ICSR BLOG SERIES Part 6: Atkin Fellow Perspectives on the Arab Spring
I was packing my stuff during the third week of January for my upcoming trip to London to join ICSR as an Atkin Fellow. I read that my friends, from the “we are all Khaled Said” and the “6th of April” movement were calling for a revolt on the 25th January and I was excited. Is it coming? I did not think that Mubarak would leave the way that Bin Ali had. But then I realised that it was not just me who had clicked attending for the “revolution event” on Facebook. It was apparent that everyone was going to the streets with their different demands. But one thing was agreed upon “we can no longer be silenced”. My students, my friends and I were already very upset since the so called elections in November 2010 and the church blast on New Year’s Eve.
Those who started to mobilise themselves on the streets Egyptian cities were not all activists. Taxi drivers, wage labour workers, clerks and housewives who never even had an account on Facebook joined. They said that the previous strikes and marches did not work because not enough people were there. The line was that may be this time if everyone was on the streets, then the regime would not have enough time or capacity to challenge us.
In my city, Alexandria, clashes started from the first day – the 25th of January “Police day” in Egypt. The protesters started with greeting the police officers and some of them gave the officers flowers. We started to see the central security forces everywhere ready to oppress us. The young soldiers that come from the Egyptian countryside were told that “these are the enemies, they hate Egypt and you have to push them back”. But as the taxi drivers and the shop keepers in Mahatet El Raml (down town Alexandria) told me on separate occasions that as much as we will be, they will not be able to kill all of us.
My heart was torn apart I had to go to London and have my say at ICSR about the Arab Israeli conflict. I have a lot to debate about with my Israeli counterpart and the rest of the office there was waiting for me. However, my country was boiling and this was obviously not a few hours’ clashes. None of us expected the course that it was going to take. But I still had concerns about leaving my Egypt in such times.
My flight was arranged to be on the morning of the 29th January. I had no idea that Friday the 28th would be the Friday of Anger. No-one imagined that the days from the 25th to the 28th would see the killing of over 400 martyrs on the streets of Egyptian cities.
I was not able to leave Egypt until February 7th, meanwhile the news was that the regime trying to make the last move with Omar Sulieman negotiating – not successfully- with the opposition and the Youth of Tahrir Square. I could hear one thing in the streets of Cairo when I was heading to the airport (mosh hanemshy…howa yemshy) “we will not leave.. he’s the one to leave” about Mubarak.
I cried in the airport and called my family and my friends during my long wait for the plane , they said “don’t you worry go for your studies, there are millions of us in the streets”. I remember the farewell with my family who were involved in protecting the neighbourhood from attacks. My father, my sisters and my neighbours they were all involved day and night in the popular committee in Alexandria, and my brother in Cairo. I had a very bad feeling: was I fleeing and leaving my people?
I couldn’t sleep, watch any entertainment or even eat during my flight. I arrived at almost midnight; people were waiting for the flight coming from Cairo. They were welcoming their family members and friends with tears, not believing that they made it and escaped while I was not able to decide whether what I had done was right or wrong. Was I justified or had I run away? People were asking me in the arrivals hall if I was an Egyptian and when I said yes they congratulated me and told me that Egypt was teaching the world a lesson.
The next day, I went to my office at ICSR and I knew that I made the right decision. Questions were raining down on me. People were still unsure about what was going on. Was it an Islamic revolt? Would Egypt be announced as an Islamic republic? Yael -my Israeli counterpart- asked me among others about what people were thinking about Israel . I had greatest respect for her when she said that she wanted the best for the Egyptian people and that they deserve democracy even if the West would lose an ally.
I liked it as people started to ask me about my country, my people and what they wanted. I was happy that I had a chance to tell my point of view. When Mubarak stepped down on the 11th, I was in one of the offices watching the news with my colleagues. I was so proud of my people and the Egyptian Armed Forces since the military council did not shoot their own people and proved their loyalty to their country rather than to the regime. British newspapers and some scholars were speculating that bloodshed would start and that the army still would shoot. They were wrong. It was the Egyptian national army not a paid militia or mercenary force. It was a historical moment that I had in London rather than Alexandria, I called my family and I could hear the chanting, car horns and fireworks and I could even identify some of our neighbours voices cheering for the –relatively- peaceful step down. Everyone was congratulating me but I was still hoping to have this moment back home.
As it was only my the second day I found myself roaming the streets of this foreign capital in cold February trying to spot Arabs or Egyptians and I couldn’t believe myself when I saw thousands in Trafalgar Square – both Arabs and non Arabs – celebrating. I was no longer able to celebrate virtually on Facebook I needed to hear real people saying “Tahya Masr” viva Egypt.
I realised that everyone was seeing the Egyptian revolution through their own angle. The West was worried about Islamism and Israel was worried about the future of the peace treaty. Many of those whom I met in London cared about the martyrs and our struggle for freedom, but their main questions were relevant to their own concerns not to the Egyptians. It made me think again. Politics is heartless and unethical but I was still hearing people worried about the Muslim brotherhood and a new regime that might not be as friendly as the previous one. Is this democracy? Should it just stop on the doors of Europe since it will take a course people do not like in the Arab world? Will people unconditionally support tyrants just to protect their own interests? AlJazeera- which I don’t like- showed clips from Israeli TV with speakers weeping over Mubarak, crying over 30 years of peace without one word about the Egyptian people and how they lived or what they tried to achieve within the 30 years of “cold peace”.
The Israeli card was played in the Egyptian official media. The regime tried to say the protesters were either Brotherhood or were trained in the West and that Israel was trying to overthrow the regime, while the protesters accused the regime of being a follower of the Americans and a friend of Israels. Even some other Arab rulers like Bashar Al Assad said that he was safe and his people would not revolt against him because he is not affiliated with the West, the US or Israel.
Palestine is a part of our heart and soul. You can hear the 2 year old Egyptians saying the word. But this revolution was for Egypt. An Egypt that wants democracy and real decision making that reflects the peoples’ will, not by dictated policies from the West. If there is peace it should be decided by the people. I think that is how we know democracy as shown by the Western model.
Public will in Egypt demands that we stop complementing Tel Aviv with presents that they themselves would not even have dreamed of. While Israel was building an Apartheid wall over the West Bank, the ex-regime was building another at Gaza. While we have limited resources like natural gas we were selling it to Israel at less than international market rates, along with the QIZ agreements and the failing Union for the Mediterranean project. I think it’s about time that Israel knew that war is at the end of the rope, with peace and normalisation at the other end. We do not have to catch only one of the two ends, as there are many steps in between.
I think that a revolution that will strengthen Egypt is favourable to the Palestinian cause, more than a war would be as that wouldn’t lead anywhere other than to worsen their situation. Palestine should have a strong ally represented in the Egyptian people and a democratic strong state that has respect, impact and influence on the international community .
A Palestinian reconciliation and united front is needed more than ever. It’s about time for each Arab society to have their own reforms. All Arabs should know that the road to a free, independent and dignified Palestine and Jerusalem starts from their own capitals. We cannot help Palestine if we cannot help ourselves. We cannot help Palestine if we still have the tyrants who are not doing anything for the cause or for us. It is true that no sound or voice should be louder than the voice of the battle, and the battle will take place in every Tahrir square in the Arab world.
The road to a free Al Quds starts with setting every Arab capital free from tyrants, corruption, exploitation, oppression and social injustices.
At the beginning, we will make mistakes but we will learn from our experiences and we will have our version of democracy. It is about time for the West to think about making allies in the region – democratic, equal and free Arab friends. Other options are not on the table. Tyrants are no longer there.