by Yasmin Moll
There are tens of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir today. And there are millions of Egyptians who are not.
If we believe some international media outlets and domestic opposition papers, these groups make up two distinct camps: those for democracy and those for Mubarak. And if we believe the state press, the dividing line is between trouble-making youths allied with “foreign agents” and law-abiding citizens.
From the vantage point of those of us in Cairo, however, the picture is much more complex, fluid and messy. And simplifying it for the sake of a sexy story or a catchy headline risks marginalizing the many Egyptians from all classes and backgrounds whose political stances don’t fit neatly into one or the other of these categories.
Take my friend Mansour.* On January 28th he and I attended the protest downtown after Friday prayer. Marching peacefully along with hundreds of others up Kasr Al-Aini Street, we were met with a volley of tear gas fired by the central security police blocking access to Tahrir Square. Summoning up all the courage we could muster, we surged forward with the crowd chanting “the people want the demise of the regime” (al-shaab yureed isqaat al-nizaam). Eventually both the police tear-gas and our own fear were so intense that we took cover in a building along the street, hiding with dozens of others until the police had passed on so we could go home.
Mansour was outraged that the police would react in such an aggressive way to what was a peaceful protest. Like many Egyptians, he is fed up with the regime and wants change. But on Wednesday February 2nd, after Mubarak’s second address to the nation, Mohamed decided to join the “pro-Mubarak” protestors in Mohandiseen, a Cairo suburb. Except that he wasn’t pro-Mubarak.
As he explained to me, Mansour felt that the protestors had made significant political gains (the appointment of a vice-president, the change in cabinet, and Mubarak’s assurance that he won’t stand for re-election come September) and should stop demonstrating at this point. Many of his friends agreed and some of them were going door-to-door in their neighborhoods urging people not to attend protests in Tahrir or elsewhere.
I got a call late that night from another friend, Eman, who had been camping out for three days in Tahrir with protestors. Her brother, a doctor, was working in a make-shift field hospital in the square helping those injured in the protests. On January 25th, the first day of the uprising, her brother took 30 rubber bullets to the back when he shielded an elderly man from a police attack.
Eman was the last person I expected to say this, but she did anyway: Don’t go into Tahrir again. Now is the time to think, plan, and write, she said, not demonstrate. Let’s be happy with what the uprising has accomplished and build on that politically, she pleaded.
And then there is Moodi. He was against any sort of protesting from the outset. It’s not that he was a supporter of the regime. But like many Egyptians, he was pessimistic that ordinary people – people like him – could be a catalyst for change. The system is just too powerful; they will just kill us all, he said.
But late into the night on February 2nd, he watched on TV as his worst fears come true – protestors being killed and maimed in Tahrir. I got a Facebook message from him: “I can’t stay home after what I saw. I am going to Tahrir. Anyone who doesn’t is a coward.”
For my friend Mariam, however, what’s cowardly is not standing up for the dignity of the president and the country (the two are conflated here) in midst of this upheaval. A young, bubbly pharmacist, Mariam is known in her friend-circle as a fount of jokes at Mubarak’s expense. But for the past week, she has been mounting a furious Facebook campaign defending the president, earning her many “de-friending” notifications online and a few in real-life too.
I went to see her the other day and found her glued to the TV, the remote stubbornly set to the state channels. Do you think I am a bad person? She asks tearfully. No, I say, we are all Egyptian.
Far from being exceptional, the see-sawing reactions and stances of these young Egyptian men and women are the norm. They are at once defiant and afraid, hopeful and pessimistic, craving freedom but also desiring security. They want change but they are also wary of uncertainty. They refuse to fit neatly into a predetermined category: pro-Mubarak, pro-democracy, pro-stability, pro-revolution.
But the important thing is that they are talking and debating, disagreeing and agreeing. Online, off-line, on street corners, at work, in cafes, at home and in Tahrir. The barrier of silence, constructed out of thick blocks of fear, has been broken forever.
In Tahrir on February 5th I witnessed an extraordinary sight – ordinary Egyptians were lining up to express their grievances, relay an anecdote, recite poetry or sing songs to the crowd gathered around the make-shift stage. Housewives, farmers, Bedouins, intellectuals, religious scholars, laborers and activists, the line of speakers grew with each passing hour as did the crowd of listeners.
It was a collective catharsis as years of pent-up rage, frustration and sadness – but also hope and optimism – floated up in prose and verse over Tahrir Square. The genie of free self-expression has been let out of the bottle, never to be entrapped again. However the political situation in Egypt unfolds – and at this point, it is very much uncertain whether or not Mubarak will step down and what will happen if he does or doesn’t – the revolution has, in this sense at least, already succeeded.
Tomorrow I will go to Tahrir again. Some of my friends are there. Today, however, I will meet with my friends who aren’t.
*All names used are fictitious
Yasmin Moll is a Ph.D. student in socio-cultural anthropology at NYU and a documentary film-maker. She is in Cairo doing field-work research on Islamic televangelism. Yasmin is Egyptian, Swiss and American.