On this eve, before the first anniversary of the first day of the January 25 revolution, I want to post the first chapter of the manuscript I had been working on, of the book that was to be called An Egyptian Spring and a Wisconsin Winter. That title may need to change somewhat, given the recall situation in Wisconsin and the odd mix of the military executive with an Islamist legislature that Egypt has right now. That’s certainly not to say that the potential in either cases is limited by what’s happening right now.
In any case, so much was running through my mind on January 24, 2011 and the weeks thereafter, all of which culminated in my own journey to the revolution. I wanted to share a part of it.
Chapter 1 – Winter
I was six in 1991 and remember very little about the trip aside from what photo albums and dusty souvenirs could aid in excavating from my memory. Heavy metal replicas of the pyramids, made of iron but colored a cheap, pale bronze and inked to create divisions between the bricks. Our family room coffee table and the polished alabaster eggs. Photos of my sisters adorned with Mickey Mouse t-shirts, scüncis and feathered bangs. I do remember a few things without those mental signposts stored in my family’s house in Ohio. The crystal water from a beach city close to Alexandria. In the distance, the dreamlike blue stopped abruptly and gave way to endless ocean. Sand in my pizza. A hole in the wall of a natural stone formation they called “Cleopatra’s Bath” filled with water every time a wave crashed in from the Mediterranean. Some distant relative suggested that one of my sisters sit near the hole, which obviously soaked her over-sized tee of her latest hair-band crush. I most likely watched on petrified, given the tubes in my ears and my own difficulty handling waterlogged situations.
I remember running around with a cousin (one of what seemed like several hundred) who was a few years my senior. yelling “Good Morning America!” off an Alexandrian balcony around twilight and cracking walnuts in the stone stairwell of my uncle’s flat. I also remember dropping a clot of dried dirt and stone from the roof, narrowly missing a man on a bicycle who was waiting on the sidewalk below. He turned around to see what had fallen, and in retrospect I wonder if that man had any idea how close he had been to a major head injury.
My memories of 2008 were much more vivid. Most of it was lived like a tourist, visiting the pyramids, Luxor, and Sharm al-Sheikh. Although pleasant, it must have been horribly out of touch. The barest moment was when I sat alone in Luxor and a street child, a young boy with scratches on his face, begged me for money. I gave him 10 Egyptian pounds, about $2, and he kissed my cheek. Word caught on and soon I was surrounded by children and women, begging and asking for anything. I didn’t know how to deal with the crushing poverty and want, so I hid in a fast food restaurant. There were much happier and meaningful moments, like those spent with my family in Alexandria, meeting a small fraction of what still seems like thousands of relatives and trying my hand at speaking Arabic. One of my male cousins and I went out for pizza and we almost had a full conversation in the language. He would later say over and over again “Leave him with us for a month and he’ll have it perfected!”
One day, my mother and her sister left for the afternoon to visit some of the Coptic monasteries around the outskirts of Alexandria. I sat around my uncle’s flat with him and his grand kids, the children of my cousin. Egyptians have an odd obsession with professional wrestling. I have memories of my grandmother, who lived with us in the US and did not speak a word of English, watching Wrestlemania. These kids were no different. One showed me a movie he had downloaded, starring some wrestler, in some role in which he was tasked with killing Arabs. The irony seemed lost on this cousin, once-removed.
Less ironic company was found in my uncle Samir, husband to my father’s sister. Gray and bald, with a characteristically Egyptian mustache and a paltry assortment of teeth remaining, he was representative of the average man from Upper Egypt, the saeed, the Egyptian equivalent of the rural backwoods archetype and, similarly, the butt of many jokes. We went through the Arabic alphabet in one of my many vain attempts to learn the written language before actually enrolling in a class. Afterward, he cursed the language under his breath, calling it as the language of the oppressor. I thought it incredible that 1600 years after the Arab conquest, one could still harbor hatred towards the language of the conqueror. But this is a staple of Coptic discourse on the matter.
We left Alexandria after only two days, under darkness of night, to catch a very late flight back through Amsterdam and on to the States. Goodbyes were hurried, promises to return at some undetermined date were made, and we rushed through the narrow alley where my relatives live to the microbus that would start us on our journey back to America. The alley was decorated for a wedding celebration – ornate hanging tapestries and multicolored Ramadan lights. Lighthearted women danced and undulated their tongues in joy.
* * *
Egypt has stayed on my mind since that trip, becoming the focus of my academic research. Around the time of January 25, 2011, religious sectarianism was on my mind as well, in particular because of the attacks on the Qadeseen (Two Saints) Church in Alexandria on New Years’ Eve. Minutes after midnight in Egypt, a bomb went off in front of the church. I was in Strongsville, a suburb of Cleveland, with my family, home for the winter break. We had just returned from eating at a subpar Italian restaurant where I had eaten some dish with sea scallops and creamy risotto. Shopping must have occurred at some point because plastic grocery bags were strewn on the floor and lay against the kitchen counter. I checked Twitter when I got in and saw the reports about the bombing, people tagging it with the hashtag #alexplosion, a macabre but witty portmanteau. I told my family and got on Facebook and Skype to try to get in contact with my cousin and her family in Alexandria. Luckily we caught her online. The conversation with her family was front-loaded with formalities but eventually the topic was broached. Those relatives sounded well, although thoroughly shaken and worried about their own friends who had gone to that church.
Later my family played Monopoly while drinking cheap wine, something that’s become somewhat of a family tradition as we counted down towards midnight.
The break ended (or rather the presence of being with family had worn my nerves thin) and I returned to Madison. Before I left, my mother was constantly in my ear about the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, and the continual persecution of Christians. Although I was annoyed by her constant harping, I knew her worrying contained more than a few kernels of truth. The consistent sectarian tensions were (and still are) often ignored, despite the fact that events like this flare up from time to time. In Shoubra, a heavily Christian and working-class neighborhood of Cairo, a ten thousand strong funeral procession carried the 25 dead from the attack, with people yelling “with our blood, we will avenge the Cross.” Protests in the area, attended by Muslims and Copts, demanded more protection for churches from the government. They were met with overwhelming numbers of Central Security Forces (CSF, or ‘amn markazy), riot police clad in black padding and helmets. They easily overwhelmed the protesters by cordoning them in the middle of the streets. The protests died down, but the same cannot be said of the rage.
I didn’t see the viral video posted by Asmaa Mahfouz, the young female activist pushing for other youth to take the streets on January 25 until afterwards, but I did see the video of Khaled Said’s mother. Khaled Said was a 28-year-old man who was beaten to death by police in June 2010. The two officers, who beat him in a cyber café, claimed that he had swallowed a bag of drugs and choked on them. But pictures of his disfigured corpse appeared on the Internet days later – broken teeth and skin, green from decay, ripped from his mouth to his chin. His case had become a rallying point against police brutality. On the eve of the revolution, his mother called for people to take to the streets. This older woman, dressed in all black and veiling her hair, like a universal matriarch, encouraged her audience not to be afraid. She said, what did they have to lose? They should go get their rights. The calls for protests filled social media channels. A Facebook group named “We Are All Khaled Said” called for people to go out and demand the end of police brutality, corruption, torture, and repression.
Khaled Said was to Egypt what Mohammed Bouzazi was to Tunisia. Bouzazi, the fruit vendor who set himself on fire to protest the government revoking his vendor license, set in motion the protests in Sidi Bouzid and consequently the rest of Tunisia. The Arab social media sphere was similarly alight with the developments there, following the protests, the confrontations between people and police, and finally the ouster of the dictator Ben Ali. What came out of Tunisia seemed to be a sense of solidarity and of fascination with the fact that group of people could genuinely and organically set into motion the developments that would topple a dictator.
After seeing the calls for the January 25 protest, I thought that it would be like many of the other protests that emanate from the Internet: the usual suspects would gather on the streets, yelling at the ‘amn markazy but eventually being overwhelmed by them. I tracked the #jan25 hashtag on Twitter by hand, seeing how many people were using it. Because of my research, I had previously written a tool to collect all tweets that contained a particular word or hashtag. There seemed to be a terribly small number of people using it, though, so I didn’t bother with using the tracking tool until January 24, 9 PM, Central Daylight Savings Time, 4 AM Egyptian Time. It was no skin off my nose to do so.
It was a Monday night. As tends to happen in Madison, the weather was frigid and there was a threat of heavy snowfall. I stayed up till some ungodly hour, trying to assess when the protests would begin in Cairo. I didn’t know where and when they would begin, although there was some chatter about 10 AM or noon. I remained glued to my computer, in the corner of my living room, till about 3 AM. Nothing in particular was happening, so I lay on my lumpy futon for four hours of sleep, in front of my apartment’s gas stove, Elvis the Wonder Cat curling up next to my legs.
I awoke dry-mouthed and exhausted, which is what usually happens when I sleep on that futon. I expected the same citizen journalism that accompanies poorly attended protests: choppy videos taken with mobile phones, play-by-play reports by bloggers of protests happening in front of the parliament buildings, protesters being overwhelmed by police and tweeting “fucking pigs!” and “a7a”, the regional equivalent of “what the fuck!” Instead, the world had turned onto its head. CSF and police lines could not hold the people throwing rocks as they charged, line after line, throwing tear gas canisters back to their sources. They couldn’t use the riot shields to repel people coming out in droves, or the courage of those going alone. The videos I was glued to throughout the day astounded me, one after another. The man who clapped three times, then pushed with all his might against a line of CSF troops armed with riot shields. The people running through the streets, the knocking over of barricades. The famous video of the single man, in a Tiananmen-style moment, who stood up to a water cannon truck while others filmed from a roof and yelled gada’a! (Bravo!). The battles for the bridges, like the one with protesters pushing forward to take over the 6 October bridge, knocking tear gas canisters into the Nile and rolling a large barrel as a protective cover for their progress. On the bus to campus, I kept checking my phone for tweets. Before my early morning Arabic class, I watched with intent the coverage on Al-Jazeera. Sitting in my office, one cubicle in the bullpen reserved for teaching assistants, I did little but watch tweets, YouTube, and Al-Jazeera, from a country half a world away while I sat indoors, wrapped in thick wool with a poorly calibrated heating system blowing on my back and leaving me sweaty. I didn’t expect this at all. I came to find out later, nor did the revolutionaries.
And it continued. Every new day brought new developments. First it was those people who had started camping in Tahrir Square the night of the 25th. I thought to myself that they didn’t have a chance of staying there without some force attempting to drive them out. And they were, very late and with tear gas. But they came back with renewed vigor and determination. Then the Internet went out, but it was no matter by then, since all of the world was watching. Even without people tweeting from within Egypt, the words “Egypt”, “Tahrir” and “Mubarak” were some of the top trending items on Twitter. The next turning point was that Friday, the so-called Day of Rage. The call was made to gather in Tahrir after prayers, and hundreds of thousands came out. This was a thing that was qualitatively different from anything that most Egyptians had ever seen.
February 2, class had been canceled because of a blizzard, which was great because I hadn’t gotten any decent sleep since the uprising had began. If I could have, I would have set my clocks – computer and internal – to GMT +0200 and slept on an Egyptian schedule. I tried at one point to use two computers to keep track of all the new information, an attempt that failed badly given that thousands of tweets would scroll by every minute. My body was in Wisconsin but my mind was in Egypt. I tried teaching a class about culture to my introduction to sociology class by showing videos of January 25, which was admittedly not my best teaching moment. I didn’t make much progress in my coursework. Most of the examples I wrote for Arabic class consisted of snarky comments about the uprisings of the Arab Spring.
Somewhere in the haze that came from not sleeping, too many days on the futon directly in front of the gas stove, and the blizzard conditions outside yellowed by incandescent street lights, there arose some remote possibility of going to Egypt. I saw others saying that they were going back, ex-pats and those working overseas. They went for numerous reasons: checking in on their families and joining the popular committees that had formed to defend neighborhoods in the absence of police and with the release of criminals from prison. One of the more amusing tales that came from the lack of security was the surprise of how many Egyptians owned swords, exemplified by a widely-circulated picture of an middle-aged man dressed like a ninja, carrying throwing stars and a mock samurai sword. In one of the more sober aspects, one tweeter, @Elazul, spent his time at the height of the breakdown of security calling around to people he knew in the different neighborhoods of Cairo, reporting the safety of those areas and sometimes the unsettling accounts of looting and violence.
And of course there were those who came to join the revolution. One activist, Alaa Abd El Fattah, stuck out in my head. Alaa was living in South Africa and comes from an activist family – he and his sister are bloggers, and his father is a founder of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, an NGO that focuses on human rights. On the first of February, he put out a call, to which I responded:
to all egyptians in the diaspora (and those egyptians at heart), if you can make it head to egypt ASAP, now is the time #Jan25
@alaa Pretty sure my parents would kill me before I got there.
@alexhanna u can revolt against mubarak but not agains ur parents?
@alaa Umi [my mother] is probably better with shib shib than Mubarak. [shib shib meaning sandals, a favorite weapon of angry Egyptian parents]
@alexhanna we should have her as minister of defence then 🙂
It made sense for Alaa to go, I thought. He had much more invested in the country. He had more immediate family there, had an activist history, and would actually live there if it weren’t for his job. But on many levels, I didn’t really have a dog in this fight, at least one that would impact me directly. Sure, I was concerned about my family in Alexandria. The little bit of contact I did have with one of my cousins was concerning, to say the least. She reported a lot of movement by what she said were Muslim Brothers. But if I were there, I couldn’t do much for them. It might be the last thing they would need, in the midst of the heightened government propaganda campaign, which “exposed” the American-Zionist ploy to destroy the country and infiltrate it with spies.
My strongest case for going was the research aspect. I study social movements and social media in Egypt and was doing work on the 6 April Youth Movement prior to the revolution. 6 April itself was formed out of a Facebook group and is now a very visible presence in Egyptian politics. Their support and promotion of the January 25 action, along with that of the Khaled Said group, lends strong credence to the hypothesis that social media played a pivotal role in the revolution. Of course, this hypothesis had been played and overplayed in Western media. Going to Cairo would mean assessing it for myself.
But there was something much more visceral about my going, much I do enjoy my research. It was something of a hope, for the first time after years of stagnation, of pessimism. When in Ohio, I had remarked to my sister and mother that Egypt would change. They scoffed “Yeah right”, and although I didn’t want to, I had no choice but to agree. Going there had something to do with partaking in a new hope of what Egypt could become, of at least imagining something else and something better.
At the risk of sounding too nationalistic, I must say that I do feel a connection to Egypt, that I do belong to it on some level. Despite not living there for any substantial stretch of my life, aside from a research trip in the summer of 2011, it is and has remained a salient part of my own cultural identity. It’s the broken Egyptian Arabic that I speak with my parents, the falafel I make for my friends with my mom’s recipe and the ful (fava beans) I make for breakfast on the weekends, the Abdel Halim and the Um Kulthum I listen to while smoking sheesha on my porch. Cheering for the Egyptian national team in any sport. The galabeyya I wear around the house on laundry days or when the air is cool enough that it doesn’t make me swelter. The bald spot I got when I was 19 and the curly beard I can’t wear too long without getting the stink-eye in the rural Midwest. I can’t, in good faith, claim to be “as Egyptian” as someone born and raised there, but I do a reasonable Egyptian-American impression.