Melissa De Leon Mason is a BCC blogger emerita and a scholar of political science and international studies. We’ve missed her fondly while she was living in Egypt. Now she kindly shares with us her view on the currently turmoil in that country.
It was a familiar sight to me. Dozens of men standing silently in a straight line, then bending to their knees, rising again, kneeling, their foreheads touching the ground. I had witnessed it a hundred times before in Cairo. Patrons in the markets, shopkeepers outside their storefronts, security guards and bawaabs behind their huts, all stopping whatever they happened to be doing when the muezzin began the call from the local minaret and performing the salaat, the ritual Islamic prayer. Watching it on Al-Jazeera English earlier today, it almost looked normal. But the kneeling men were not only facing Mecca, they were also facing crowds of uniformed riot police who watched as the men rose at the end of their prayers. And then with loud cracks, chaos one again erupted as tear gas canisters were fired into the crowd.
These last few days have seen me glued to the #jan25 Twitter feed and to Egyptian friends’ Facebook pages as I try to keep up with what’s happening in my former home. I alternately panic and then relax and then panic again as rumors scroll down my screen faster than I can process them. Comic relief comes in the form of Tweeted exchanges between Twitter personas for Mubarak, Qaddafi and Ahmadinejad. I keep trying to get some work done but can’t focus, switching tabs to get a glimpse of the Cairo I remember.
The metro stop exit where I’d buy my weekly ration of tiny packs of Kleenex from a beggar on my way to campus, my eight-months pregnant self panting with the exertion of all those steps up from underground, is now used as a foxhole from which youth hurl rocks and then swarm out as a tear gas canister lands. The wide streets of Tahrir Square, often congested with anywhere between eight and ten lanes of traffic depending on how creative the local taxi drivers were feeling that day, is now packed with thousands of young scared but defiant protestors facing off with young scared but dutiful police officers. In Boulaq, where I once wandered lost and alone through alleys of mechanic storefronts hoping I would somehow stumble on the fabric souq, a body was held aloft and passed from person to person, trying to somehow float it towards medical attention.
An oft-mentioned fact in news reports on what’s happening is that some two thirds of Egypt’s population has been born since Mubarak came to power. The youth of Egypt have known no other rule than the state of emergency that has been in place since 1967. Growing up in a police state with your constitutional rights suspended for your own good would make anyone mad. Add to that the blatant election rigging, the extreme censorship (during our two years there, several editors of local newspapers were arrested for suggesting that Mubarak was in ill health), the knowledge that anything you say could lead to a surprise midnight visit by state police and an extended stay in one of Egypt’s black hole prisons. The regime has successfully beaten the Egyptian populace into a notorious state of apathy. A sense of fatalism pervades everyday life in Egypt. So what changed?
For the first time, the revolution was televised. And Facebooked. And Tweeted. And man, if there’s one thing young Egyptians love, it’s social media. So with the tweets rolling by and the videos loading up, a generation watched the Tunisian Revolution. And took notes. January 25 became a day of anger that snowballed into four days and counting of unprecedented expression and action. And while the youth have been the driving force behind the protests, when the government shut off all internet access, phone services and created a digital blackout last night, reports were that the young organizers turned to the old veterans of the bread riots of the ‘60s and ‘70s to lead them in predigital tactics. As one protestor twittered “we’re about to get medieval on Mubarak.”
We’ve been able to get frequent updates from friends still in Egypt and involved in the protests. Here are some dispatches from Patrick’s former students, many of whom were part of his course on the American Civil Rights Movement:
“I write to you today deeply moved by what is going on in the Arab world. I still vividly remember our conversations on change, hope and possibilities. I have lost a lot of this hope when I graduated but the events in Tunisia regained my faith in change. I felt, like many of the oppressed all over the world, that change is possible; “we can do it too”. As a result of this hope, yesterday, we witnessed unprecedented demonstrations in all the governorates in Egypt calling for democracy and a respect for human rights. I understand now that for change to happen we have to overcome our fear; our fear of chaos and instabilities and all the pessimistic scenarios that people list all the time. We also have to believe in ourselves-in our strength- and believe in our people because we are the only ones capable of making change. “We shall overcome”.”
“Street fights, tear gas, and rubber bullets are used. People are getting arrested haphazardly. Digital media is playing an incredible role. I am getting updates on my blackberry literally by the minute. Everyone is reposting and broadcasting. It feels we ARE part of this. It’s very personal, unlike anything else we witnessed. It’s not the revolution of the poor and hungry so far. It’s the revolution of Facebook youth first and foremost. The majority of who participated were youth who is participating for the first time in a demonstration or any sort of political action. A lot of my friends were there in the field and came back to write notes and share pics and videos. You had youth, educated, intellectuals, even whole families! no clear political leaders, no sectarian or partisan slogans. Just one chant “The people want the downfall of the regime”.”
“A point of hope is the flood of Egyptian youth who stand behind these protests: educated citizens with access to internet and facebook across class divisions. What I want to say is that the protests were not like usual workers’ protesters (which were so far the only successful ones), this time we have people protesting who are not the most oppressed and most vulnerable. So maybe the tipping point is soon to come? Only God knows!”
I stand in solidarity with our Egyptian friends. Their country has been mired in corruption, their poorest citizens forgotten, a full one million of their children living on the street because their families couldn’t afford to keep them, prisons full of political prisoners who went out one day and never came home, and generations raised in an atmosphere of hopelessness. These protesters are brave. They saw hope and possibility in Tunisia and decided that they deserved it too. They e-mail us and ask us to pray for them the next day and say their goodbyes to their families before they head out the door to join the protest. I am heartened to see that American media outlets are finally giving this significant coverage. I hope that both Mubarak and protesters will know that, unlike in the past, with all the social media outlets available, the world is watching.