Revolution".
Eight days later, on 2 February, the old order fired what I am convinced will prove to have been its final shot. And as such, it was truly worthy of that order: regressive, vicious, irrational, and inept. The Middle Ages’ scene of whip, stick and sword-wielding men attacking the peaceful protesters on horse and camel back will go down in the annals of human, and not just Egyptian, history, and very possibly the Guinness Book of Records, as among the most memorable images of a dying autocracy gone senile.
It was no laughing matter, however. Hundreds of men and women, who had been peacefully, indeed joyfully, protesting for over a week, were seriously injured; a number of them were killed.
Yet it was on the night of the second of February that the battle for Egypt's future, and it's very soul, was fought, and won. Maybe a couple of thousand young men and women held the square against seemingly endless hordes of trucked-in thugs, hurling Molotov Cocktails at everything in sight, at the demonstrators, at apartment buildings overlooking the square, and at the Egyptian Museum, Egypt’s and humanity's greatest storehouse of Ancient Egyptian antiquities.
On the night of 2nd February, and through the early morning hours of the 3rd, our children: my son Hossam (19), my waif-like niece, Salma (whose political baptism of fire was on that same square 9 years ago, receiving a police beating while protesting the US invasion of Iraq), my adoptive nephew, Mustafa, (whose late father, and my beloved friend, cinema director Radwan El-Kashef, would have been tremendously proud of him today), and the hundreds of other young men and women who were with them – have saved both the nation's heritage, and its future.
As the dawn of the 3rd of January broke over Tahrir Square, the would-be stalwarts of stability had been pushed completely out of the square, though a couple of hundred of them continued to hurl Molotov Cocktail bombs from the safe, and ineffectual distance of the top of the October flyover.
The victory was achieved at a great cost, and with almost unbelievable heroism. With each wave of attacks, the young men and women would mobilize – via whistles and chants, most prominent amongst which, “save the museum” – to leap into the breach, and push back the attackers, doing so under a hail of fire and stones, and occasionally gun fire.
This morning I talked with Ziad El-Eleimy, a lawyer and one of the leaders of the youth movements, who had spent the whole night in the square. He told me that at least 1000 young men and women had been injured, and 8 killed. The deaths were all caused by gunfire.
Eleimy also explained that in the course of that grim night’s running battles, 65 of the attackers were captured, searched, interrogated and then handed over to the army. Identification documents carried by the hooligans revealed that many were police officers of different ranks, others were members of the ruling NDP, and yet others said they had been hired by one of the country’s top business tycoons, and a leading member of the ruling party.
The contrast between the old order, as represented by the so-called “pro-Mubarak” hooligans, and the new order being created in Tahrir Sq, and on the nation’s streets, could not have been starker. Compare the 2nd of February with the day before, which witnessed the “Million Person Demonstration”.
On that very day I bumped into Dana Smiley, an American professional photographer and a friend. Dana had been touring the square and the downtown area clicking away. Exchanging congratulatory hugs, Dana told me, “I’ve been living in downtown Cairo for 15 years now, and I’ve never felt more safe or secure as I have the past few days.”
Dana’s new found sense of security was actually remarked by many. In a city where a mere week before, no woman, veiled or unveiled, Egyptian or foreign, felt safe from a whole range of sexual harassment on the street, almost every one I have talked to during the past week, including many foreign reporters, was struck by the overnight disappearance of sexual harassment in a site where hundreds of thousands of men and women were literally crushed together.
This was just one of the many signs that a new Egypt was being created on the streets. Tuesday, the day of the one million-person demonstration was remarkable not only for its peaceful, indeed joyous nature, but also in the self-discipline exercised by such massive crowds, who had total control of the streets.
A CNN reporter remarked that he had never seen such control exercised by so many people gathered in one place. Indeed, fair haired, and complexioned foreign correspondents could be seen everywhere, among the crowds, and everywhere they were treated as welcomed guests.
The next day, the so-called “pro-Mubarak” crowds were manhandling and attacking and sexually abusing foreign journalists, photographers and camera crews wherever they came across them.
Take also the explosion of individual creativity, with thousands of demonstrators designing and making their own placards, signs, and posters, competing not just in summing up their demands and grievances, but also in expressing such ideas and sentiments in unique and innovative ways, more often than not revealing a typically Egyptian wit and sense of humor.
Meanwhile, and as the nation’s almost 1.7 million strong police force made its disappearing act, Egyptians everywhere, in poor working class areas, as in such elite districts as Zamalek and Maadi, and throughout the country, formed what they called “popular committees” to defend their districts against looting and plunder, which has been widely attributed to police agents, deliberately bent on creating a state of chaos in the country.
Overnight, millions of Egyptians in downtown Cairo, as in the rest of the capital, and across the nation, had become citizens.
Yet old Egypt is still there, fighting desperately for survival. The outcome of the battle between the two remains to be seen, but there are already indications of the way forwards.
At the moment, the protesters are engaged in the difficult process of creating a unified coalition able to speak, and negotiate on their behalf. In this they are faced by several challenges, the most significant of which lies in that their’s has been essentially a leaderless revolution.
Triggered by a number of youth movements, it, virtually in the blink of an eye, went far beyond the scope and political and organizational capacities of both the young people who triggered it, as much as of the old people who lead the various opposition political parties. These, both religious and non-religious, remain, essentially, creatures of the old order.
Indeed, one of the remarkable features of the past week has been the exorcism of the bogeyman of the Muslim Brotherhood, long portrayed by the regime, and many inside and outside the country as a threat so imminent, it justified authoritarianism, and wholescale rigging of elections.
Yet as the diminutive, for all practical purposes nonexistent, political arena of the past 30 years gave way to a new political realm embracing millions of newly created citizens, the Bogeyman proved puny indeed. Politics is the Achilles Heel of the Brotherhood, and the Islamist movement as a whole, for it is only in the absence of politics that ideology reigns supreme, and it’s in the rarified realm of ideology (divorced from the testing ground of political practice) that Islamists of every shape and form have the absolute upper hand.
Yet the newly created political realm is bound to infuse every single element of the long dormant Egyptian polity, not just political organizations and movements, but also trade unions, social movements, and non-governmental organizations. New political forces will evolve; some extant ones will probably fade away; the ruling National Democratic Party will most likely to disappear altogether. Those that survive will be wholly transformed.
Indeed, I would hazard that a Muslim Brotherhood that exists in the midst of a vibrant political society will be very different from the Brotherhood we have known since the organization’s revival in the mid seventies. The Brotherhood’s youth movement, in coalition with a whole range of other youth movements, is a stark indication of the Brotherhood’s potential for transformation.
Still, for this process to ensure success, a number of urgent tasks need to be done almost immediately. A consensual representative body needs to be set up with the mandate to negotiate with the army on the mechanisms for a peaceful transition of power. Such a representative body will have to include representatives of the youth movements, who are due to announce the creation of their coalition later today, as well as, for what they’re worth, representatives of the main political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Egyptian army will have to play the role of power broker in this transition. There is no danger of this leading to military rule. Popular revolutions do not lead to military rule, coup d’états do. The army’s insistence not to fire on the demonstrators is already a notable indication of its ability to play this role. These negotiations, it is hoped, would produce an interim national unity government, excluding the NDP. Such a government would be charged with overseeing the constitutional, legal and practical arrangements that would guarantee the conducting – as soon as possible – of free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections.
The police force, which has run amuck, and is strongly implicated in a whole range of crimes ranging from sedition, crimes against humanity and high treason, will have to be overhauled, initially perhaps under the auspices of the armed forces, and eventually, placing the Interior Ministry as a whole under civilian, political oversight.
Meanwhile, the streets will continue to be the decisive factor in determining the nation’s future. Already, today, (2:00pm Cairo time), there are tens of thousands of protesters in downtown Cairo. Tomorrow, Friday, is to witness yet another call for million-person demonstrations, not only in Cairo, but also across the nation.
The Egyptian Revolution marches on.
This article was also published by Outlook India.