For Egyptians, Revolt Is a Reaction to an Oppression Overdose

Egyptians explain how their country got the nerve to face down a violent police force, and describe the moment when they knew there was no turning back.

CAIRO - "I knew I should document every moment of the revolution, but I wanted to experience it, not observe it. Now it is hard for me to remember what happened, as if it took place 10 years ago, not two or three weeks ago," says M., a social activist and senior social sciences lecturer at an Egyptian university. Everyone has a moment when he or she understood that there was no way back. Those moments come up time and again in conversations about what followed.

Tahrir Square
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M.'s moment, for example, came when her 5-year-old daughter picked up a chant - "The people wills the end of the regime" - and kept repeating it. On the first two or three days of the demonstrations, M. beseeched her daughter not to use the slogan outside their home. Members of the state security apparatus, police, ruling party activists - there was no knowing who might overhear and harm them.

"In the past decade there were many popular protests in various forms," M. notes, "but with the January 25 demonstration, I felt there was a clear quantitative change."

Or, in the words of Prof. Khaled Fahmy, head of the history department at the American University in Cairo: "Suddenly it is not 500 demonstrators surrounded by 5,000 policemen. Suddenly we outnumber them, and we know it is also happening in other places at the same time."

Still, M. preferred that her daughter confine her verbal subversion to the safety of home. But on January 28, the first Friday of the demonstrations, M. says, "I realized that the change was qualitative, not just quantitative." There was no longer any need to censor the little girl.

"There are moments that are unmistakable: the panic of the police, the courage of the demonstrators," Fahmy explains. "On that Friday the police retreated - true, only for half an hour, and then they returned with reinforcements - but it was a wonderful feeling. We pushed them back on Galaa Bridge. That is one of many ironies: galaa means evacuation, and in this case it refers to the expulsion of the British in 1954. And now it is we who are pushing back the Egyptian police. I was below, on the bridge; a journalist friend saw from a high building what I could not see: column after column of police retreating, while we, the citizens, pressed forward. 'I had tears in my eyes, I started to cry,' he told me."

The revolution did not spring out of the blue. Protests and political campaigns built up over the past decade. Many cite the Egyptian demonstrations against the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq as a watershed event. "We were 20,000 and it looked like a huge number to us," S., 31, a human rights activist, recalls with a smile. "That was also the first time that people denounced Hosni Mubarak."

The pro-democracy movement Kefaya (Enough ) sprang out of these demonstrations, S. relates. While its strength has diminished since its founding, over time other groups of young people appeared. The presidential elections in 2005 and the parliamentary elections in 2010, both of which were undemocratic and rife with deception and crooked practices, brought activists into the streets. The elections last year left S. feeling frustrated and despairing. However, younger people drew encouragement because the system had been exposed in all its ugliness.

In 2006, there were mass demonstrations in solidarity with Lebanon during the Israeli assault. And two years later, in solidarity with Gaza. That was direct criticism of Mubarak's foreign policy.

D., an artist of 49, says she is one of the people "who always demonstrated over the past 30 years, but felt constant frustration." The demonstrations "were conducted like a ritual: the chosen place, the police who encircled it, a handful of demonstrators marching toward the police and being arrested. There was no attempt to change the style, no imagination."

The first time she noticed a change was in 2003, when the demonstrators managed to confuse the police. They announced they were meeting at Al-Azhar Mosque, but set out simultaneously from several mosques. The creativity that began to develop in the past decade ripened into the demonstrations at Tahrir Square.

Growing boldness

The last landmark event came on June 6, 2010. A young man named Khaled Said was sitting in an Alexandria Internet cafe. Two police officers entered and demanded money from him. He said he had none. They beat him to death.

"Similar murders had occurred before," D. explains. "It's not clear why this particular case stirred such anger. It wasn't the beating itself, but the fact that the police could show up and assault you, claim you were guilty of something and not be punished themselves. A Facebook group was created called 'We are all Khaled Said.' Now there are 800,000 members. Afterward, people were urged to go to the banks of the Nile and the seashore, in his memory. The instruction was to wear black and remain silent. It was not to be a demonstration and therefore would not be dispersed. We were not to stand in one place but to spread out to gain visibility."

People showed up, among them D. and her friends. There weren't many of them, but they generated a presence. Afterward, similar protests were held.

The Tahrir Revolution is said to have been fomented by the middle class and the white-collar workers. But many of the activists attribute their experience and boldness in part to workers' strikes, which became widespread in 1998.

"The project of neo-liberal economic restructuring [in Egypt] has been under way since 1991. Economic growth has been impressive ... The upper-middle class and the elites have prospered. But there has been very little trickle down," historian Joel Beinin from Stanford University wrote in the January 31 issue of Foreign Policy. "According to the World Bank, more than 40 percent of all Egyptians live at or near the poverty line. The price of food has skyrocketed. Consequently, the wages of most blue- and white-collar workers are insufficient to sustain a family."

The cuts in social services destroyed the social safety net created by the populist-authoritarian Nasserist regime. "What is left is an authoritarian kleptocracy," Beinin wrote.

'Reactionary assumption'

The wave of strikes peaked in 2004, following the installation of the "government of businessmen" that July. "Over 2 million workers participated in more than 3,000 collective actions in this period," according to Beinin.

The government acceded to a substantial portion of the demands, hoping in this way to prevent the disparate economic issues from metamorphosing into a political struggle.

One result of these developments was the formation of two independent trade unions, of the real estate tax authority workers in 2008, and of the health technicians in December 2010. The government was also forced to quadruple the monthly minimum wage, to 400 Egyptian pounds.

On January 30, in the midst of the revolution in Tahrir Square, the two independent unions and representatives of about a dozen industrial cities declared their intention to establish a general labor federation, separate from the existing government federation. Under Egyptian law the establishment of an independent institution based on a popular movement (rather than on a government directive ) is illegal, Beinin noted.

"Egyptian intellectuals are prone to a reactionary assumption," Prof. Fahmy notes. "They reiterate the comment of the geographer Gamal Hamdan to the effect that Egyptians are docile. Even leftists asked why Egyptians do not revolt. I respond by saying that there have been many uprisings in the past 200 years, but the history books do not mention them, ostensibly because they failed, but really because they targeted local tyrants, not foreign oppressors."

Indeed, in 1821 there was a large-scale revolt in Upper Egypt against compulsory conscription, which was introduced by the ruler at the time, Muhammad Ali, and against taxation and the local government. Some 20,000 people took part in the revolt, at a time when Egypt's population numbered 2.5 million. Four-thousand people were killed in the suppression of the revolt.

Fahmy cites a long list of similar uprisings during the 19th century. He has researched the Egyptian Army during that era, and is currently studying the history of torture in his country. This is his way to show that the state not only controls its citizens, but also invades their bodies. In police archives he found an astonishing trove of testimonies by families who demanded that the death of their loved ones be investigated and the torturers punished.

"Rural families, illiterate and poor, insisted on autopsies being performed in order to prove that the death was not from natural causes, even though autopsies are contrary to religious and traditional customs," he says.

In 1857, an estate owner who was close to the ruling family sentenced his black slave to 1,500 lashes for going to Cairo without permission. His fellow slaves filed a complaint against their owner, who was expelled from the country as punishment. In 2006, 150 years later, an 8-year-old boy from a small village in the Delta took a box of matches from a small store. Arrested for theft, he was beaten unconscious at a police station and dumped on a Cairo street. By sheer luck, a driver from his village found him and brought him to his mother. The doctors at the hospital said they could not save him, but they videotaped his last hours. The boy's mother, an illiterate peasant, demanded that her son's body be exhumed for an autopsy. She sent repeated petitions to the various authorities - the last one to President Mubarak himself. No one paid attention.

"In the 19th century such requests were acceded to, there was a judicial system that was responsive," Fahmy says angrily. "This is Mubarak's legacy: What he managed to do was to undermine the institutions of the state - including the judicial system - and morality."

Fahmy says this is why the case of Khaled Said is so central to understanding the uprising. The state claimed Said died from drugs. The family demanded an autopsy. "It is not only the fact that he was beaten to death, it is a question of who owns the body," Fahmy says. "The state claims ownership but the people say 'It is our body.'" Hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians identified with his case, because they felt it represented their reality.

The two policemen suspected of murdering Said were arrested, but they escaped from jail during the demonstrations. Years of police violence engendered powerful hatred for that security force. So the restraint shown by most of the demonstrators toward the police in recent weeks is doubly interesting. Fahmy witnessed two instances in which policemen who happened to cross a demonstration were almost lynched. In both cases, it was enough for someone to say "silmiye" (meaning, not by violence, by peaceful means ) for everyone to go back to "default position," as Fahmy puts it.

"It's as though there was a collective decision in the square, without orders from above, for us to behave in the opposite way from how the regime behaved with us," D. says.