I just wanted to quickly check my Facebook notifications before I left. That was how I learned of the protests on Tahrir Square, half a block from our classrooms and three blocks from my roommate’s balcony.
Rumors and speculation had been flying since Ben Ali had fallen in Tunisia the month before, speculation of which dictator might fall next. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was either the most or least likely candidate, depending on who you asked.
That snowy day on 79th Street, all I knew was that something was afoot in Egypt. Something significant, some turning point. What shape it might take, where it might lead, I could not quite picture. Perhaps, like Palestinian, Iraqi, Iranian and Afghan moments I had pinned my hopes on before, this moment would also fade almost as quickly as it had arisen.
My roommate and a couple classmates were posting to Facebook, but too sparsely and slowly, and with more speculation than news. Aljazeera English had started a Cairo liveblog, but it was more tantalizing than satisfying.
That intriguing Egyptian I kept running into at parties, Mohannad, was now a journalist with McClatchy News, the largest newspaper agency in the United States, and also working with reporters from NPR and PBS Frontline. He had linked his tweets to his Facebook. I jumped onto the Twitter account I had already created but never really used so I could follow Mohannad and everyone he retweeted: journalists he had worked with, Egyptian friends who were journalists, bloggers and hip hop artists. Now I was getting updates as fast as I could want, at hypnotic speed.
Security forces, teargas, youth marching. I flipped from Facebook to Aljazeera to Twitter. I did not have a clearer picture of where the details were pointing, but I felt new urgency. I never made it to Central Park, never photographed the snow, only watched it pile up on my friends’ wooden deck as reports of an emerging movement piled up on social media. Yet, for all my mesmerized excitement, even knowing what had happened in Tunisia the month before, I do not think I ever imagined that this was the first day of a revolution. I doubt anyone did, really.
* * * * *
Though I’ve been working on a book about my year of revolution in Egypt, today’s anniversary snuck up on me.
Five years. Amidst coverage of another magnificent snowfall on New York City, I almost missed the anniversary on the morning news.
Five years, and what has changed?
Five years, and Egypt is back under a military dictatorship worse than ever before, imprisoning more journalists and other dissidents by a magnitude of ten or more. Tanks have occupied Tahrir Square, and Egyptians are too terrified – and rightly so! – to protest. Mohannad has published a book about the Sinai and is now unable to return safely to his homeland.
Five years, and the United States is still funding the Egyptian military, $1.5 billion a year, second only to Israel, despite official misgivings about where that money is going.