“The revolution will begin and I know you won’t want to miss it,” Mohamed whispered, urging me to go to Tahrir Square.
When, in January 2011, young Egyptians took to Tahrir Square to demand the downfall of a dictator, Egyptian journalist and war correspondent Yehia Ghanem joined them, eager to understand what it was that drove these seemingly privileged young people to confront power. He joined their representatives as they embarked on negotiations with the government, he shared in their celebrations when Mubarak stepped down and he experienced their sorrow when the sentiments of the revolution were slashed with such tragic consequences for so many, finding himself standing trial in an Egyptian court. Read the rest of his series, Caged, here.
Cairo, Egypt – 2009 to 2011 and beyond
I was at my son’s school, waiting to talk to the headmaster, when I started a conversation with one of the pupils. He must have been 11 or so. “What would you like to be when you’re older?” I asked him. It seemed a perfectly normal sort of question to ask a child.
He stopped to think before answering. “Hmm,” he began. “When I grow up, I would like to be free.”
It was 2009, a couple of years before Egypt’s revolution, and I’d expected him to answer with “a doctor”, “an engineer”, or perhaps “a teacher”. But “free”? I was shocked.
In democratic countries, freedom is a given. But, in Egypt, it was something to aspire to, to dream of.
Freedom before food
It is often the aim of dictators to persuade those living under them that freedom is a luxury and that food, shelter and employment are, in fact, more important. But meeting such basic needs can never be guaranteed if you are not free and do not live in a free country.
When the Arab Spring began, it was triggered by young people who sought, first and foremost, freedom. They understood that only freedom could guarantee them food, shelter and the most basic right to life and physical safety.
When people spend their youths looking over their shoulders, fearing their country’s security apparatus, and with little hope of making a living, it creates a lethal cocktail: hopelessness mixed with indignity.
In Egypt, we could smell the revolution before it arrived. Poverty had reached unprecedented levels: at least 25 percent of people were living on less than $2 a day. It wasn’t unusual to see people rummaging through dumpsters, waist-deep in rubbish, looking for something to eat.
We imagined that, when it came, the revolution would be led by the poor and the hungry.
So when, in the weeks before January 25, young upper class and upper middle class people filled their social media accounts with calls for a revolution, nobody thought much of it, least of all the government. The then president, Hosni Mubarak, mocked them in a speech addressing a rally of his National Democratic Party. “Let them entertain themselves a bit,” he said, as the rally erupted into laughter.
January 25 seemed like any other day – but it wasn’t. Tahrir Square was filled – not with the poor and underprivileged – but by young people who had attended the most prestigious universities and drove the best cars. But here they were, giving up their comforts and risking their lives to confront the country’s 30-year dictatorship. From where did they get such conviction, I wondered.
Over the following days, I spent hours talking to them to find out.
“It’s true we belong to wealthy families and have many comforts, and with the opportunity to attend the most expensive universities both here, in Egypt, and abroad,” one graduate from the American University in Cairo told me. “However, we still feel the needs of the poor and underprivileged.”
“Morally and ethically we must fight for those who have less,” said another young man. “But that is not the only reason [why we are here]. Pragmatically speaking, if we turn a blind eye to our fellow Egyptians being victimised by a corrupt and tyrannical regime it will put our own lives at jeopardy sooner or later. If we turn our faces away from the agonies of the poor, those who represent the majority, it would not only be selfish but also self-destructive for when they explode, it will be hell.”
I expected these young people, surrounded by soldiers, to yield within a matter of hours. But they remained.
By midnight on that first day, when the security forces had severely injured scores of demonstrators, I again expected them to disperse. But, instead, they offered flowers to those who beat them.
As the night wore on, they never attempted to defend themselves, but rather reassured the soldiers that their aim was to defend them and their impoverished families. Two days later, after several demonstrators had been killed, they resorted to throwing stones at those who attacked them.
Within two days, tens of thousands of people had joined them.
Talking to the prime minister
On February 3, the government started to reach out to the young demonstrators. But their first encounter with a representative of the government was not, as is commonly believed, with General Omar Suleiman, the vice president and former minister of intelligence, but with Ahmed Shafik, the then prime minister. I’d helped to arrange the meeting, which took place at the Ministry of Civil Aviation, next to Cairo’s airport, as the prime minister’s office was located in Tahrir Square.
Fearing that they were facing annihilation as snipers started to target them, I told some of the demonstrators that I thought that they should compile their demands to present to the authorities. At first, they were opposed. Their only demand, they said, was that Mubarak should go.
But, eventually, two or three of them agreed.
I knew a university professor who had intelligence contacts and who I thought might be able to put us in touch with the prime minister. I asked the professor to come to Tahrir to witness what was unfolding with his own eyes. He asked me if I could guarantee his safe passage. The demonstrators agreed. Within an hour, he was standing, shocked, in the middle of the square.
He put us in touch with the prime minister, who agreed to talk. But for two days, the demonstrators argued among themselves about whether to go. Some feared that they risked arrest if they left the square.
The prime minister assured them that they’d be able to return to Tahrir after the meeting, which began at 11pm and went on until 5am.
Those representing the demonstrators were firm in the face of the prime minister’s demand that they end their sit-in. They would remain until Mubarak stepped down and took his corrupt officials with him, they explained. Shafik remained polite throughout.
Two further sessions of talks followed, but they, too, resulted in nothing.
After 18 days, the army, which was already unhappy with Mubarak’s efforts to pass the presidency to his non-military son, forced his resignation. I was live on TV when the news came through. On the monitor before me, I could see the scenes from Tahrir: there was shouting and screaming, firecrackers going off. I burst into tears on camera and, unable to carry on, removed my microphone and headed back to the Square.
With nothing but their determination, idealism and unity, the young demonstrators had withstood the police, the army as well as hired thugs to bring down a dictator. Even as some among them were killed and maimed, they remained peaceful but refused to relinquish their revolution, driven by their desire to shape their own futures and, in so doing, the future of their country.
Mistaking the man for the machine
But the demonstrators had mistaken the man for the machine, believing that in removing the dictator himself, they had also removed the system. They were soon proved wrong.
Within months, the dictatorship machine began rolling again: demonising the revolution, dashing hopes and carrying out massacres, forced disappearances and, eventually, convicting thousands of people on phony charges, sentencing some to death.
More than five years after the revolution, tens of thousands of people have been jailed, and Egypt is building new prisons to accommodate them all.
It sometimes seems as though the older generations of Egyptians, those who have lived for decades under a dictator, have forgotten what freedom tastes like and failed to fight for it.
But I will always remember that 11-year-old boy whose dream for the future was simply that he would be free. There are many more like him. And they will have their way.
Chronicle of a Caged Journalist is a series of excerpts from an upcoming book.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.