The Lotus Revolution Picks Up Steam

Cairo, Egypt

Tuesday, February 01, 2011, 8:30AM
Down the street at the AUC dorms, all the CASA Fellows met up with our director to get our monthly stipend. It was great to see everybody, assure ourselves that we’re okay and even excited to be here in this historic time. Meanwhile, the lobby of the dorm was filling up with students who were getting ready to evacuate. It’s amazing to think that my fellow CASA students are most of them just a year or less away from being undergraduates. The difference in our very enthusiastic and engaged group of scholars and the very nervous, subdued undergrads waiting for evacuation was almost tangible. While many of them are here taking theoretical classes on Middle Eastern politics or literature on the pristine little bubble of the New Campus, many of us are students of revolution with experience living in Yemen, Lebanon, and even Iraq. This kind of experience is the bread and butter of many of my colleagues’ specialties, and we’re actually quite excited to be here to witness history (and more than a little aware of how it will look in a cover letter, job interview or grad school application to be able to say that we lived through the Lotus Revolution!). As I said on NPR last night, we’re proud to support the best chance of real change in Middle East authoritarianism in a long time.

A steady stream of protestors was coming across Kasr al-Aini to Tahrir Square, enthusiastic and positive. Where men would normally be leering and harassing us as we cross the bridge, instead they were stopping to tell us their political aspirations, to thank us for supporting their cause, and to have their pictures taken with their signs. As we came up to the military roadblock at Tahrir Square, we were waved right through, and then stopped by a line of protestors providing their own security. They were dividing incoming protestors by gender for pat-downs, to go through their bags, and to read their placards to make sure they’re appropriate. It’s impressive to see how organized and thoughtful the protestors have been, how pro-active in not only organizing the protests over the last year, but also the measures they’ve taken to make sure the people are peaceful, that they’re fed so they won’t break into any more restaurants or stores, and generally assuring the military has no reason to use force.

There were a wide variety of protestors in Tahrir Square today. Not only signs, but effigies of Mubarak hanging from the streetlights, men in shrouds laid out on the ground in “die-ins,” bullhorns leading the chanting, and much more. There were a lot more women today, and a lot more women in niqab and long khimar and other conservative dress. We felt like we were seeing more men with beards as well. Sheikhs from al-Azhar University, the most respected institution of Islamic law in the world, were out in full force in their distinctive red and white Ottoman turbans. There were also a lot more people who didn’t speak English, who were not educated in international and private schools, who were clearly of the middle and even lower classes. This crowd seemed like a truer cross-section of Egyptian society. It was still dominated by young intellectuals, but it’s now evident that the Facebook generation is expressing frustrations that are felt across all socio-economic levels.

Easily identified as foreigners, we were stopped repeatedly by Egyptians with a plea and a message. “You’ll show these pictures to the Americans, right? You’ll show them what’s really happening in Egypt!” As we agreed, we wished fervently for Internet to be restored so we could make good on those promises. We were also witness to many harangues about the American government. Egyptians have had extraordinarily high hopes for Obama, perhaps unreasonably high hopes (as have many Americans, I must add!), and they are furious that the Obama Administration can’t take a stand with the people against Mubarak. We foreigners find ourselves equally furious. There is real Thomas-Jefferson-and-Martin-Luther-King democracy going on today in the streets of Cairo, and we don’t understand how Obama can fail to support it.

We’re back on the square after a quick trip to my apartment, and numbers have swelled considerably in just the half hour we were down the street. Hundreds are lined up on each side of all the streets leading into Tahrir, waiting for a security check by teams of protesters. The girls who’ve patted me down and gone through my bag have been very apologetic about the intrusion, but I am anything but bothered. In fact, as I’ve told them all, I’m very glad to see them making sure that there’s security and peaceful protest on the square. I’m so impressed by the organization and responsibility and leadership that protesters have shown over the last few days. It reminds me of the aftermath of the Cairo Meeting in October, when volunteers who had never before had an opportunity for leadership suddenly discovered the sense of pride and fulfillment that comes from volunteering and leadership. I see the same spirit on Tahrir Square today, and the same exuberant feeling of community. It’s like they’ve suddenly woken up and realized that they can have a say in their future, that they can build a better nation for themselves, and that there’s a vast community of like-minded people – instant friends – that will stand beside them as they do.

There must be almost a million people, maybe more, on Tahrir Square by now. It’s an amazing sight, an amazing atmosphere. They’re chanting, they’re praying together in massive unified rows, they’re hanging effigies of Hosni Mubarak from the traffic lights. They’re painting a massive banner that says “The people want to change the regime.” We’re packed in shoulder to shoulder, back to front, and I with my claustrophobia and my constant distrust of Arab men should be really uncomfortable, but that’s not the case at all! In fact, I feel quite safe, like I’m part of a community of like-minded people. Occasionally people come over to complain to us about the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to take the side of the demonstrators, a frustration we share whole-heartedly. Sometimes their harangues are quite heated. One man, if we weren’t such good Arabic speakers, would have been absolutely terrifying. Egyptians tend to be loud people by nature, and this man was shouting at the top of his lungs, with a big graying beard and spittle flying, and I could suddenly understand why foreign correspondents who didn’t speak Arabic might be saying that there was a threat to foreigners from the protesters. But I don’t feel that at all.

In fact, we’ve run into a crowd of foreigners, including my journalist friend Sylvia and some of her Italian, American and other friends, holding signs with slogans like, “The foreigners in Egypt are with the people of Egypt,” or “We support the choice of the people of Egypt,” and “Game over, Obama!” They are drawing quite an excited crowd of Egyptians, filming them on their mobile phones, thanking them for support, giving them messages to deliver to their governments. A few feet away, a father and his daughters ask me to take their picture, holding signs saying “The children of Egypt want Mubarak to leave,” and “Leave, Mubarak! Tel Aviv is waiting for you!” The only foreign government the Egyptians seem to be more mad at than the Obama Administration is the Netanyahu government. After three decades of Mubarak’s propaganda machine deflecting all his people’s rage off himself onto Israel, now Israel has come out more strongly than any other government in support of Mubarak. The feeling here is definitely, if Tel Aviv wants him, they can take him, because Cairo won’t have him!

Alex, Lev and I have just gotten home from our observation of the protestors. As we were walking along the edge of the island looking over at the downtown, we found ourselves curious about the pro-Mubarak counter-demonstration we could see in front of the Foreign Ministry at the foot of 6 October Bridge. We stopped to ask a man along the way if he could make out what they were chanting across the river. At that moment, their slogan was “Stop the destruction!” he said, but they were shouting a variety of things. Mostly, he said, they were angry about the vandalism and violence, and the disruption to their livelihoods, and were ready for order to be restored to their country. That didn’t seem so unreasonable. But then it became apparent that he wasn’t just watching the pro-Mubarak demonstration, he approved of it. He started telling us what a force for stability Hosni Mubarak was in Egypt, that he had ruled in wartime and peacetime and was good for Egypt. At that moment, a group of men was walking past, and they were incensed by his little speech. They started scolding him for filling the poor foreigners’ heads with all this nonsense. When he started defending his point of view, the loudest of the other men kept repeating, “Have respect for yourself, man!” Things started to get emotional, and we took that as our cue to leave.

Having had that impassioned introduction, though, we wanted to get a closer look at the demonstration. As we walked across 6 October Bridge, the first thing I noticed was that people – mostly young men – were arriving by the minibus-load, not on foot as they were in Tahrir Square. I began to wonder in earnest then how sincere these demonstrators were. I remember during the recent parliamentary elections hearing stories from multiple sources of the NDP riding around the poorer neighborhoods, handing out 20 pound notes to anyone who would jump in the microbus and go off to the polling stations to vote for the NDP. In some neighborhoods, according to youth from Cairo University, votes could be bought for as little as a falafel sandwich (market value 1 Egyptian pound). I wonder how much it takes to convince angry, unemployed young men to go to a pro-Mubarak rally?

When we arrived at the other side of the bridge, on the edge of a significantly poorer neighborhood than the Tahrir Square area, we immediately sensed a difference. Instead of the camaraderie of Tahrir, the atmosphere was contentious. People were in shouting matches with a sharp, angry edge. There was an edge of violence in the air, and we quickly decided that we didn’t want to come any closer than the edge of the bridge, about 200m from the demonstration.

Now that we’re home, we’re plugged back into Al-Jazeera English. They’re saying that the youth movement Kafiya has formed a 10-person organizing committee which is offering to begin a dialogue with Sulaiman, but not Mubarak. Al-Jazeera is estimating up to 2 million protesters in Tahrir and the surrounding streets, 250,000 in Al-Arish in the Sinai, hundreds of thousands in Alexandria, plus protests in Suez, Mansouria, Ismailia, Luxor, Aswan, Tanta, Kufr Sheikh, Mahalla, etc. Based on al-Jazeera’s estimates, we estimate that there must be at least 4 million demonstrating across the country, or 5% of the population. Protesters on Tahrir Square are claiming (unverifiably) that 8 million people are marching across the nation, which would be 10% of the total population.

Egyptian state television has finally sent reporters to the protests, for the first time in a week of demonstrations. One of the first and best protected buildings in all of Egypt has been the Radio and Television Building on the Corniche, and they’ve shown no pictures at all of protestors up till now. Their reporters have thus far been clueless at best, outright liars at worst. They’ve reported on a mass prison break, which included political Palestinian prisoners. They’ve reported on the “heroic citizens” who have worked to defend their homes and national treasures. Finally, however, they’ve sent reporters to interview protesters, and Al-Jazeera says protesters on the square are interpreting it as a critical change in the government’s response to their demands.

Al-Jazeera is showing state television, and claiming that these are shots from Tahrir Square. As any beginning student of Arabic should know, though, the signs they’re showing on state television say “Yes to Mubarak!” Clearly this is the pro-government rally at 6 October Bridge, not Tahrir Square at all.

Sa’ad ad-Din Ibrahim, writer and activist, is on al-Jazeera English praising the young intellectuals who have brought about this peaceful “Lotus Revolution.” He is stressing that these protests have not been organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, but by young, secular, democratic, Westernized middle class young people. The Muslim Brotherhood is supporting regime change, but they are not the driving force behind this movement. He’s also speaking about the army, which has kept the trust of the people by living up to its promise not to use force against Egyptian civilians. His hope, and mine, is that the Egyptian army will take the traditional position of the Turkish army, as the guardian of democracy and secularism and peaceful demonstration. My fear, and my classmates’, is that the people are making a mistake by placing their faith in the military, which has not yet declared which side it’s on, but which is led by old cronies of President Mubarak.

Both the White House and President Mubarak are supposed to speak imminently, and we’re staying up to hear them both. Meanwhile, Egyptian state television is still showing images of “the protests,” but al-Jazeera English has now figured out that the signs saying “Yes to Mubarak” are from the little pro-Mubarak rally downstream, and not from Tahrir Square.

Pres. Mubarak is on State television. He’s praising the Egyptian people for exercising “their right to freedom of expression,” and condemning those who took advantage of those demonstrations to commit acts of violence. He goes on to extol the steps he took over the last week to reform the government in reaction to popular demands, and condemning those “political forces” that opposed his attempts to restore stability. He denies ever having any intention of running in the next presidential elections in September, or indeed ever seeking power except for the sake of his nation, but asserted his intention to stay in office until elections and supervise a peaceful transition to the next government. He’s calling on the Parliament to amend the qualifications for presidency in the constitution and in law, and for the Parliament to abide by rulings of the courts, especially regarding matters of electoral law. He promises economic and social reform. He’s charging the police to treat citizens with respect and dignity. He’s demanding that all measures be taken to bring to justice all looters, arsonists and other perpetrators of criminal acts.

It’s a preposterous speech, demonstrating once again how completely ignorant and blind Mubarak is to the realities of Egyptian life in general, and in particular to what’s happening on the streets right now. Demonstrators had set up televisions on Tahrir Square in anticipation of this speech, and their reaction was immediate and vehement. It was evident yesterday and this afternoon to anyone on the streets that protestors have no intention of stopping their demonstrations until Mubarak resigns and leaves the country, or is convicted and sentenced to death. They’re chanting, a million voices at once, “Leave, leave!” and “The people want the president to fall.”

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