Voices from Tahrir Square

One year on from revolution, five young Egyptians recount the tumult of January 2011 and offer thoughts on the future.

    January 25, 2011, was a first taste of street violence for many young Egyptians like Shalaby [Heba el-Sherif]

    For thousands of young Egyptians, January 25, 2011, represented the dawn of a new political awareness. Many had participated in activism in the years preceding the uprising against longtime President Hosni Mubarak, but that participation was limited and furtive: blog posts under pseudonyms, splashes of provocative graffiti, frustrated conversations over coffee and tea.

    While members of the Muslim Brotherhood - the country's most influential social and political organisation - were practiced at stretching the bounds of public dissent and were known to hold occasional large demonstrations, such as those held in the wake of the rigged 2010 parliamentary election, liberal movements and those who directly called for Mubarak's ouster were stifled.

    Only a core of committed activists protested loudly and on the street. Without fail, they would be outnumbered and surrounded by riot police and forced into silence. Many were arrested, some were beaten. But that changed on January 25, when protests timed to coincide with a holiday honouring Egypt's hated police force surprised almost everyone and escalated into a revolution.

    Below, five young Egyptians recount January 25, reflect on the past year, and offer thoughts about what's to come.

    Tarek Shalaby

    When Tarek Shalaby showed up at the office of his web design company in Cairo on January 25 and found that the mobile video streaming service Bambuser had been blocked, he knew something strange was happening. Never before, he said, had the Egyptian government intentionally blocked a website.

    A week earlier, Shalaby had started hearing about plans to protest on January 25, which had been designated Police Day by the government. Online activists from the April 6 Movement and the We Are All Khaled Said page on Facebook had disseminated plans.

    The death of Said - a young businessman - at police hands in Alexandria in 2010 had aggravated hatred of the authorities, and the return of Egyptian Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, rumoured as a potential presidential candidate, brought of a whiff of change from 30 years of Mubarak's rule.

    "Khaled Said had happaned, ElBaradei had come back, Tunisia had happened, the least we can do is take the streets on the 25th of January and say we hate the police," Shalaby said of this thinking that month.

    When Shalaby left his office and entered the streets of western Cairo, he could not believe what he was seeing and hearing: huge crowds chanting "down, down Hosni Mubarak".  He marched with friends into the violence of the following three days and by the 28th had set up a tent in Tahrir Square dubbed "Freedom Hotel". What had begun as a simple expression of anger ended with Mubarak's fall several days later.

    But now Shalaby worries that Egyptians will "normalise" the end of the revolution, which in his view is  simultaneously both a failure and destined to succeed. Shalaby did not vote in the recent parliamentary elections and believes the elected representatives will be powerless to rein in the powers of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that now runs Egypt.

    "When people realise they're not walking the walk because SCAF is not letting them, that is when people ... will take to the streets again," he said. "You see that with the labour strikes."

    Though Mubarak is behind bars and his National Democratic Party in shambles, and most people now feel greater freedom to express themselves, Shalaby sees the job as far from done.

    "If we look at the negatives, I think it's easy to tell the [military council] has committed more violations and crimes against Egyptians than Mubarak did," he said. "To get millions of people convinced that it is their duty to use violence against Christians because they're armed and trying to bring down the army ... to use violence against revolutionaries ... what I'm trying to say is that we've achieved very, very little, but we've proved we can achieve a lot more."

    Ahmad Aggour

    On January 25, Ahmad Aggour joined a march from Mostafa Mahmoud Square in western Cairo, across the Nile and into Tahrir Square, breaking through 12 cordons of riot police along the way. As soon as he and others reached Tahrir, they were surrounded by riot police. Eventually, trucks moved in and sprayed the protesters with water. Police blanketed the area with a fog of tear gas.

    "It was funny watching us playing with the tear gas [canisters] like it was football," he said. "Then the rock throwing started."

    Two days of protests and running street battles followed, and then came January 28, the bloodiest day of the uprising. Police around the interior ministry and parliament building opened fire with live ammunition. Aggour found himself on the 6th of October bridge, a major thoroughfare and route into Tahrir, throwing rocks at bands of "thugs" trying to halt protesters.

    "And then I look and see these towers of black smoke rising from all around Cairo, and that's why they lost ... [the police] were dispersed in basically all the squares in Egypt," he said. "That was a surreal moment for everybody. People were crying. Everybody knew for sure."

    The extreme violence set the stage for a year of conflict, first between protesters and the riot police, then between protesters and the army. Aggour, who works as an interpreter for international media and has helped the "Liars" campaign hold public screenings of videos showing military violence, believes the army stepped in only to exercise a measure of "damage control".

    "When Mubarak stepped down on the 11th of February, a lot of people were celebrating ... a lot of people believed that the army was on their side," he said. "Bit by bit you start discovering that the army is not on your side."

    Aggour believes that the January 25 anniversary protests will be the beginning of "something really big," an extended display of anger that will last until the military gives up power. Like Shalaby, he did not vote and he does not believe the parliament will hold real power. With mainstream Egyptian media still largely sympathetic to the SCAF, many people believe protesters are arsonists, thugs and spies, not the "noble" revolutionaries of January.

    "People think tourism got ruined because of the revolution. They don't realize it was the xenophobia that got
    people to leave the country," he said.

    Now Aggour is waiting until the country comes around.

    "Delegitimising parliament is a really long process, and you're going to get called an undemocratic person so many times."

    Nazly Hussein

    On January 25, Hussein joined her mother, human rights lawyer Ghada Shahbandar, at the Doctor's Syndicate in central Cairo, the jumping-off point for one of many marches to Tahrir Square that day. Though she belonged to a circle of friends who were politically active, she never had been.

    "I don't want you to be disappointed," Shahbandar told Hussein before they left.

    They made it to Tahrir and endured a few charges from riot police before the main tear gas barrage arrived at night. Many in the square had never breathed tear gas, and the crowd fled. But they regrouped in side streets in poor neighbourhoods north of the square and began marching and chanting again.

    "People were furious. I thought it was just us, but I looked back and  there were thousands," Hussein said.

    But two weeks after Mubarak stepped down, when Egyptians gathered in Tahrir to celebrate the one-month anniversary of the uprising and stayed late into the night, military troops wearing masks stormed in, confiscated cameras, and attacked them with batons and tasers.

    Hussein said she does not believe the military will hand over power peacefully and that its priority is protecting its wide economic holdings. She too boycotted the parliamentary election on the grounds that it was being held under a military "dictatorship".

    "People think this is their only way out, until they realise [parliament] is not going to provide them with the things they want, it's not going to provide them with social justice, it's not going to provide them with food for their kid," she said. "I think [the military] is doing all this just to make sure they come out of this with their interest unharmed."

    Despite the violence and her lack of trust in Egypt's elected politicians, Hussein said her faith in Egyptians has grown in the past year. She assists the Mosireen non-profit filmmaking collective, which disseminates videos of protests and army abuses, and she thinks Egyptians are now more willing to openly acknowledge wrongdoing by the military. With strikes and protests ongoing, she said, "there is a mini-revolution in every part of society".

    "Politically, I've learned a lot. I've been on the streets a lot in that year. I think a lot of it has to do with interacting with a very different kind of people who I wouldn't have had the opportunity to interact with otherwise," she said. "I think Egyptians got to know one another."

    Leila Attallah

    On the morning of January 25, Laila Attallah, a recent graduate of the Alexandria University school of law, checked a Facebook page that had been set up for the protests. She had heard from friends that something might be going on. When she called a number posted online to check whether the protest was safe, the man who answered asked for her name and other details, so she hung up.

    Three days later, with the internet blocked and unrest sweeping across the country, Attallah and her father watched the protests unfold live on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. When they joined the marches on the streets, they were met by clouds of tear gas and careening police trucks fleeing from rock-throwing protesters.

    By nightfall, the army had replaced the police on the streets, and neighbourhood men fanned out to secure their own houses. Some played football with the soldiers.

    Attallah's father is a former army colonel, and her opinion of the armed forces is high. But over the past year, she has drawn a contrast between the army and the SCAF.

    "We consider the army as the school of discipline, respect, obedience and organisation," she wrote. "But who I don't respect are the SCAF ... Their situation shows one of two things: Either they are on Mubarak's side and they are trying to reverse the whole revolution ... or they really don't know how to run the country."

    Before the revolution, Attallah was depressed and making plans with friends to leave and study in another country. The revolution, she wrote, was like "light in the end of the tunnel".

    But Attallah believes parliament is illegitimate and dominated by Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, who used "superficial" appeals to religiosity to sway voters, especially the poor. She wanted to see a constitution drafted first. Now, she fears that unless a civilian executive authority takes power from the SCAF, the Brotherhood will dominate the writing of a new constitution and use it to further their own interests.

    Attallah's feelings about the revolution have not changed, "but perhaps the light in the end of the tunnel seems now more a light match in a dark room," she wrote. "I'm one of the people who are the edge of losing hope in this fight."

    Wael Eskandar

    Wael Eskandar, a freelance journalist, only managed to sneak away from his family late on January 25th. He joined a protest in Dokki, a western neighbourhood of Cairo, but never made it to Tahrir Square. Within two days, activists had disseminated information about how to respond to tear gas and where to meet for the next day's huge protests.

    On the 28th, Eskandar and friends gathered at the apartment of Sarah Carr, another freelance journalist, who subscribed to one of the only internet service providers that remained unaffected by the government-imposed blackout. He would step onto the streets, take video and make phone calls, then return. After the military instituted a curfew, he went home to his family.

    "That day I was just hoping [the army] wouldn't shoot.," he said. "I always didn't trust them."

    For Eskandar, the final turning point in his opinion of the army came on February 2, the so-called "Battle of the Camel," when thousands of Mubarak supporters swarmed Tahrir Square in an attempt to overrun the protesters. Soldiers watched as the angry crowds marched toward Tahrir and made no effort to stop them. Only when protesters finally fought off the attackers in the pre-dawn hours of February 3 did tanks and armoured personnel carriers move to separate the two sides.

    "They were neutral and they played dumb ... and I tried to delude myself into thinking they didn't allow this on purpose, [that] they weren't supposed to use guns or something to protect people," he said. "[But] I think it started really hitting me when they were in complete control and they did nothing."

    Unlike some activists, Eskandar did vote in the election, but he does not approve of parliament. He believes the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has simply occupied the seats left warm by Mubarak's National Democratic Party. He does not believe the transition from military to civilian rule set to take place after a presidential election in June will occur as planned, since the SCAF will never give up its interests.

    A second revolution would be the equivalent of "lightning striking twice," Eskandar said. More likely is that the SCAF splits from within or that a general, countrywide labour strike forces them out.

    "Instead of the NDP thanking President Mubarak, we have the FJP thanking the SCAF," he said. "It's just a matter of time before people realise they have the same game with different players."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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