Egypt: Free at last, the inside look
- Hassan Elghayesh
- 16 Feb 2011 (South Africa)
“Mubarak Resigns.” Can the feeling be described? I will try. It is as if for 10 seconds, you totally forget about who you are, what you do or where you are – it's just extreme happiness. Then it all comes back to you slowly. I am HASSAN ELGHAYESH, an Egyptian who was part of a revolution that brought down a dictator.
It's Thursday 10 February, and we are waiting for what we think will be the last speech by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, his resignation. We become tenser, as his speech was scheduled for 18:00, but we have to wait for hours. By being late, Mubarak continues to show his disrespect for the Egyptian people. He is an expert at it and has been doing it for 30 years. At last he is on. The speech is delivered in a paternal tone, as would a father confronting his ungrateful children. I am not listening closely to what he has to say, I am just waiting for one statement: “I RESIGN.” He never says it, instead he passes his responsibilities to the newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, but stays on.
This is by far Mubarak's weakest speech. You can tell that it has been poorly written; it was not filmed as one shot, but instead a series of shots that were edited together and it was just too late. I believe he broke down under stress and sadness during his speech and that they had to film it in many takes and then fix the whole thing together in a montage. This is also probably why the broadcasting of the speech was delayed a few hours.
If this speech had been 12 days earlier, on 28 January, the protesters might have settled down and accepted everything Mubarak said. But his stubbornness was met with even stronger determination by the protesters. I was furious at the speech. After 17 days of solidarity and the deaths of more than 300, we would accept nothing less than the resignation of Mubarak.
Thursday's speech was the last chance to deter people from joining the protests the next day. Over the last two weeks, Friday and Tuesday had witnessed huge protests, with numbers exceeding the 1 million mark. Mubarak's last chance to calm people down didn't have the desired effect.
I was in Hurghada, 450km south of Cairo. I went to the bus station, bought myself a ticket and was on the first bus to Cairo to join protesters in Tahrir Square, determined to stay there until he left. I was convinced that one more week of protests would be sufficient for him to step down. The unions were already in, institutions all over the nation were showing solidarity and employees in both the private and public sectors threatened to go on strike. The questions that were in my mind were: Will Mubarak step down before we slip into total chaos? Will the army take Mubarak's side and confront the protesters? I thought at the time that Mubarak's lust for power had no limits and I expected very pessimistic scenarios if he did not step down any time soon.
It's Friday 11 February, the Friday of the martyrs, and we are heading to downtown Cairo on the metro. It is filled with people heading to Tahrir, from the ages of 18 to 30. We arrive at Tahrir where we’re searched by three civil committees. Graffiti artists immortalise the revolution on the walls of 19th century buildings in downtown Cairo; burnt police cars are changed to artefacts as people write their names and demands in colourful calligraphy on them.
At last we are at the square, and once you are there you can't really move. People move around the square in a manner reminiscent of Mecca – Tahrir Square is a Mecca for those seeking freedom. Many stages fill the perimeter of the square. I can't really see or hear those on the stages, I can only hear cheers of approval to what they have to say. Huge posters of the martyrs dangle down from balconies of buildings around the square; every traffic light in the square has a poster attached to it. Tents are mainly in the middle of the square – every tent has a sign indicating where the occupants are from, and they are from all over Egypt.
Tahrir Square becomes a microcosm of Egypt with all its crowdedness, noise, overflowing human emotion and, most importantly, its hate for Mubarak. Protesters from Menoufeya, Mubarak's birthplace, hold signs that read “Menoufians apologise”. The Army units are alert and are preventing the protesters from coming anywhere near their tanks. Still I see no worries on the faces of protesters, who firmly believe the army is on their side.
In the meantime, another protest is taking place in front of the presidential palace – tens of thousands show up. It is the biggest in Cairo after the protests at Tahrir. Still, nobody is waiting for a statement by the president. He gave a statement the day before. I am back home at around 17:00. The communication blackout is still in force in Tahrir Square area and I am in dire need of making some phone calls.
I switch on the TV, Omar Suleiman is scheduled to make a statement. I say to myself “Oh man... not this guy again.” I had watched his interview with ABC and it was absolutely horrific. He said things such as: “Those protesters are being pushed by the Islamic current”, “Egyptians don't have the culture of democracy” and “I would advise those protesting to get back to their jobs if they want what's better for Egypt.” He later said in Egyptian national newspapers that his statements had been misunderstood and taken out of context. We just laughed. We didn't expect much from Suleiman – it's Mubarak who chose him – but we expected some decency at least.
I decide to watch the statement by Suleiman at home and head to Tahrir afterwards. The family gathers around the TV in anticipation. Suleiman is on. “Mubarak Resigns.” Can the feeling be described?
For 10 seconds, you totally forget about who you are, what you do or where you are – it's pure euphoria. Then it all comes back to you slowly. I am Hassan, an Egyptian who was part of a revolution that brought down a dictator. We fought to get to Tahrir, as we saw Egyptians pay with their lives in tribute to freedom. We were peaceful and we stood for something we believe is right. We are the people and our will must prevail; how couldn’t we realise that from the beginning?
My phone doesn’t stop ringing for 30 minutes and I don’t stop calling all those who had been at Tahrir with me for another hour. We made it, congratulations, we made it. Most of Egypt is in the street celebrating. I can't remember the number of smiles and hugs exchanged. I do remember though how the older generation looked at us with absolute admiration and gratitude. We did something of which they never dreamed. The flame of youthful demonstrations hasn't been ignited in Egypt since the early seventies. And then all of a sudden, we hit so strongly that we shake the foundation of this regime. I will forever remember the first day, the first morning I wake up to the smell of freshly baked freedom, the first shower that rinses away all the corruption and stench of the former regime.
Former ministers, former members of parliament and those close to the regime, start falling one by one. They are denied permission to travel abroad and their bank accounts are frozen.
The military council is now in control. People in Egypt generally trust the military. They like to say it’s the only institution in this country not being invaded by corruption. They have stated on many occasions they are in power to protect the revolution's requests and to make sure they are met. Everything they’ve done so far proves them true to their words. The parliament is dissolved; the constitution is in the process of being changed. They give exact dates for handing power to a civilian president. The government is the same one Mubarak brought to power in his last days, headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq.
We are not sure if they are going to form a new transitional government or not. In his last speech Shafiq stated that restoring order and security was his priority, which isn't promising at all. Shafiq, I don't want your security. I want my freedom.
Will things get better, or will they get worse? I am not sure. I sometimes even have my doubts about the revolution. What if things go wrong again? But I always remind myself: We stood against tyranny and corruption and that cannot be wrong. We shall rise again if we see the slightest tendency by those in power to kill our dream of change.
I have my doubts about the six months of military rule in Egypt. I have my doubts about conducting fair presidential elections in six months’ time. We shouldn’t think it is over yet. The fight for democracy is never-ending. We have all become keepers of democracy and freedom. I am honoured to be given such responsibilities and am willing to stay true to what we stood up for. There is no going back. DM
Hassan Elghayesh is a 24-year-old Egyptian. For a long time, he thought his only chance of a brighter future would not be in his own country, which he loves dearly. But now, the tables have turned: his faith in people's power has been restored and he feels empowered. For the first time, there is a chance of him contributing to a better Egypt. He enjoys cinema, reading, design and questioning the establishment. He is definitely happy to have been part of a revolution.
- Hassan's earlier story, Chronicles of a revolution: A protester's first-hand account at The Daily Maverick.
Main photo: Egyptian people celebrate near Tahrir square in Cairo February 11, 2011. Many simply sobbed for joy. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis.
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