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In a political climate where Republicans can find fault with the most innocent statement by President Obama you might think that there would be more debate in Washington over the unfolding Middle East revolutions. Strangely, this has not been the case. My latest column, which is online now and will appear in print editions of Gulf News on Wednesday, looks at this phenomenon, and suggests that Obama would do well to use the breathing space his opponents have given him - because it won't be there forever.
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What are we to make of the seemingly abrupt turn events in Bahrain have taken over the last 48 hours? Just two days ago the small kingdom’s security forces doubled-down on repression, attacking sleeping women and children camped at the Pearl Roundabout and then beating medical first responders who tried to help the wounded. Now, the country’s Crown Prince is set to meet with demonstrators, the security forces have pulled back and protestors have again taken control of the roundabout – one of Manama’s main traffic choke points.
The answer, as Gary Sick suggested Friday on PBS’ Newshour, may lie in the hints of a schism within the royal family.
One of the most puzzling elements of Friday’s brutal assault by the security forces was the fact that it came a short time after King Hamad had appeared on television to give a fairly conciliatory speech. It was noteworthy, however, that the attacks were led by Bahrain’s internal security police – a force that reports directly to the Prime Minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa. The PM is the king’s uncle and has held his job ever since Bahrain declared independence from Britain in 1971.
King Hamad came to power in 1997 following the death of his father, Sheikh Khalifa’s older brother. In the early years of his rule Hamad seemed to want to open Bahrain’s political system. That is hardly surprising. The last years of his father’s rule were marked by increasingly frequent unrest among Bahrain’s majority Shiites. The protests of the mid-90s were put down ruthlessly (though never with the sort of force we saw this week), but they were also generally small and rarely made their way into the capital. The unrest was confined to villages that, while only a short drive from downtown Manama, were a world away from the cosmopolitan lives of well-off Bahrainis and western expatriates. I remember arriving in Bahrain in late 1995 and being stunned to discover that my Irish and Australian hosts were not even aware of the riots that had taken place barely three miles from their apartment a few weeks earlier.
On taking power, the new Emir (it was only a few years later that Hamad promoted himself to “King”) appeared to understand that something had to change. In 2002 he allowed elections to take place for Bahrain’s parliament, which his father had suspended shortly after independence three decades earlier. The parliament’s powers, however, remained severely circumscribed and the country’s Shia majority came to complain that electoral constituencies are drawn in ways designed to dilute their strength as voters. The result, most critics will say, has been a country whose leaders talk about reform and openness a lot but tend to give away very little of consequence. Years ago, writing for Lonely Planet, I noted that people often say Bahrain is a liberal country when what they really mean is that it is liberal by the standards of its neighbors – i.e. Saudi Arabia and Iran. I made that comment in reference to social norms, but under King Hamad it can be said to apply to politics as well.
Anywhere in the Gulf it is always difficult for outsiders to know what is really going inside a ruling family, but it has long been widely believed that Hamad’s modernizing instincts, limited though they may be, are at odds with his uncle’s view of the world. Moreover, while Sheikh Khalifa is not king he does command both the loyalty of the security forces and the support of a significant faction within the royal family (though before we make Khalifa out to be the exclusive villain of this piece it is worth asking exactly how many absolute monarchs, over the course of history, have willingly ceded significant power to democratically-elected leaders).
That analysis, of course, is largely a combination of hearsay and educated guessing, but it would serve to explain the sporadic and, at times, hesitant nature of political reform in Bahrain over the last 14 years. It would also imply that the appointment of the 41-year old, US-educated Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman Bin Hamad, as the government’s key negotiator is a good thing.
It has been noted almost everywhere that Bahrain’s rulers are Sunni Muslims while the protestors overwhelmingly come from the country’s large Shiite Muslim majority. It is important to add, however, that based on what we have seen this week it is not accurate to call the protests sectarian in nature, not yet, at least. Bahrain’s Shia are a large majority of the population, they do have legitimate grievances against the current regime and the Al-Khalifas. For the most part, however, they have not expressed those grievances in religious terms. What we have seen on television are rallies for democracy and justice. That is not to say that things might not change – but if we in the West fall into the trap of assuming that any country dominated by Shiites is automatically going to become an Iranian satellite we risk alienating potential allies at best, and, at worst, turning our fears into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Moreover, it needs to be said that Bahrain, while authoritarian, is not a police state on the model of Syria, Libya or even Mubarak’s Egypt. There are a lot of prosperous, middle class Bahrainis who are reasonably happy with things the way they are – and that group includes more than a few Shiites. In so small a country, any move toward comprehensive change will need to address their hopes and fears as well.
The Wild Card in all of this is, and will be, the role of the Saudis. Just about anyone who knows anything about Bahrain seems to agree on one thing at the moment: the Al-Saud are not going to allow Bahrain’s royal family to be overthrown. As the respected Middle East scholar Toby Jones told the New York Times recently: “Saudi Arabia did not build a causeway to Bahrain so that Saudis could party on weekends. It was designed for moments like this, for keeping Bahrain under control.”
If King Hamad is serious about reform he is now truly walking a tightrope. On the one side are demonstrators who will demand far more now, after the shedding of blood, than they might have settled for a week ago. On the other are his powerful uncle and the giant neighbor on which Bahrain is, in many ways, dependant. Both are likely to urge him to give no ground, fearing the inevitable result will be the emergence of a mini-Iran just a few miles across the water from the large and not-terribly-well-treated Shia population of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
Can the king manage the delicate act of preserving his, and his family’s, position while ceding real power? My own sense is that there is no way the Al-Khalifas can continue to hold absolute power without resorting to a bloodbath that would destroy both Bahrain’s economy and its relationship with the West. Doing so might give some of the other ruling families around the Gulf cause to rejoice – but only temporarily, and only if they are astonishingly short-sighted.
The best argument for supporting democratic change in the Middle East is a moral one. But even if one puts that aside there is another, chillingly practical, case to be made: in putting down a genuinely democratic, popular uprising rulers do not prevent change, they only postpone it, even as they guarantee that the next round of unrest will be worse than the one they have just suppressed.
Expats who have spent time in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain have probably spent the last week or so in a state of shock. Bahrain has always been a live-and-let-live sort of place. The violence of the last few days is unprecedented.
Except that it’s not.
Without wanting to go off on too much of a tangent here, few people in my experience are more isolated from the cultures around them than western expatriates living in the Persian Gulf and Bahrain, in this regard, has always been something of an extreme example.
Most Americans or Europeans who have visited will remember a small, socially relaxed city. Bahrain Island is about 30 miles north-to-south and 11 miles east-to-west at its widest. The southern half of the island, however, is mostly uninhabited. The country’s population of 1.1 million (about half of whom are actually Bahrainis) is mostly crammed into the northern end of the main island (in the capital, Manama, and in various small towns and villages to its south and west) and onto the neighboring island of Muharraq, where the airport is located. The US navy base you may have read about – the home port for the Fifth Fleet – is just south of downtown Manama in an area called Juffair (though there is also a huge military airfield in the southeast corner of Bahrain Island, the exact function of which neither American nor Bahraini officials are much inclined to talk about). The protests of the last few days have been taking place at the Pearl Roundabout, about two miles west of the base (i.e. at the other end of the city center).
In an irony of history, Bahrain was once the richest place on the Arab side of the Gulf but is now, arguably, the poorest. Britain established a protectorate over Bahrain in the mid-19th century. After WWI the island became the UK’s administrative headquarters for all Gulf affairs. As a result, Bahrain, in the 1920s and 30s, offered far more advanced infrastructure, better schools and better medical care than any place else in the Gulf. American missionaries built a hospital in Bahrain as far back as 1903 (to this day it carries the mailing address: PO Box 1, Manama, Bahrain). Bahrain was even the first place on the Arab side of the Gulf where oil was discovered a fact that, in the 30s, added even more to its prosperity. The oil did much to mitigate the collapse of the pearl industry in the early 30s, following the Japanese invention of cultured pearls (the importation of which is still banned in Bahrain).
After WWII, however, when the Gulf oil industry really took off, it quickly became clear that Bahrain had far less oil or gas than any of its neighbors. The British pulled out in 1971 and when oil prices skyrocketed a few years later, in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Bahrain, with its well-developed infrastructure, was well-positioned to serve as the commercial and communications hub for the region. In later years it also emerged as a banking center and developed a lucrative shipyard repair industry.
Overseeing all of this were/are the Al-Khalifa family, Bahrain’s rulers since the mid-18th century (by far the longest tenure of any of the Gulf’s ruling families). The Al-Khalifas are Sunni Muslims. The bulk of Bahrain’s population (about 70%), however, are Shiites, many of whom are at least partly of Persian ancestry. The Shiites believe, with more than a little justification, that the ruling family and the rest of Bahrain’s elite – virtually all Sunnis – have cornered both political power and the national wealth.
The result has been consistent political unrest since the early 90s – a fact of which even many expats living in Bahrain have often been unaware. Ignorance was an easy thing to cultivate. This was partly because past protests were never anything like those of the last few days and partly because the expat community lives in a bubble far removed from the dirt poor villages west of Manama.
The result has been a generation of rising political tension in Bahrain – one that, this week, has finally boiled over.
More on that tomorrow.
Last night I appeared on WCAX TV in Burlington, Vermont to discuss the uprising in Egypt and its possible repercussions around the region.
I happened across this while surfing online and wanted to share. Nice T-shirt.
If you're interested in buying one here's the link.
Earlier this week I shared a dispatch from Egyptian journalist Jihan El-Alaily. Last night she sent along this follow-up. It is republished here with her permission.
Many thanks for the congratulations that have been pouring in. It is incredible what the Egyptian people have done. This is truly a historic moment for each and every Egyptian citizen. This January 25th revolution will have deep repercussions here and far beyond.
Finally, after a very painful birth for 18 days, the People have prevailed. By the ‘Will of the People’, Mubarak and his regime have been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Finally, the army has sided with the people. They have performed honorably since the beginning of this revolution, affirming all along that they are from the people and would never shoot at the people. In their 3rd statement, where they announced they were taking over, the spokesperson gave a military salute to the martyrs (this was a very moving moment), he affirmed that the army was not a substitute for the legitimacy that the people would agree on, and said they would take in due coarse measures to respond to the people’s call for bringing about fundamental changes. They have brilliantly resisted through out this crisis, the malicious attempts by Mubarak to create a situation whereby they would be led to confront with force the peaceful protests -- which had it happened would have destroyed their historic credibility as an institution whose sons come from the people [this is a conscription army] and whose sole responsibility is the protection of the people of Egypt. There were many tipping points through out the hopeless acts of crisis management which created frictions between Mubarak /Solliman on the one side and the army on the other. The most serious one- I think- was on the 10th of Feb. after Mubarak’s last statement, when thousands of angry protestors -not from Tahrir square- began marching towards Heliopolis, where the presidential palace is situated. The Palace is protected by the presidential guards whose loyalty is solely to Mubarak. They are highly trained sharp shooters. Had they opened fire in this highly volatile atmosphere to protect the regime (Mubarak was already in Sharm) , a likely blood bath would have ensued. One dreaded response was of the people directing their anger at the army. It seems that the army in those crucial moments, were the wrong decision could have cost the country dearly, decided to play politics with their boots in order to pre-empt this doomsday scenario. It appears that in a true moment of history, they forced Mubarak to accept stepping down. (I could be wrong, but this is my reading of the situation that unfolded)
Mubarak’s last Statement: absolutely horrible, pompous, arrogant, and until the last minute he tried to give the impression that he was in control, that only himself , Mubarak is the one who sets the timings for political changes. Also it was very non conciliatory in its essence, and the tone of bitterness spoke volumes to the people. The protestors called it “Khetab al-Gazma” (the Shoe Statement) ie the protestors were treated by Mubarak as no better than shoes. I was told by the protesters, the morning of the 11th of February, when I went to the Square, that between 150-200 protesters had fainted after hearing Mubarak’s statement. Many needed medical treatment for acute convulsions, epileptic fits, diabetic comas, heart attacks. Urgently needed psychiatric help was sought in Tahrir Square. The anger was very palpable, this was another tipping moment. On Friday the 11th of February , we the people, millions of Egyptians responded by coming out on the streets shouting, ‘The people demand the Fall of the regime”.
This has been a beautiful, non violent revolution, sparked by the youth on Facebook and twitter and very quickly embraced by the entire nation. It was a revolution that unfolded to free our spirits, to allow us to regain our dignity, our stolen humanity and to ensure that we are able to enjoy our universal basic rights, as I’ve heard over the days from tens of protesters at Tahrir Square.
It was not planned like this. When it started on the 25th - on the National Day of the Police Force- as a peaceful protest against the brutality and routine torture practices by the Police, the protestors had thought it would be a march for a couple of hours and that’s it. The slogans that were first raised were not calling for regime change. The main slogan said “justice, freedom, human dignity”. The trigger was the brutal force the police employed to suppress the peaceful march on January the 25th and the bloody spectacle of innocent protesters being killed in cold blood in front of the TV cameras of the entire world. These repeated episodes of bloody confrontations, thuggery and violence by the regime’s security apparatus and supporters, in addition to the defamation campaigns and the lies told on national Television about the protesters and their ‘foreign agendas’, charged the protestors with as much vigor and moral power as those of the violent means employed by the security apparatus.
Every day the revolution gained new grounds, as wave after wave of Egyptians joined what they quickly recognized as their cause, a fight for FREEDOM, a cause of the highest moral order. I met many young revolutionaries on Tahrir square age 22-30, who told me, day in and day out, ‘I don’t need to be here…I have a good job, status and family support’, yet they were determined to bring down the State of Fear, the state structures of embedded corruption, the system that created unbridgeable gaps between superfluous wealth and abject poverty. Just imagine, the moto of the police force under the Mubarak regime was changed from ‘the Police in service of the People’ to ‘the Police and the People in service of the Nation’ (ie the regime). Unfortunately for the regime when they reverted ten days ago to the earlier motto, it was a step taken far too late for the revolution.
I consider myself a well educated person- I have an LLM in international law, a masters degree in conflict transformation from respected universities in the US and the UK, and more than 20 years of international experience as a journalist, yet I’ve been continuously humbled during those 18 days by the wisdom of those young revolutionaries, their practice of non-violent resistance and their superb strategic thinking and organizational abilities. They were ahead of all of us. I and millions of Egyptians believed in them, and embraced their/our cause as they raised their voices ‘Game is Over’.
Those young men and women never studied Gandhi and the non-violent struggle that he had led to free India, but everything they did were truly Gandhian in spirit and practice. Gandhi said ‘Not till the spirit is changed can the form be altered’- The protesters by their peaceful resistance, by their courage and determination to break the barriers of fear and intimidation, that we had succumbed to under Mubarak’s regime, were truly cleansing our souls. Like Gandhi they recognized that for war/violence to be stopped, the conscience of the people has to be changed until everyone recognizes the ‘undisputed supremacy of the Law of Love’. They succeeded.
Similarly, most have never heard of Martin Luther King Jr., but like King, they believed that the debasement of individual freedom was objectionable in itself. His belief that ‘Man is not made for the state ; the state is made for man’ rings true in every thing they said and did starting from Tahrir Square.
Countless Noble moments: it will take us in Egypt and the world over, months and years to list, analyze and study the countless acts of love, generosity and kindness that were generated by the people that started the 25th of January revolution from Tahrir Square, that later spread to the rest of Egypt.
Two scenes strongly come to my mind. I will never forget the voice and the pleadings of the well known Egyptian director Khaled Youssef, when he appeared on Arab satellite tv screens, the night of the 25th ,I think, when the fires that engulfed the building of the ruling party, adjacent to the national museum, were visibly catching up and threatening the muesuem’s historic building. He very passionately called on all Egyptians and the civilized people of the world, to come out and protect this world heritage. Dark Images of the looted treasures of Iraq in 2003, came to mind and I cried. The heroic protestors at Tahrir square formed a human chain to prevent the thugs from looting the Museum, and later the army fire fighters came. Khaled, later recounted how he met on the same night, a man who had walked for 4 hours to get to the museum, at a time when the roads were cut and the curfew was in place and the thugs were looting in Cairo, for no other purpose than to protect the Egyptian treasures. Hundreds, like this man, converged on the square for the same cause.
Second scene: I will never forget the 30+ man I met at Tahrir Square, whose haggard appearance; worn clothing clearly showed he comes for the struggling class- he comes from Nahya, a very rough slum area on the outskirts of Cairo, an area so congested, with hardly any proper infrastructure-- this makes it not fit for animals let alone for a dignified human existence. This guy, who is a teacher on 200 Egyptian pounds a month ie $34.5/month, came to the square with his four children, the youngest was about seven years old. I met him on this infamous day when the Mubarak’s thugs charged the square with camels and horses to spread panic and chaos. I had left the square on that day one hour before the ugly charade unfolded, but I did witness the beginnings of some very violent confrontations and actually saw some twelve injured protestors, who were hit by a volley of stones and sharp metal objects thrown by the pro-Mubarak paid thugs. This was the background scene when I met this teacher. Hence I asked whether he thought it was safe to bring particularly his youngest son. He said referring to Tahrir square to which he had been coming regularly, ‘I feel like a human being again, even if my four children are martyred here, this is a small price to pay for Egypt to become free’. He looked lovingly at his young son, who was wrapped in the Egyptian flag and said ‘look, he is a revolutionary leader, he is the youngest orator here in the square.’
Last night, I cried when I called Ahmed to congratulate him. Ahmed is 22 and is one of those very smart, street wise and passionate guys that I’ve met at Tahrir square. He fits in the same category of those mainly from the Egyptian middle class, whom I had tried to profile in my previous story, ‘Just an Ordinary Hero’, for their heroic deeds all through those 18 days. He was clearly elated when the news came that Mubarak had stepped down. He added with the same burning passion, that they would not leave the square until all their demands for: freedom, social justice and human dignity, for all Egyptians were met. They will monitor how the Supreme Army Council will behave. With this new spirit, I am optimistic.
The nightmare is over and a new dawn has begun.
12 February, 2011
What an extraordinary day this has been. Mubarak’s departure from the public stage, and the manner in which it came about, must rank as one of the seminal political moments of the last half-century. In terms of its potential effect on the Middle East it is not out-of-line to compare this with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There remains, of course, much to be done. It is a cliché at moments like this to observe that only now does the hard part begin, but that, sadly, is true.
The first, perhaps the paramount, question is: what are the military’s intentions? Is it willing to allow a real transition to a genuinely democratic system? Or are the members of the newly-empowered Higher Military Council (analogous, we are told, to America’s Joint Chiefs of Staff… but the JCS are accustomed to taking orders from civilians. Their Egyptian counterparts are not) looking mainly to preserve Mubarak’s system sans Mubarak? In the coming days two things will do much to answer that question.
First, what is the role of Omar Suleiman? It was the intelligence chief-turned-vice-president who announced Mubarak’s resignation on state television Friday. But his statement was simple, lasting only a few seconds. It remains uncertain whether he, too, has been stripped of power, or whether the authority Mubarak so ineptly ceded to him on Thursday night has now been enhanced.
We still do not know exactly who is running things in Egypt, but of this you can be certain: if Suleiman proves to be a significant figure within the military’s new ruling council that is a sign that the old regime wants nothing of consequence to change. This, after all, is Mubarak’s longtime right-hand man, who as recently as last week was telling interviewers that the way to deal with the protestors was to call their grandparents so that the elder generation could order their wayward offspring home. This is the vice president who as recently as a few days ago was rejecting democracy as something Egyptians are too immature to deal with.
Second, the emergency law. Suleiman and Mubarak were both defending it as recently as yesterday. With one short hiatus just prior to Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 it has been in place since 1967. It is often said that the law ‘gives the government sweeping powers’. Let us be blunt: what it does is provide a legal veneer for the National Security State that Egypt became under Nasser and has remained ever since. It authorizes effectively unlimited detention without trial, draconian surveillance, military trials for civilians and a myriad of other police state activities. The emergency law stands second only to Mubarak himself as a symbol of the Old Ways. If the military does not do away with within the next few days that fact alone will be a powerful indicator that the change Egyptians seek is not likely to come.
What will be a good sign? Judges. Egypt’s judiciary has long been one of the few bits of the state apparatus that has occasionally shown some independence from the Mubarak regime. The country’s judges, as a class, command significant public support. To the extent that the military puts them at the forefront of the coming transition, that will be a very good omen.
“Historic” is a word we journalists are wont to overuse. Today, however, was that rare day when the events were so jaw-dropping that it seemed inadequate in every way. The real work of building a democracy in the Arab World’s most essential nation begins now, but it begins on a high note, thanks to an uprising whose success few could have imagined a mere three weeks ago.
Omar Suleiman just announced on state TV:
"President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down as President of Egypt and has assigned the Higher Council of the Armed Forces to lead the nation."
Where Suleiman stands in all of this is hard to say. On the one hand he made the announcement. On the other hand, there was no reference to the constitutional process triggered by a presidential resignation - the parliament speaker taking power for 60 days. Perhaps Suleiman is now functioning merely as one element of the Higher Council of the Armed Forces?
The demonstrators have won - but the exact nature of their victory is still uncertain.
Television channels around the world have been on Mubarak-Resignation-Watch for several hours now. State TV has announced that Mubarak will speak this evening Cairo Time. Beyond that, however, everything is speculation.
This is an important point to make at a moment like this. Whatever is happening in the high councils of state is happening, for the moment, in camera.
CNN, for example, has been reporting seemingly conflicting announcements by a "senior Egyptian official" associated with the ruling National Democratic Party saying that Mubarak will step down. It also, however, is reporting a statement by the Egyptian information minister denying that the President is resigning. Considering, however, how radically Egyptian State Television has gone off-message in the last few hours it is reasonable to ask how on top of things the info minister really is. That, however, highlights a deeper point: Washington watchers know well that no Congressman, Senator or presidential aide is ever willing to admit to a reporter that he has no clue what is going on. Instead they make sage-sounding pronouncements while demanding anonymity as sources. What makes one think Egyptian officials are, in this regard any different (I can tell you from nearly seven years experience as a Cairo-based reporter that they aren't)?
Put another way, there are only a few people in Mubarak's inner circle and among the senior military leadership who really know what is happening right now, and it is a near certainty that none of those people are talking to the press - Western or Arab.
Reporters need to report stuff and when a senior official says something it can legitimately be treated as news. It is less often, however, that reporters stop to ask themselves whether the senior official in question really has any idea what he is talking about.
On the first or second morning of the Gulf War Cairo's semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram ran a seemingly blockbuster story about the Egyptian Air Force conducting missions outside Egyptian airspace as part of the war effort (something the government had previously said it would not do). As a reporter for ABC News I called up an Egyptian general I had a passing acquaintance with to try and get confirmation. Egypt, of course, has a very large military with an inordinate number of general officers... but for any foreign reporter in Cairo military sources were fiendishly hard to come by. Hey, you work with what you've got.
I asked the general to confirm the Al-Ahram story and was thrilled when he said "yes, yes. I can confirm that." Excellent! I thought, sensing a scoop. Then the general said...
"I saw it in Al-Ahram just this morning!"
So what is Mubarak about to say? I haven't a clue. And, frankly, neither does anyone on your TV screen. Patience.
My longtime friend Jihan El-Alaily, formerly of the BBC's Arabic Service, now an independent journalist based in Cairo, forwarded the following dispatch last night. I am republishing it here with her permission.
By Jihan El-Aiaily
Cairo, 8 February: Until the 25th of January, 2011, 29 year-old Mohammed Said lived an ordinary and uneventful life in Monofeya, an Egyptian province 110 km North of Cairo. He had never been involved in politics or participated in a demonstration before. Mohamed worked during the day in a medium sized commercial venture and, like millions of Egyptians, spent his evenings surfing the internet, chatting on Facebook and other social media sites. The first wave of demonstrations on Jan 25th that had attracted an unexpected young crowd of 100,000 people to Tahrir Square turned out to be a defining moment for Mohamed. Braving rubber bullets, tear gas and brute force used by Egyptian Security forces and plain clothes policemen, the protesters never wavered: the slogans they displayed called for ‘justice, freedom, human dignity’.
That same evening on Facebook, Mohamed saw hundreds of SOS messages from the shocked protestors, who had been roughed up by the police, calling on people to come out on the streets to support them. The distress messages on the Facebook pages and twitter were happenings of seismic proportions that changed Mohammed’s life forever. It was the moment when Mohamed and hundreds of thousands like him across the country shed their fear and translated their collective loathing of their ruler into action. They surged toward Tahrir (Liberation) Square, defying the emergency law, the bullets and the batons of the police, and the absurd laws of the state that require authorization for any peaceful gathering of more than three people.
On January the 26th, Mohammed applied for and was granted a lengthy sick leave by his employers. On the same day, the government, in a desperate attempt to block the crowds, had taken measures to make entry into Cairo from the provinces a near impossibility. Undaunted, Mohamed walked for miles, hitchhiked and used the few available minibus services until he finally managed to make it to Tahrir Square - from which he has not budged since that day.
12 days into the demonstrations that rocked the country from Tahrir Square, I met Mohamed in the same location which he now calls ‘home’. He has vowed never to leave it until the protesters’ demand that President Mubarak steps down is met. “Freedom or martyrdom”, he said defiantly.
His chest, forehead and two fingers were bandaged. He had been hit by a rubber bullet and stones during the running battles of the 27t and the early hours of the 28th when the regime’s ‘supporters’, in a desperate attempt to spread chaos, charged into the square with camels and horses , while other thugs and plainclothes policemen showered protesters with stones, sharp metal objects and rubber bullets. The army stood by, barely attempting to restore law and order. Mohammed joined thousands of young men, heroically defending Tahrir Square, armed with nothing more than stones and an undaunted faith in the ‘rightness’of the revolution.
What about fear of death, I asked? “Fear grips those who are not fighting for a cause’, he replied confidently. “But our cause is one, we are fighting to regain our stolen humanity,’ he said in reference to the 30 years of repressive rule under President Mubarak, where basic human freedoms have been ruthlessly denied.
It is as if Mohamed and tens of thousands of his mates in Tahrir Square have fused into one collective being - nobler and more single-minded than their individual selves. As they pushed back the thugs with their stones and bare chests, the protesters roared in unison “the People demand the fall of the regime”. The ‘People’ have finally, miraculously, found their voice and they roared their wishes for all the world to hear.
In a sense, Tahrir Square has seen the birth of a new world, fueled by blood, courage, rage and determination that is unifying the minds of 80 million plus Egyptians and spreading like wildfire across the country. It is this new legitimacy founded on the will of ‘the People’ that has rattled the old order where torture and corruption are standard practices by state machinery, invariably with impunity.
Though barricaded from all sides by army tanks, Tahrir Square represents a kind of oasis to the hard core protestors like Mohamed and their countless supporters - an oasis of freedom, love and generosity of spirit. “It is the best thing that happened to me, I would have regretted it all my life had I not taken part in the revolution’ he said. It has been exhilarating for many people like Mohammed to move from virtual freedoms on the Facebook pages to practice and enjoy the real thing in Tahrir Square. The Square has become like Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, a melting pot where rich and poor meet, where secularists and Islamists rub shoulders without the usual tensions, where Muslims and Christians take part protecting each others’ prayer gatherings, where not a single case of sexual harassment has been reported by the thousands of women present.
The somewhat carnival-like atmosphere is seeing an amazing rebirth of political satire, imagination, arts, and irrepressible Egyptian humour. All of which would have been unimaginable prior to the events of January 25th that triggered this revolution.
Despite his wounds, obvious fatigue, haggard appearance, worn clothing that hardly protects his frail body from bitterly cold January nights and his old shoes riddled with holes, Mohamed was able to joke about these hardships and was in very high spirits. Transformed by the Revolution, Mohamed sees everyone around him as family. “In the square I have found my mother who is not my real mother, met my sisters and brothers who are not my real siblings. We are one family, we care for each other,’ he explained. Ironically, he thanks Mubarak for making the miracle happen.
Today, the revolution seems to have reached a deadlock since it has not yet succeeded in ousting Mubarak and his degenerate band. The embattled regime is trying desperately to hang on to power by offering piecemeal concessions, dividing the supporters while continuing to intimidate and threaten the protestors. The official media continues to spread lies and hate messages about the protesters and the journalists (local and foreign) covering the protests, accusing them all of being agents following foreign agendas.
Two dragons, one evil and the other good, are spewing fire at each other as the battle rages across the country....two worlds are colliding. Mubarak’s smug belief in the ‘unchangeableness’ of the Egyptian national character will be his undoing. The Facebook-ers have called his bluff and millions of ordinary Egyptians have responded, bringing the call for change on to the streets.
As the Irish poet and novelist, Oscar Wilde, observed, “the error of Louis XIV was that he thought human nature would always be the same. The result of his error was the French Revolution. It was an admirable result.” Mubarak rhetoric seems to reflect those exact same beliefs which, in turn, have brought about the Revolution of the 25th of January.
The protesters have coined a simple but brilliant response: ‘Erhal’ (Leave).
Jihan El-Alaily, is an independent journalist who lives in Cairo.
Gordon Robison has more than 25 years of experience living in and writing about the Middle East.