Sunday, February 27, 2011
I wandered down to the Square today (Sunday), thinking there would be little there, but found an assembly of makeshift shelters in which people were clearly intending on staying put. Immediately I was approached by three youths, one of whom in fairly good but rapid fire English quizzed me on what I saw, why I was there, and what America was being told. Eslam, age 24, seemed angry, gesturing at the protesters (more like squatters actually) and saying "This is killing Egypt."
"Tell the tourists to come back," implored Mohammed as he ushered me to the pyramids and sphinx. His colleagues couldn't believe that he finally had a "tourist". The sites were virtually empty, with skads of men - young and old - biding their time, poorer even than before. None have regrets about the revolution, but added to the voices of those who appreciate that change takes time and that Egyptians should be patient, are the pleas of the merchants and guides who are hungry.
So fresh and radical are the changes, that many seem not sure if it's real or a dream. Sayed and Walid seemed quite nervous at the beginning of my interview with them recently, particularly when I asked if I could tape record it. "No, you can't record us." Toward the end of the hour, feeling apparently more comfortable with me, but more critically, with the experience of speaking their minds freely, they reconsidered and suggested that I might be able to record the next interview. "We're free now, we can say what we want" they said aloud, looking at each other as if they weren't sure what they were saying was (could be) true.
Later, at their home in Giza, just outside of Cairo, their father motioned to the walls, pointing out that there were no pictures of Mubarak. "Before the revolution, everyone had to have a picture of him in their homes. His picture was everywhere. But now, we are a New Egypt."
The newness is also visible in a freshness, a cleaner Egypt. Remarkably, part of the youths' activism has been to clean the country. Thus, via Facebook (of course), children and youths have been invited to clean the streets and to paint the curbs with the colors of the Egyptian flag.
Descriptions of such initiatives are proclaimed with a moving sense of national pride. "We want to build Egypt," said 22 year-old Walid.
Tom Friedman recently bemoaned the garbage on the streets of Cairo as an evidence of Egypt's failure. Hurry back Tom, the streets are being cleaned.
A movement of this magnitude is bound to have mis-steps - whether by protesters or authorities. In general, it seems, it has been remarkably orderly and mature. From many - old and young alike - I've heard that it is now time to stop. Not that all has been achieved, but many recognize that it will take time for changes to take effect. No doubt most are pleased that Mubarak is gone (although many are careful to lay the blame not on him personally, but on the excesses of one of his sons, Gamal). Some wish for a full cleansing of his ministers and continue to protest for their removal. Many others, though, seem willing to give the military time to re-organize the government and to accept the continuing role of some of Mubarak's associates - especially Shafiq, the former head of the airforce.
"It's time to be quiet," said a teacher to me in the square last week. "We need to be careful now; these are good people that are leading us now." "We've done enough now," said 22 year-old Walid, who had spent several days at the square during the movment. "It's time to let the government and the military do their work."
With full confidence he completed his thought: "If they mess up. We'll go back to the square."
Friday, February 25, 2011
But still, two weeks past Mubarak's departure, it fills quickly and remains the focal point. Today marked the one month anniversary of the inception of the revolution. By early afternoon the square began to fill. Now, at nearly midnght, I still hear from my window the happily honking horns, and the voices of many celebrating.
Tomorrow, it will be quiet again.(?)
Then, the closer we got to Tahrir Square - ground zero for the protests - the road became congested with young people, the air covered with flags of all sizes, and an atmosphere - an emotion - suffused the area. They were headed to the party in the Square!
My online search for a convenient hotel proved to have been successful as the cab delivered me to the Novotel El Borg, situated just across the Nile from Tahrir. After checking in I made my way toward the Square. Those 300 yards or so ended up taking half an hour, as the bridge was packed with people, streaming in both directions. The din was dense - from honking cars, vuvuzelas reminiscent of the Cape Town soccer matches, and groups of all sizes singing and dancing.
Once in the Square, it was surreal. How many people? Some said that 3 million were there earlier in the day, but "just a million now." How does one count such a mass? I surely had never been amongst so many people, nearly shoulder to shoulder. New Year's Day-like fireworks were going off and bright floodlights lit the entire square.
I ended up talking at length with a group of late teens - who were disappointed that I didn't have a Facebook page that they could post our pictures on! How did they feel? "We are now of one hand, the whole people," said Esam, the taller one on the right. A while into the interview, another of them left and brought over a man from Alexandria to help with our language communication but also to demonstrate the unity that was so viscerally present. Ahmad (striped sweater) explained that he'd been there all day, that he and the youths had met during the festivities and that they felt a bond across the generations - "They are like my sons. We are all Egyptians and now are free to live honorably."
Progress is fast and encouraging on finding funding to do a documentary about this unique revolution, and to begin extensive research initiatives. More about those designs in a later entry. Check out our website which will soon have postings of audio and video interviews, etc.
Following closely after a successful revolt in Tunisia, Egyptians orchestrated a civil resistance that has had an unparalleled effect on Egypt and the broader region. While the news coverage of the movement inferred that youths were instrumental, images typically conveyed a broader, more popular involvement. Thus, it wasn't until a Feb 15 NYT article by Kirkpatrick and Sanger that carefully documented the explicit role youths had played in planning and carrying out the movement that I became aware of just what an unprecedented moment this is in observing youth capacity.
How did Egyptian youths accomplish such a stunningly fast and remarkably peaceful overthrow of one of the strongest governments in the Middle East?
According to the news coverage, they did so in large part by using social networking technology, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Documenting the extent and strategy of such high tech activism will be critical, but in the end, the success of the movement had to have been informed by other factors, not least of which appears to be the unique role the Egyptian armed forces have played in refraining from squashing the protests.
Given that our Center at the University of Tennessee (http://youthviolence.tennessee.edu) is devoted to understanding youth's involvement in political conflict, I decided to go to Cairo and observe the immediate aftermath of the toppling of the government. How do youths feel about this dramatic event? How hopeful are they that meaningful change will occur? How united is the population? How accurate has been the media coverage of their role?
I'll submit continuing blogs with what I learn.
Brian K Barber
Director, Center for the Study of Youth and Political Conflict, University of Tennessee