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This is the beginning

27 Jan 2011

Abdalla Hassan writes:

Protestors shouted slogans in call and response fashion: Bread, freedom, human dignity! "Down with Mubarak!" Revolution in Tunisia. Revolution in Egyptian. Revolution in all the streets of Egypt. Ben Ali, tell Mubarak, 'An airplane is waiting for you!'" Hosni Mubarak is leaving, leaving. Step down and be a man!" I joined the protest in the Cairo district of Dokki just before 4pm, where a group of over a hundred protesters, waving Egyptian flags, called for an end to Hosni Mubarak’s rule. The numbers grew into the hundreds as the protesters marched. In past demonstrations, protestors were penned in by a wall of state security in riot gear. But on this day the numbers were just too many. One woman's sentiment summed up what these protests were all about: "We want to live as human beings," she told me. "Look at the price of a kilo of meat," a young man said as he pointed to a butcher shop as we were marching. "Look how much a kilo of tomatoes is for." "I want the whole government to leave. That's all I want. I want democracy. I want a country I could be proud of," expressed a young woman. I had my video camera with me, which I knew served as both a measure of protection as well as making me a potential mark for security forces that may want to smash my equipment or confiscate my tape. Among the crowd of protestors, I felt a remarkable sense of solidarity. Protestors advised me to stay in the center of the crowd because that is where I would be safest with my camera. On protestor offered to carry me on his shoulders so that I could get a better shot. Although I was not part of a television crew, they wanted someone there to record in sound and moving image their expressions of popular discontent—we won't take this anymore, the corruption, political stagnation, spiraling prices, and an octogenarian president who clings to power. January 25 was dubbed the "Freedom Revolution," inspired by the popular uprising of Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution," which emboldened activists and reformers in Egypt as 2011 turns out to be a watershed year for Arab states. After Tunisia, pundits seemed to be guessing, Egypt is next. "Egypt, in particular, seems to bear at least a passing resemblance to Tunisia—a heavy-handed security state with diminishing popular support and growing demands from an educated, frustrated population," opined Anthony Shadid in the New York Times on the day that the Tunisian president fled the country. Egypt's protesters were notified not to turn these events into a confrontation with state security. The protestors numbered in the tens of thousands in governorates across Egypt. And they could have easily grown larger. The protest originating in Dokki was not allowed join with the protest in downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square. A wall of state security blocked our path. But when cadres of state security in green trucks passed us by on Tahrir Street, they gave us a thumbs up, which was surprising to see. Earning a menial salary, young men like them make the bulk of the more than million-man-strong security apparatuses. They are there to follow the orders of the officers with eagles and stars decorating their lapels. Yet those cadres have more in common with the masses of Egyptians than with a regime that aims at keeping things the way they are. And it’s for this reason that protesters shouted: "O security, protect us. Tomorrow they will step on both you and us." According to media reports, by midnight 13,000 to 20,000 protestors were occupying downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square; among them are a number of notable public figures. The last time Tahrir Square was occupied was at the start of the 2003 Iraq War. If security forces decide to move in and clear the square, the situation is bound to escalate. On January 25, Egyptians crossed the fear barrier, knowing they will not be alone. Change has come too slowly or not at all. Constitutional amendments enacted in 2007 actually made it easier for the government to rig elections by shedding judicial oversight, as the last parliamentary elections in late 2010 made abundantly clear, with the ruling party handily winning an overwhelming majority. Deep and substantive reforms have to come now if the regime is to maintain power. Learning from the events in Tunisia, people know they have power when they rise up collectively—even against oppressive and autocratic regimes. A silent protest was organized on January 7, 2011—Coptic Christmas—against the terror bombing outside a church in Alexandria on New Year's Eve. Dressed in black, I and a group of protestors amassed on Kasr al-Nil Bridge, holding up signs, most of them simply read, "Muslim + Christian = Egyptian." State security had only so much tolerance for us. "We played around, we fooled around, now go home!" shouted a state security officer. For him, this simple act of national solidarity was merely child's play. It was so demoralizing to know that nothing will change really. The political system will remain monopolized by an elite few who will use to their benefit. They have an immense and ruthless security apparatus to maintain the status quo, while more than half the population drowns in poverty. It was hard to have much hope. Then Tunisia happened. One desperate act by a young man would become the event that set off a month-long uprising that toppled the country's 23-year reigning president, whose promises for comprehensive reforms came too late. "I heard you. I heard you all, the unemployed, the needy, the politician, and those who demand greater freedoms," a tense and shaken Ben Ali intoned in a final televised address on January 13, one day before he fled the country. He vowed reductions in the price of basic commodities, the formation of an independent commission to investigate corruption, support for democracy and pluralism, complete freedom of the press, an end to closure of Internet sites, and called for civil rule and national dialogue. Stating that he will not remain president for life, Ben Ali announced that he would not run in the 2014 elections. In Egypt, the deadly beating by the police of Khaled Said in June 2010 would become that pivot for change. It was on Facebook page called "We Are All Khaled Said" that the silent protest of January 7 and the "Freedom Revolution" of January 25 were publicized. Hosni Mubarak is the only president that every Egyptian under thirty years of age—two-thirds of Egypt’s population—has ever known. Social networks and a renewed sense of activism are galvanizing a force for change that on January 25 reached critical mass. The status quo and business as usual—practices that have neglected too much of Egypt’s population—are simply unsustainable. News of what is happening in Egypt is quickly being covered by the local and international media. Ill-fated attempts to block Twitter have backfired. These events are beyond the regime’s power to suppress or control. And they will continue. Egypt and Egyptians are changing. It’s been a long while in the making, but we are witnessing history unfolding and hopefully the beginning of a new, more promising era. We’ll see what happens on day 2. Abdalla Hassan was a Journalist Fellow in 2010, sponsored by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.