Cairo Time

I’m finding it impossible not to be preoccupied by the drama unfolding in Egypt this week. Every news network is covering it in detail, of course; for a round-up with commentary, check out Aaron Bady’s recent post at zunguzungu. I’m not in a position to add anything original of my own, but I wanted to draw attention to two compelling pieces by Egyptian novelists (one of which Aaron also links to). Here’s Ahdaf Soueif, writing in the Guardian yesterday:

Patience is a virtue – maybe even the supreme one in Egypt‘s popular hierarchy of values, but patience also has its limits and, now, at last, it seems as if we’ve arrived at ours. And fittingly, it’s the young of the country who are leading us. They’ve had enough of unemployment, deteriorating education, corruption, police brutality and political impotence.

As is now well known, they organised Tuesday’s protests over Facebook and in closed virtual and actual meetings. Talk about grassroots! “They” is some 20 groups that have sprung up over the last five years. The question has always been how and when will they coalesce? They did on Tuesday; they fused, and with them multitudes of Egyptians young and old – inspired by what happened in Tunis.

They organised protests from Assiut in the south, to Sheikh Zuwayyid in Sinai, and Alexandria, Suez and other cities the length and breadth of Egypt. For Cairo they chose three locations: Shubra, Matariyya and Arab League Street. These were strategic choices: naturally crowded neighbourhoods, with lots of side streets off the main road. Young activists started their march in nearby areas, collected a following and by the time they reached, for example, Arab League Street, they were 20,000 marching.

The Central Security Forces were in chaos; when they formed cordons the people just broke through them. When they raised their riot shields and batons the young people walked right up to them with their hands up chanting “Silmiyyah! [Peaceable] Silmiyyah!”

In Tahrir Square, in the centre of Cairo, on Tuesday night Egypt refound and celebrated its diversity. The activists formed a minor part of the gathering, what was there was The People.

Young people of every background and social class marched and sang together. Older, respected figures went round with food and blankets. Cigarette-smoking women in jeans sat next to their niqab-wearing sisters on the pavement. Old comrades from the student movement of the 1970s met for the first time in decades. Young people went round collecting litter. People who stayed at home phoned nearby restaurants with orders to deliver food to the protesters. Not one religious or sectarian slogan was heard. The solidarity was palpable. And if this sounds romantic, well, it was and is.

Then, at1am, Central Security attacked. Ferociously.

(Here’s an earlier piece by Soueif, also, that almost anticipates this week’s events.)

Novelist Alaa Al Aswany was among the protestors:

I found myself in the midst of thousands of young Egyptians, whose only point of similarity was their dazzling bravery and their determination to do one thing – change the regime. Most of them are university students who find themselves with no hope for the future. They are unable to find work, and hence unable to marry. And they are motivated by an untameable anger and a profound sense of injustice.

I will always be in awe of these revolutionaries. Everything they have said shows a sharp political awareness and a death-defying desire for freedom. . . .

More ordinary citizens are now defying the police. A young demonstrator told me that, when running from the police on Tuesday, he entered a building and rang an apartment bell at random. It was 4am. A 60-year-old man opened the door, fear obvious on his face. The demonstrator asked the man to hide him from the police. The man asked to see his identity card and invited him in, waking one of his three daughters to prepare some food for the young man. They ate and drank tea together and chatted like lifelong friends.

In the morning, when the danger of arrest had receded, the man accompanied the young protester into the street, stopped a taxi for him and offered him some money. The young man refused and thanked them. As they embraced the older man said: “It is I who should be thanking you for defending me, my daughters and all Egyptians.”

That is how the Egyptian spring began. Tomorrow, we will see a real battle.


More from Ahdaf Soueif today:

Now, as I write, the president has announced a curfew from an hour ago. And the army has started to deploy. If I were not writing this, I would still be out on the street. Every single person I know is out there; people who have never been on protests are wrapping scarves round their faces and learning that sniffing vinegar helps you get through teargas. Teargas! This is a gas that makes you feel the skin is peeling off your face. For several minutes I could not even open my eyes to see what was going on. And when I did, I saw that one of my nieces had stopped in the middle of the road, her eyes streaming. One of her shoes lost, she was holding out her arms: “I can’t, I can’t.”

“You have to. Run.” We all held arms and ran. This was on 6 October Bridge, just under the Rameses Hilton, and the air was thick with smoke. The thud of the guns was unceasing. We were trying to get to Tahrir Square, the main square of Cairo, the traditional destination of protests. But ahead of us was a wall of teargas. We ran down the slope of the bridge and straight into a line of central security soldiers. They were meant to block the way. We were three women, dishevelled, eyes streaming. We came right up to them and they made way. “Run,” they urged us, “Run!”

“How can you do this?” I reproached them, eye to eye.

“What can we do? We want to take off this uniform and join you!”

5 thoughts on “Cairo Time

  1. Annie January 29, 2011 / 6:07 am

    It was interesting listening to the BBC this morning to hear a protestor who was joining the marches in Manchester today over the rises in student fees quoting the way in which the Egyptian protests had followed those in Tunisia and siting both as the way for protestors in the UK to go. While I feel very strongly about the fees issue, I think the Tunisian and Egyptian protestors possible have rather more to protest about. Nevertheless, the use of social media in this way is only going to grow.

  2. Susan Messer January 29, 2011 / 9:21 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve been wanting to hear from Soueif.

  3. James Poznak January 30, 2011 / 2:25 pm

    Please keep these posts coming. I am a great fan of Soueif and Awany.

  4. Rohan January 30, 2011 / 4:19 pm

    What sense I have of what life in Egypt has been like for the past several decades comes largely from reading Soueif. Though I realize there are limits to what you can learn from fiction, at the same time I feel that it has helped me appreciate what these protests mean, or are about, better than I would be able to if all I had to go on was the North American news coverage.

    You know, Annie, though I agree that the Tunisian and Egyptian protestors have a different and obviously more intense set of grievances than the UK students, I’ve been thinking that there is a kind of connection: these remarkable developments ought to be a reminder to those proposing deep cuts to everything but the so-called “STEM” subjects that many of the most important aspects of life in the modern world require historical and cultural understanding, not technological or scientific expertise, to analyze and contextualize them. Technology has been extremely important because of the role it can play in liberating ideas and ideals–just as iPods (if you’ll forgive a possibly trivial comparison) are cherished not because they are cool gadgets but because they carry the music (and books, and photos) we cherish. And then the columns by these novelists show how important the profoundly humanistic arts of imagining and telling stories are.

  5. Rohan February 1, 2011 / 10:33 pm

    In case anyone has been looking for more by Soueif, she has written a couple more columns, including one today: “I write this sitting on the grass under a variety of banners….We are all happy and we are proud to be here.” I find these stories of the courage, camaraderie and commitment of the protestors truly inspiring.

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