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Voice of Freedom

It’s a week since Mubarak’s departure. For our family it’s been a fairly normal week — but it isn’t so for everyone. I’ve been at work and so has Antony. Our daughter has been at school — with fewer students than normal but more and more returning everyday. The curfew — 12 midnight to 6 am doesn’t affect us. The police have not yet reappeared on the streets. Stores are stocked, but banks are closed. Debit/credit cards work, fortunately.

The repercussions of the revolution however are felt by many. Business owners have suffered from the economic shut down. Money can’t go out or come in the country, creating big problems for exporters. There is labor unrest — workers are claiming higher wages at a time when businesses can least afford it. 130 companies have shut down in the last two weeks.

The fat cats — corrupt associates of Mubarak — have been arrested and many are on a no-travel list. Rumors circulate about many more — and of course some may well be proved true, while others are being tainted with scurrilous and envious gossip. Rumors about Mubarak’s health circulate via BBM, text and Twitter.

In the meantime the focus of the media has turned to Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. Today Cairo will see a huge march of victory, a return to Tahrir Square.

I have been scouring the press for intelligent writing and analysis. Here are a number of articles, videos and other resources that I thought worth sharing. Please add others to the comments section.

Chris Dickey on The Tragedy of Hosni Mubarak in Newsweek

A fascinating article on the genesis of the non violent strategies of the Egyptian youth in the New York Times and a related video on Al Jazeera Egypt: Seeds of Change showing the protest organizers at the start of the revolution

One of the best chroniclers of the revolution is Yasmine El Rashidi who has been writing in the New York Review of Books. She has a number of posts, which you can read if you click here and then choose the tab NYRBlog. Freedom is the culmination of her writing.

I rate the writings of Roger Cohen in the New York Times. The most recent article on the three weeks of protests is From 9/11 to 2/11.

The revolution clarified, for me, the role of Twitter. While it may be used for self-promotion by many, it was also a quick way to disseminate information, and yes, sometimes rumors. I found the tweets of @acarvin most helpful — he was the “curator” of tweets about Egypt’s revolution. There’s a fascinating article in the Atlantic about the role he played in Egypt, Tunisia and during Hurricane Gustav.

The New Yorker has a list of the recommended fiction and non-fiction books on Egypt.

Humphrey Davies, a well-known translator of Arabic lists his reading suggestions here.

There are televised interviews — of Naguib Sawiris on Charlie Rose, or Wael Ghonim, Google executive on 60 minutes, of Alaa Saba on Bloomberg. Inspiring too is 80-year-old Egyptian feminist Nawal El-Saadawi with Newsweek’s Chris Dickey.

The euphoria and possibility of a liberated people can be heard in this new song, Sout el Horeya (Voice of Freedom). I am still listening  and watching this daily.

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We shall be free

A week ago we left Cairo, and we returned this morning, Saturday, January 12th.

Friends have asked about our departure, but it was so unremarkable I didn’t think to write about it. We got up, the car arrived, we set off, passing quiet checkpoints of tanks to reach the airport. The plane was only a third full. An uneventful flight brought us to London, where kind friends gave us refuge and allowed my daughter and me to be reunited with Antony.

I don’t think I was aware of how much stress we had been under in revolutionary Cairo. However, once we were in the UK, safe and secure with our essential papers with us, the adrenaline that had been fueling my system disappeared. The mother of all colds set in. In between sneezes, I worked remotely, escaping one evening to see Woody Sez, a bio-play of Woody Guthrie’s life. If you are in London, don’t miss it. The music is excellent and it related nicely to the revolutionary zeal we are feeling.

On Thursday, we confirmed our plans to return to Egypt, leaving late on Friday and arriving on Saturday. The flight schedules have been rearranged to coordinate with the curfew times. Briefly the rumor that Mubarak was stepping down gave us hope that we would arrive in a celebration, but his awful, unyielding speech on Thursday night instead brought some concern. Nevertheless we decided to stick with our plans.

Friday afternoon’s amazing reports of his departure brought incredible joy. The airplane was as empty as the one the week before, and surprisingly there was little emotion from the other passengers. Everyone seemed quite contained — apprehensive perhaps about what a new Egypt would bring.

Everyone we have spoken with, now that we’re back in Cairo, has expressed their elation at the prospect of a Free Egypt. This is a revolution of hope, possibility and pride. The idea of protesters cleaning up after themselves signals the new sense of ownership of Egyptians’ political destiny.

Tomorrow my office will all wear red, black and white in celebration. The next few weeks and months will have difficulties, no doubt, but the sense of today is that all seems possible. I hope people around the world will do what they can to support these remarkable people and this country.

I am proud to be witnessing a nation finding its voice for peaceful change.

Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly sing We Shall be Free

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Terrible swift sword

Thursday, 3 February 2011

On Wednesday we watched with increasing unease the violence in Tahrir Square. How different from the euphoria of the previous day. We were anxious for our own situation. We received a phone call saying pro-government thugs were coming to attack El Baradei’s house, which is very close. After sunset, as we watched the pitched battles in and around Tahrir Square, there was quite a lot of shooting in the neighborhood. Cars were reparked to create barriers and we were all alert.

Eventually we went to bed, earlier than usual. I updated this blog so that I don’t have to manage email lists… which kept growing and which were difficult to update from my phone.

Antony has been very frustrated with me – come back to Cairo I text, should we leave? I email. I swing back and forth, influenced by the television, by concerns of others and by our daughter’s discomfort. Most of her friends have left and she is feeling somewhat left behind. An email hints that we will be back at work on Sunday. I wonder.

Everyone is anxious about Friday. Throughout this whole week, I have been aware that there may come a time when it is the right time to leave. Will I know when it is?

About half an hour after I turned out the lights, the thudding bang of a shotgun rang out. Once, again and again. A smaller gun responded. Then the phone rang upstairs in my friends’ bedroom. We all got up, some roused from sleep.

An intruder had scaled the wall, aided by two accomplices. He had taken a weapon and banged on the ground floor bedroom of Nonna and Nonna, breaking the shutter. They were shaking and somewhat disoriented. The men, armed with their sticks scoured the property. We turned on all the lights, neighbors came to help. The gardeners had encountered the looters on their rounds and scared them off with the shotgun. We let the dogs out of their pen; surely that would discourage a return visit.

The broken shutters in Nonna's window

Eventually we decided the thugs had left. We were all now wide-awake and sat with Nonna and Nonno watching TV. At about 3:30 am we returned to bed.

When I woke in the morning, I went online and purchased tickets to London. We will leave tomorrow. I guess the time has come.

An email announcing the open cash points prompted a journey to a shopping center. When a guard wouldn’t let the three of us, a man and two women to approach the ATM together, a shouting match erupted. The uniformed guard wanted to prevent the man from accompanying his wife and me across the parking lot to the machine – we were supposed to go at one at a time. Neither man would give way. Finally another man, dressed in a galabeya standing near interjected – You mean you don’t want your harem to walk alone? My friend seized the excuse. Yes he said. We all went to the machine, withdrew the limit  LE 2,000 ($380). The men who had moments before shouted at each other shook hands and all was forgotten. Tempers are frayed.

The news of the vilification of journalists and of foreigners disturbs. At the same time, the government bemoans the loss of tourism income. The situation remains fluid, and we are packed and organized for our departure.

Postscript: Egyptians are well known for their affection for a conspiracy theory; an alternative explanation of the intruders’ disturbance was offered. A neighbor had hired a group of “security guards” to patrol his property; they are being paid a very high wage – LE 8,000 a month – for a year. The guards tried to drum up additional business but my friends demurred. Perhaps these guards, trying to cultivate fear and uncertainty, caused the disturbance. It’s a reasonable explanation.

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Crush the serpent with his heel

2 February 2011

Long live Egypt

From yesterday’s uplifting, peaceful and joyful protest to today’s cynical atrocities in Tahrir Square, there’s not much to report that’s different from what you see on the news.

Last night we stayed up late to listen to Mubarak’s message and to Obama’s address. Too little, too late was the consensus after Mubarak had finished speaking. I thought Obama got the US message about right. It is not for the US to say directly what another country’s leader should do. (I realize this may sound naive, but I am not a political scientist). My Egyptian friends expected something stronger… In the end it all comes down to what Obama means by now, as in “change must start now.”

Having stayed up late, we rose late too. At breakfast, which was before noon, we realized the Internet was back on. Euphoria. Jubilation. And not just from the children who left their ful (beans) and cheese to post on Facebook. We are connected again… And I don’t have to type these messages with two thumbs on an iphone. I telephoned Antony to tell him to book his flight back.

I then rang round to my colleagues — What did they think about the events of Tuesday? Of Mubarak’s speech? It was evenly split — some were prepared to wait until Mubarak’s orderly departure in September. Others felt things had progressed too far and that he had to leave right away. Apparently within families there is disagreement about what is best for Egypt.

Egyptians are fiercely proud of their country and even more of being Egyptian. In this way they resemble Americans — and differ from Europeans who are much more circumspect about patriotism and nationalism. The sentiment I carried on the placard at the Tahrir protest, “We love Egypt” was met with sincere appreciation — Egyptians love Egypt and they want others to appreciate their country.

The afternoon television brought terrible images of violence where we had walked so happily yesterday. It is clear that the pro-government activists are hired thugs. Until their appearance (which reports indicate they were paid for), the demonstrations had been relatively peaceful.

My feelings swung the other way — perhaps it is time to go as it is difficult to predict what the coming days will bring.

Everyone is worried. No one knows what will happen. The return of the internet and the pushing back of the curfew brings more normalcy – but still the economy is at a standstill.

The rest of the day passed with normal activities — preparations for lunch, games of Monopoly, and email catch up.

A communication holds hope that work will resume as normal on Sunday. But it doesn’t feel normal. The psychological strain is evident in shortened tempers.

My friends are discussing going to the protests tomorrow to show solidarity with the protesters. My daughter and I won’t go. There were attacks on foreigners today and while my presence yesterday may have been seen as supportive, after today’s clashes, it would only be interference.

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Be jubilant, my feet

1 February 2011, Evening

I write this as we wait for Mubarak to speak. Anything less than a resignation and a departure from the country won’t be accepted  by Egyptians, in my opinion.

Today we organised ourselves to go to Tahrir Square for the million person march. We made signs on bright yellow card “We love Egypt” and “Egyptians together” in English and Arabic. My daughter, suffering from a bad cold, elected to stay home with the grandparents — they had already had their protests in the 50s and 60s.

Leaving the pyramids area at about noon, we drove into town on almost traffic free roads. In the neighbourhood of Mohandiseen we saw many neighbourhood watch setups, guarding streets and avenues. Potted plants, oil barrels, traffic cones, rocks, anything available has been used as a barricade at the checkpoints. We were stopped, others had their car searched. Some guards brandished knives.

Queuing for petrol

Prevention against looters

Eventually we parked on Gezirah island near the Opera and the Ahly football club. We walked across Kasr el Nil bridge, joining throngs of others, striding purposefully towards Tahrir Square.

Walking to Tahrir Square

A generational lesson in politics

The security at the square was controlled by volunteers — women and children to one side, men to another. Bags checked. Tanks with friendly guards provided the military presence. There is enormous respect for the military and much hope rests in them for providing security in whatever transition will come.  We were asked to show IDs to ensure we were not the police. The disappearance of the police and other security forces last Friday has lost them all respect and they, and the government, are viewed with even more suspicion and derision than a week ago.

The protests of Friday, 28 January  were not connected to the broad Egyptian population. They were led by the disaffected youth. Those who can find a job, who can’t afford a flat and who cannot be married.

But this has changed since Friday. The  disappearance of the police and the resulting responsibility foisted on the people together with their successful defense of their streets has empowered both the rich and the poor. The governmental cynicism has been exposed, and Egyptians have a new sense of ownership of their political destiny.

Noon prayers

Making signs

We arrived at Tahrir Square as noon prayers were finishing. The mood was friendly. You could see people from all walks of life– elegant matrons, sheikhs, families, veiled women, youth, everyone was out. The protest is gaining momentum across the entire country.

Our group

Women protesters

We lifted our signs and immediately attracted attention. I am obviously not Egyptian and my support demonstrated by holding a sign was seen very positively. Lots of thumbs up, many questions about my nationality. My response, “Today we are all Egyptian. ” I posed for numerous pictures and had my photo taken with all sorts of protesters. I was interviewed by Brazilian and Turkish TV. Why are you staying when others are leaving? All day, not a frown to be seen anywhere. Chants would catch on and then ebb away. Antiphonal messaging across the square captured the spirit of cooperation.

My friends had never seen such a gathering of Egyptians from such disparate backgrounds. You could not help but be moved by the emotion shown.

Our signs received nods and smiles. In a country known for biting political wit there were many other more pointed signs.

Mubarak, shift delete
The plane is waiting
Step down my arms are tired of holding this sign.
Game over
Mubarak I hate you
You are fired
Our blood is not so cheap
You are out of credit
People demand the removal of the regime

There was an expectation, an anticipation, that the only way this can end is with Mubarak’s departure. Effigies hung from the traffic lights. Paper hot air balloons lifted up, as did our hopes. It was completely peaceful and respectful. Everyone was united in one thing. Mubarak has become a focal point and no one supports him.

We left after curfew had begun, as more and more came into the square.

For kids it was a great political lesson.

The kids ask, “Is Ayman Noor good?”  “Is el Baradei good?” The putative leaders have no experience, the population has no training as political citizens.  Their questions hang unanswered. Their parents don’t know how to respond.

Now, Mubarak’s lacklustre speech is over. Too little, too late. Big questions await.

The hope of the afternoon is deflated. What will the protesters do? How will the army, funded by $1.3 billion of US tax payers money, respond?

Long live Egypt. Tahia Masr.

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