Sunday, February 27, 2011

Don't Kill Egypt - The Revolution Bites Back

The refrain is resounding now - that all protests should stop and patience should be excercised to let the changes become real.

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."

Like so many other Egyptians, whose livelihood is tourism, he was suffering the ironic downside of the revolution. Mubarak and friends are criticized for having stolen all the money and cared not for the poor - so change comes to remove him - but the revolution that it took to make the change has stemmed the life blood of Egypt: the tourists.

"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.

Hurry Back Tom - There is a New, Clean Egypt

With clear joy, many here greet you now with "Welcome to the New Egypt." That newness is characterized in many ways.

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.

Growing Pains - It's Time to Stop

I thought I might have heard gun shots during the post midnight celebrations, but figured they must have been fireworks. The news the next morning reported that indeed it was gunfire, directed at the air and aimed to get protesters to clear the square. It's not clear how extensive the conflict was, but apparently several were mishandled as the army tried to exert some authority. By mid next day, the army had issued a formal apology.

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

From Famed Square to Lonely Circle - and Back

Tahrir Square has been ground zero for the revolution ever since its formal beginning on January 25. It was there that the protesters took up station; there where the day of violence occurred and several were killed; and there where the continuing celebrations and mass prayers take place. It is very near my hotel - indeed I can see it from my window - so I spend a lot of time there, watching to see how a revolution progresses or disolves. Much of the time now, it is just a lonely square with a raised roundabout.

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.(?)

Kisses for the American

Posting from Tahrir Square, this Friday. Now by noon crowds have gathered and the noise is deafening, with loudspeakers screaming what seem so far to be celebrations and not protests or prayers. The atmosphere is festive; whole families are milling about. I appear to be one of the few Anglos here, in fact I've seen no other yet. All of the journalists have gone to Libya. People are either unconcerned about all of the photos I'm taking, or they're noticeably pleased; the young soldiers manning the tanks or grouped in platoons allow a shy smile for the camera. A captain asked me to stop filming his squadron as they marched to take up a new position on the perimeter of the square; then asked where I'm from and what I was doing there. He smiled genuinely when I told him I was there to tell their story. An elderly man approached and politely asked if he could ask me some questions. His smile was deep when he heard "America" and when he learned of my purpose he kissed me thrice on alternating cheeks. This may have been a youth-led movement, but they have clearly spoken for all.

A Hearty Party in the Square

The timing of my arrival in Cairo was fortuitous. Fridays, the Muslim holy day, have been designated as celebration/demonstration days to acknowledge the accomplishments and push for faster or further change. The drive in from the airport on Friday afternoon seemed unremarkable and I wondered where the evidence was of a country emerging from revolution. Passing Mubarak's former palace, one saw vestiges of the events, with a couple of tanks guarding the entry, but otherwise all seemed quite normal. Soon enough, though, the evidence mounted as the taxi approached Cairo city center. As if a portrait was being slowly phased in, Egyptian flags started appearing - held aloft by youths on motorcycles, thrust out car windows by adults and children of all ages, and hoisted by growing groups headed somewhere.

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.


How the Hell did they do it?

Since January 25, world news has been full of coverage of the Egyptian revolution.

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 ( 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