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EMU Grad Gives First-Hand Account from Tahrir Square

Jihan Al-Alaily in Tahrir Square

EMU grad Jihan Al-Alaily was in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the recent revolution. She received her MA in conflict transformation from EMU in 2002 where she studied as a Fulbright Scholar. She agreed to let EMU post these personal reflections on what she witnessed during recent weeks in Egypt.

Dear Friends,

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.

Jihan El-Alaily
12 February, 2011

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