I remember being a little disappointed when found out that I would miss the most interesting events on Egypt’s political calendar during my year as a Fulbright grantee, as the presidential elections were scheduled for after our departure. I have always been a little envious of friends telling stories of their time abroad witnessing this historic election or that momentous event. I wanted to have one of those adventures, to be on the ground when the path of a country’s history takes a new or unprecedented turn.
Having just been evacuated from Egypt following weeks of mass protests aimed at removing the ruling regime, I can say that the adventure did not turn out quite as romantically as I had imagined. My experience instead followed the seemingly universal truth that many of the best stories or most rewarding experiences are often the ones that are the least enjoyable when you are living through them.
Specifically, adventures are much less fun when you are actively fearing for your life. At first this was true in the very immediate sense, hearing gunshots outside our friend’s apartment and reports of prisoners breaking out of a jail located only two kilometers away, scaring us enough to push couches and chairs in front of our door in a makeshift barricade. It also manifested itself in a fear of impending calamity. In such a quickly changing situation with little sure information, we were frantically moving from one precautionary measure to the next, whether it was stockpiling water because we heard that workers left the purification plants, buying extra food due to reports that major ports had been closed and petrol was scarce, or calling friends to warn them of an impending mobile phone shutdown after a tip from someone whose uncle worked in the government. We were never quite sure what was going to happen, but the knowledge that anything could happen made every danger much more real and provided fertile ground for our imaginations to run away with us.
This was all made worse when the Egyptian government started restricting means of communication, starting first with Twitter and Facebook, then cutting off the internet itself and finally taking down the mobile phone network, leaving everyone to revert to long-unused landlines. Having grown up in a generation in America where instant communication and unrestricted contact with the outside world is taken for granted, being forcefully and completely cut off felt like being slowly suffocated. Losing the ability to instantly reach out to and connect with friends, family and coworkers across the world was like losing one of my senses, as if I had been struck blind, deaf or mute. Even those who did not often use the internet were greatly frustrated by their right to access it being taken away.
The short period of time where we were part of the small minority that had internet access (having moved to a friend’s apartment) led to a feeling of responsibility that we had to get the word out. We frantically posted photos, sent pictures to news organizations, contacted local papers and blogged our experiences, as if we had to make up for those whose right to express themselves was denied.
With or without all our means of communication, we began to live and breathe the crisis, glued to the TV, computer or phone, closely following every new event, passionately discussing its implications and continually guessing as to how the situation would unfold. Unrelated events seem irrelevant, leaving us impatient when the news stations began to report on happenings elsewhere in the world and even a long-awaited email notifying me of my acceptance into a graduate program seemed out of place, as it if did not relate to my life at that moment because it did not relate to Egypt. Other habits also began to fall away as previously regular exercise stopped, daily prayers became shorter and meals were eaten at odd times as our day began to revolve around following the news.
The increasing size and intensity of the protests shocked not only outside observers, but Egyptians as well. With two thirds of the Egyptian population born during Mubarak’s reign, many had never experienced real political change or even the hope of such change. The protests shook them out of old habits, opening their eyes to the possibility of taking part in the recreation of their country. This shock was strikingly clear when we drove by the still smoking headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party (burned out the night before) and not a single person honked as masses of cars wove their way across to bridge with every driver pointing and staring. In a city known for its high levels of noise and especially from cars honking, this was an incredible event. People in Tahrir Square (the center of the protests in Cairo) also began to create their own community, reinvigorated by a newfound sense of national pride and ownership, with some even starting to pick up trash and jointly designating sections of the square as smoking and non-smoking, both events that I would never have imagined to see in Cairo.
In the end, a time of great crisis is also one of great opportunity, where the worst, but also the best, in people is brought to light. During the protests, the darker side of the human nature most often wore the uniform of a police officer or carried the identification card of the secret police. The brutal repression used against the protestors has led to over 300 deaths and numerous stories and videos of beatings, torture and unlawful abductions. Although the image of the police here has never been a particularly bright one, the protests saw levels of brutality that have shocked many, especially because the aggression seems to be ordered if not encouraged by the ruling powers.
Although the violence and looting is what most often dominates the news, the crisis here has also provided many opportunities for man’s higher nature to show itself. The mass looting led to the organization of neighborhood watches where men from neighboring building took up makeshift weapons, set up barricades and organized shifts to protect their neighborhoods. This happened all over Egypt, as neighbors (many who met for the first time) came together in an incredible display of solidarity, united by a common threat. Protestors in Tahrir and elsewhere also demonstrated an inspiring sense of unity, strikingly visible when they formed a human chain to protect the Egyptian National Museum from looting or when Coptic Christians formed a chain around Muslims praying in Tahrir to protect them from the police. These expressions of unity and solidarity were echoed abroad and many of us in Egypt were touched by the many many expressions of love and concern that poured into our inboxes or covered our Facebook walls.
The level of sacrifice on behalf of the people protesting is a testament to their spirit and their incredible desire to be freed from the oppression that has plagued them for decades. In a country with such widespread poverty, taking a day off work may mean giving up a day’s meals and yet still people turned out in the millions, despite the clears threat of violence and some even passionately claimed that they were ready to die for their country, to give their lives so that others may see a better Egypt. There is a deadly seriousness about these protests, one that forces you to see the events not as simply fun or entertaining but as a very real struggle for liberation, one that is being fought daily on the streets of Cairo and virtual avenues of Twitter and Facebook.
There is no way to adequately sum up the events of the past weeks in all their complexity and even those of us who have left the country are still vainly trying to process our own experiences while half our mind is still in Egypt, hearing the chanting and reading the ever-evolving posters and signs in Tahrir. It is clear however, that Egypt will never be the same after these protests, but it is not yet clear what it is that will change. For my part, I hope that it is the sense of unity, solidarity, sacrifice and pride that overcome the corruption, repression and greed that have afflicted this country for so long. I hope that I will be able to say that I was in Egypt at the start of a revolution that profoundly changed the country for the better and gave regular Egyptians a voice in their own future. Like many around the world however, I will just have to keep hitting “refresh” to find out.