Notes from the Egyptian Revolution

Author Ahdaf Soueif gives the Edward Said Memorial Lecture at Columbia University. Photo by Niharika Mandhana.

By Niharika Mandhana

The revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt is often referred to as a “youth movement,” but that movement would not have been possible without a highly organized effort that brought together not just the young but also Egypt’s older people and professionals.

That was the message that author and political commentator Ahdaf Soueif brought when she gave the Edward Said Memorial Lecture at Columbia University on March 8th. Best known for her book The Map of Love, Soueif, who was born in Egypt and educated in England, had spent several weeks immersed in the Egyptian revolution and had flown to New York to share her “notes.”

“It was a near-miraculous event,” she said, pausing as the audience of nearly 500, many of whom were seated in the aisles, broke into an applause. She had seen Egypt, “the beating heart of the Arab world,” simmering and boiling for years, never sure that change would come in her lifetime. “But it did happen, and tonight, I want to talk about the nature, the personality of the revolution.”

Winding back to the very beginning when she joined the crowds in Tahrir Square, Soueif recalled being struck by its inventiveness. From the rhythmic chants and the slogans painted on banners to the street art and stand-up comedy, “it was like a lid had been lifted.” In sharp contrast, she pointed out, the regime had initiated a police crackdown and unleashed “thugs” on the peaceful protestors, rehearsing what she called the “same, old, tired script.”

Speaking about the level of organization among the protestors, she described how, when attacked, they automatically fell into “battle formation.” Behind a shield of burnt-out cars, a group of look-outs were perched on vantage points shouting “right” and “left,” while young stone-pelters, whose view of the opposition was blocked, followed the directions. There was a second line of reservists, a group of nurses and doctors to tend to the wounded, a battalion of older Egyptians breaking up the pavement to supply stones to the youngsters, and a group of demonstrators who ensured that the drumming on the corrugated panels in Tahrir Square never stopped. “Every individual had a sense of being an important part of a communal effort,” said Soueif.

To her mind, one of the most remarkable characteristics of the protests was that they remained peaceful all along. “Thugs” and members of the security services who were captured by the protestors, for instance, were allowed to leave if they surrendered. The chant of “silmiya silmiya,” meaning “keep it peaceful” echoed in Tahrir Square.

“For years, the people of Egypt have been dragged off the streets under any pretext, beaten up, tortured, and left in the middle of a deserted road,” said Soueif. “But the people were not looking for revenge. They were looking for something bigger.”

It was this quest that had made the revolution inclusive, a far cry from what she described as the “horrible isolationist nightmare” that the regime had created by dividing the rich and poor, Muslims and Christians, secular Egyptians and Islamists. She recalled with exasperation how, even during the revolution, Mubarak’s forces tried to divide the people. In an effort to instigate the Islamists, they claimed that girls and boys were sleeping in the same tents in Tahrir Square; to rile the secularists, they attempted to whip up paranoia about radical elements taking over Egypt.

“But the people knew better,” said Soueif. “They was a level of positive engagement I had never seen before.”

Especially among the youth, she said, referring to them by the Arabic word “shebeb.” A large number of protestors, including her children, nieces and nephews, were under 35, she noted, calling those like herself the “honorary shebeb.” She described how the older generation, who once scoffed at the low jeans, peeking boxer shorts and technology addiction of the youth, were kissing their children’s hands, thanking them and wishing them luck.

The power of the youth, she added, brought with it modernity. With laptops plugged in, she saw how the youngsters of Egypt used cutting edge technology to show the world that the Arab people were ready for change.

“But the regime, of course, responded with a camel attack,” she quipped referring to the events of February 2 when Mubarak sent a brigade of camels and horses with whips and sticks to quell the protests. “The regime was like a Neanderthal, a jerky monster in a 40s movie with no flexibility.”

The audience, eager to engage with Soueif, asked questions about the future of the Egyptian government, the country’s relationship with Israel and the situation in Gaza. Soueif explained that years of authoritarianism had “mutilated” the Egyptian Constitution, not allowing for free and fair elections. At the crossroads of change, two options had presented themselves: to come up with a “quick fix” for the constitution so that elections could be held soon, or to stop all transition efforts till the constitution was rewritten. The former, she said, had been seen as more favorable. (On March 20th, two weeks after this lecture, a eferendum was held in which the Egyptian people approved a slew of constitutional changes, paving the way for speedy elections.)

With regard to regional policy, Soueif did not hesitate to say that Egypt would come into confrontation with Israel, primarily over Gaza, which she believes was “very much a part of why the revolt happened.”
Many in the audience were citizens of Egypt who found themselves wanting to return home to participate in the change. “The revolution is very inspiring,” said 28-year-old Malak Rafla in an interview. He had never wanted to return to Egypt, he said, having been arrested once on false charges of espionage, and having seen the people’s everyday battle with inflation, unemployment and corruption. “Now, I feel it’s time to go back,” he said.

At the conclusion of the evening, the audience was left with a powerful thought: In Egypt, democracy is not enough. “It is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition,” said Soueif. Many in the crowd, including 22-year-old Alaa Milbes, a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, concurred with vigorous nods.

“Egypt doesn’t have to stick to the Western notion of democracy,” said Milbes. “It needs to evolve its own new system that works best for it.”

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