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Sultana's Dream
May 2011

EYE WITNESS


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Proud to Be Egyptian: An Eyewitness Account

Life is returning to normal in a city that has just lived through a profound upheaval, but something is missing. At my son Mostafa’s preschool today, a few of his friends were absent: Joseph from Ireland, Cyrus from the USA and Louise from Canada. They had all gone back home in the exodus of expats and tourists who were frantically fleeing Egypt. Many foreigners feared an escalation of events that began with the January 25th demonstrations. My own parents in Melbourne were worried and telephoned Cairo on numerous occasions during the turmoil, suggesting that I should hop on a plane with the children and return home.

However, I simply could not bring myself to leave. I felt compelled to stay; as a witness and as a participant; this was in spite of the confusion and in spite of the havoc in the streets caused by certain criminal elements let loose as saboteurs. In the end, as you know, the government’s attempt to silence the people of Egypt failed.

Even though the police had withdrawn their protection, people took it upon themselves to protect their homes, neighbourhoods and even the historic Cairo museum. Vigilante neighbourhood watch programs were forming all over the country. There was a wonderful feeling of neighbourhood solidarity and community spirit that I had never experienced before. The government’s tactic of firing on protesters, throwing tear gas bomb, running them over and, in a last effort, withdrawing police—backfired.  

Twenty years ago, when I first came to Cairo, I remember being struck by people’s apathy. I blamed the inadequate, hopelessly antiquated system of education where students were required to memorise and regurgitate praises to the regime. Freedom of speech was repressed and punished—acting or thinking for oneself was discouraged. But on January 25 when the people of Egypt cried out—our world began to change. For decades the bulk of the people had been kept in poverty and ignorance—many struggling to live on $15 (AU) a month, no health care or social security—people were trapped in their despair, but that has gone, people are euphoric. Now there is a chance for a better life. I shouted for joy when I saw a man interviewed on television declaring that, for the first time in his life, he felt proud to be an Egyptian.

Years ago my daughter Yasmeen, who was five at the time, asked me ‘Mummy, what do elections mean?’ I struggled to answer her. Why? Because day after day, Egyptian TV showed little else but pro Mubarak propaganda for the forthcoming presidential elections (this was before the advent of Satellite TV). The irony being there was only one candidate! How can you explain the process of elections to your children when it’s nothing but a farce!

But today we are filled with joy and optimism. I will never forget that I was an eyewitness to a protest that brought a corrupt government to its knees.  The government’s desperate attempts to disrupt the demonstrations were witnessed by foreign journalists. In the face of this, millions of Egyptians peacefully filled the streets all over Egypt showing the world that there is nothing to fear from democracy in a predominantly Muslim country.

Mona Makram Ebeid, Coptic Christian and former Opposition member of the Egyptian Parliament, commented on television that despite the absence of police and the presence of many different secular and religious elements among the protesters—including people from the Muslim Brotherhood—not one Church was attacked. 

I myself observed that the Jewish synagogue, just minutes away from Tahrir Square, had not been vandalised with graffiti even though this area was left without the usual police security.

I think it’s time for the myth of the Islamist ‘bogeyman’ to be laid to rest. As news came to light that the Egyptian State Security was behind the Church bombing and killing in Alexandria we finally realised that a corrupt government thrived on creating friction and suspicion between Muslim and Christian, using the old tactic of distracting the masses from what was really going on, what was really wrong with their lives and who was responsible.

I found myself remembering the first time I visited Egypt when I was eight years old; the doors between my grandmother’s home and her Christian neighbours were never closed. All day we would run between the two apartments feeling that it was just one family.  The events of 25th January brought this feeling back again. I witnessed Egyptian Christians pouring ablution water for their Muslim brethren and protecting them while they prayed; I saw Muslims protecting their Christian brethren as they performed their Sunday mass. People from everywhere brought food and blankets to help demonstrators weather the long days and cold winter nights while doctors left their jobs to care for the sick and wounded in the square.

As my daughter said, on the day we were privileged enough to join the vigil in Tahrir, “Love is in the air”; music was playing and people were chanting, singing and dancing; it became more reminiscent of Woodstock than the Iranian revolution. Woodstock called for peace and love; at Tahrir the love was palpable and it was the embodiment of a heroic kind of peace and a brotherly and sisterly love. The military officers swore that they would not shed a single drop of blood of their fellow Egyptians who were out in the streets demonstrating.

Egyptians have proven to the world and, more importantly, to themselves that they have the strength and the will to make their country a better place to live. In order to do this they have dislodged the corrupt Mubarak Government. We waited eighteen long days, for this to happen, demonstrating patience and determination. Now we stand at the crossroads. We need a representative and honest government; we need real reforms to combat corruption, real reforms to education and health care systems. Our apathy is a thing of the past; I know our desire for democracy will not disappear.

So please Joseph, Cyrus and Louise…Won’t you come back to Egypt? Your friends at preschool miss you!


Inas Hassan
Cairo
28th February 2011
 
Post Script:
The American principal of the Cairo Montessori School has returned and the pre- school has reopened.
 

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'We took this photo the day we went to Tahrir Square on 8th February 2011.'  Inas Hassan