I was in Aswan when the demonstrations took a revolutionary turn in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Luckily I was done with my sightseeing by then, otherwise it would had been a wasted stay as I was not allowed out of the hotel, unless it was to go to the airport. What was supposed to be a 1 day demonstration endorsed by the government, turned into a national protest movement forcing President Mubarak to step down 17 days later, with the Supreme Court suspending the Constitution.
I have never really experienced a crisis situation before, so it was an interesting experience. During the weekend I was in Aswan, there was no internet reception and sms texts showed pending delivery. The day we started our sightseeing we were told that for security reasons we had to register ourselves, and the detail of the taxi we were renting at the local tourist department office. As Abu Simbel is only open in the early morning we had to go the following morning and that we would be going with a convoy of other tourist buses for safety reasons.
Aswan is a very interesting place, it is cleaner, much more relaxed and a lot less dustier than Cairo. Our taxi driver was an interesting character. A short sturdy sporty built Nubian Sudanese, living and working in Egypt owning his own taxi and guest house business. He used to sail the felucca. Now he goes water skiing and wind surfing in Sharm al Sheikh and Hurgada to keep fit. He is married to a German alternative health practitioner. When asked about Mubarak, he was all positive, “Egypt all good, Mubarak all good, everything good, everything muiyya muiyya” with his thumbs up. If you want to marry German, French woman all good, no restriction. From early morning we went to the main sites in Aswan. Edfu, Kom Ombo, and we just managed to sail to an island where the Philae temple is and catch the light and sound show.
On our way back from the light and sound show in Philae Temple towards Aswan Dam there was a road blockage of burning tyres. Being a skilled driver he swiftly turned the car around and took another way in his usual statement: “Egypt all good, Mubarak all good, only stupid people who complain”. That was when we sensed that things were boiling under the surface and people were tense. The next morning, when we were on our way to Abu Simbel temple and were heading out of Aswan, a group of protestors, men dressed in the traditional Egyptian gelabbiya, plastic slippers and the headcloth, some were also in trousers and shirt were protesting with placards and wooden stick in their hands, or their fist raised, albeit peacefully walking along the road. The driver being on the safe side as the typical taxi driver in Egypt didn’t comment much, but did say Mubarak was bad and should leave.
After returning from Abu Simbel and driving along the road to the Aswan Dam, the same place where we saw burning tyres the evening before, one of the lamppost posters of Mubarak was partially burnt. Things were reaching boiling point, but people were quietly getting on with their lives. Saturday morning on the day of return to Cairo CNN international and Al-Jazeera were on everyone’s screen in the hotel, internet was down and we were told it was safer to stay in Aswan till things got calm or leave the country. In the neighborhood opposite our hotel, vigilante groups were protecting their area with sticks and baseball bats. The police were patrolling the area in their huge black tank van. Everything was tense and calm. No one was allowed to leave the hotel unless they were going to the airport. We were receiving reports from Cairo that people had set up vigilante groups in their neighourboods with sticks and clubs. People gathered ammunition in the form of knives, swords, daggers, molotov cocktails in case criminals started raiding their cars. Residential areas had been barricaded off, and curfew was imposed in Cairo. From 8-15 people were free to go out and markets would be open. The banks were all closed.
On Monday when we returned to Cairo, we arrived just after the curfew had been imposed. Cairo had changed from being a vibrant, hustling bustling city where cars, taxis, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, donkey and horse carts amidst people would freely roam, traffic jams would create a life of their own, into a ghost town. Suddenly the army was out on the street side by side with the vigilinates, with army tanks at main junctions. After every 5 mile there would be a security check made by civilians or army personnel. This was the zombie-vampire movie turning into reality. The streets, roundabouts and junctions were empty and dead silent, you could literally hear mice dancing on the streets. The taxi driver took us around Cairo circumventing Tahrir Square which is the heart of Cairo. The area by Hilton Ramses Hotel, by the Nile, neighbouring Tahrir Square was empty. I was consumed by surprise. This is the closest I’ve ever been to revolutionary events.
When I returned from Cairo, I attended a lunchtime panel discussion on the events in Tahrir Square. One of the panelists, speaking on the economic factors said that despite a decent economic growth rate, there was no trickle down effect. The wealthy got richer and the poor got poorer. Clearly, when there is a discrepancy in the economy, the consequences will be severe.
People in the corporate sector, legal people, investment bankers, found it hard to believe what had happened in Egypt. To them the common Egyptian is too scared and subdued, not to mention…plain stupid to initiate people power at such a scale where a leader is actually dethroned. Besides what was wrong with the leadership? They were getting subsidized bread, rent and petrol, what did they have to complain about? For some strange reason the corporate elite have a problem understanding it’s not all about subsidies when you have no opportunities for better pay, jobs, healthcare and political expression. Moreover, to expect that people will not wait for any opportunity to express themselves and make the most of that moment, shows a total disrespect for people who are less advantaged than them, just because their concerns and issues don’t affect them.
Since the political activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and union activities are banned or limited, there is no public platform through which people, especially workers’ concern can be addressed. What was unique with this demonstration was that it was mainly composed of young people. University educated people, either studying or unemployed and unable to get jobs. It can be suggested they were demonstrating for the right to a future. They all wanted Mubarak to go and elections to be held. Mohammed Elbaradei supported the demonstrations and supported the demand for Mubarak to resign. I read in The Economist once that he would not stand for election in Egypt because he knew there was no way he could ever win with the current political setup. Unless it changed there was no point for him to contest the elections. He has a party which targeted the youth, the university students because they are the future of any country. When the demonstrations progressed, with the President dissolving parliament, and later announcing elections in September, with the blocking of the internet, I was reminded of this article. Mr ElBaradei’s wish came true. The youth, joined by other middle class people, demanded change and the end of the Mubarak regime. People in favour of the regime, the very same corporate high society claimed it was not a local, home grown demonstrations, but influenced by external forces because it was completely out of character of the Egyptian nation. Rather, it is completely unnatural for people not to protest when their right to breathe, to live and exist is continually denied them and still be politically sidelined as if they have no value. It was mentioned by some of the Egyptians I saw that Mubarak was alright till 2005, when he started promoting his son Gamal Mubarak as the next president. The 2005 elections were rigged, it was also during his time Mubarak become more tyrannical.
In connection with the revolution in Egypt, after Mubarak stood down as President, I attended a lunch time panel on what had happened and what will the future hold. One of the panelists, an Egyptian activist, Gigi Ibrahim, said that the Tahrir Square demonstrations were not a one time event, but a culmination of a series of events over several years.
Demonstration culture started with banning the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s. In October 2000 the Palestinian revolt happened. This demonstration is significant for youth activism in Egypt because “it involved a new generation of previously non-political youth” (Wikipedia.com) and subsequently created a revival of Egyptian street activism. Followed by a protest in 30th March 2003 against the invasion of Iraq. In 2005 with the re-election of Mubarak, anti Mubarak wave of protestations started because people were against the election results and the intended hereditary transfer of power from Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal Mubarak. They did not want the kind of system and paved the way for the Kefaya Movement’s activism.
The Movement itself started in 2004. According to Wikipedia.com “its origins can be found in earlier strands of political protests beginning ith the solidarity committees throughout Egypt following the start of the second Intifada in Palestine in October 2000.” Structural adjustment programmes brought along increased privatization, and more increasing inflation. In defiance, in spring 2008 university students initiated April 6th Movement , which started as an Egyptian facebook group. It announced and planned a strike on April 6th, 2008 in El-Mohalla El-Kubra which is an industrial area in the city of Cairo.
To conclude, the Revolution was a culmination of several events. People simply had enough and they exploited an opportunity to get their point across. Whatever comes afterwards, people power should never be underestimated.