Thursday, 3 March 2011

"I am Egyptian, I am free!"

On the badge is written: "I am Egyptian, I am free" and on the pin: "Hold up your head, you are Egyptian!"

Announcement for the women's demonstration for democracy which will take place on the 8th of March. The participation of one million people is projected.

Liberation Square (Midan at-Tahrir)

At the moment, when approaching Tahrir Square, one might get the idea that the Egyptian national team must be playing in the Soccer World Championship. Everywhere street-sellers offer different items in the colors of the Egyptian flags, even the hats, which are typical for soccer fans and other kinds of gadgets with football symbols, can be purchased. However, the more the visitor comes nearer, the clearer he/she can see that the souvenirs, which are sold, are labeled after the “Revolution of the 25th of January 2011”. Pins are decorated with the line “Hold your head up high, you are Egyptian” and Plastic badges are sold with the pictures of the “Martyrs of the Revolution of the 25th of January 2011”. 

Even though the cars are driving around the square again, the middle is still occupied by the remains of the victorious revolution. In order to get access to this sandy circle covered with tents, one has to pass a body check organized by the demonstrators themselves, which is similar to the one at the airport. A girl with headscarf very naturally passed her hands over my breasts and hips and then let me in. The setting looked similar to an open-air concert at its beginning or end: people peacefully sitting around in tents, children getting their faces painted with the colors of the Egyptian flag, men selling different kinds of nuts but also eggs and other kinds of food and two men repairing a water pipe.

However, something is strikingly different. Poor people, with dirty galabiyyas (traditional long dress) are sitting next to men in suites. Women who are wearing niqab (face-veil) are carrying their children along next to a modern style igloo-tent, where a girl in jeans is eagerly typing on a laptop while the setting sun is making her hair glow with a red shine. On every face, whether poor or rich, sitting under dirty blankets or in a clean lycra tent, shines the national pride. 
These are the people of Liberation Square, the youth (even though there are people of every age) who have just proved to the whole world, that revolutions can be won pacifically. Children are smiling at me and ask me to take pictures of them. Afterwards they want to see them and then proudly walk away. People approach me and ask whether I am a journalist in order to make their stories public. Men and women are carrying all kinds of painted banderoles and posters, which request different kinds of changes. Flags and medallions are carried around which promote the union of Egyptian Muslims and Christians by the symbol of the crescent, which surrounds the cross. A column of memory pays tribute to the martyrs of the revolution. Everybody is friendly smiling and enormously proud to be a part of history. The spirit to fight for social and political changes is very high and people spontaneously gather in small groups and cheerfully chant slogans and walk to the buildings which host the institutions targeted for reform.

“I am Egpytian, I am free: Revolution of the 25 of January” is written on some badges which are sold and as the general mood is so energetic and happy, even a Khawaga (foreigner) like me can easily get 50 Piasters off when buying nationalist symbols. Something else is the rental of balconies for filming. This has turned into a very lucrative business. We entered a shop and asked whether it was possible to get access to the roof-terrace of a building in order to film the Friday demonstrations. The person at the entrance acted as if he did not know what we were talking about but very insistently sent us to the manager of the building. This happened to be a bearded old man, who was wearing a black galabiyya and was counting receipts on his small table, which was squeezed into some kind of mini-office under a staircase. The place, even though tiny, was adorned with all kinds of religious decorations. The manager told us that for 500 Egyptian Pounds a day we could get the terrace and that this was still cheap, considering that last week he was still getting 1000 Pounds from the big international news-channels …

Cleaning the Egyptian Nation

Each time I arrive in Egypt, everything is different. However, never Egypt has changed as much as this time, after the revolution of the 25th of January 2011. On my arrival, the airplane was shaken by some turbulences before landing and meanwhile I was watching the majestic, beautifully illuminated mosques. Egypt looked quiet from high up in the sky. What aspect will it have from down there?

Back in Germany, at the first look, the revolution seemed to be full of contrasts. In a somehow absurd manner, different worlds were displayed next to each other. There was the “real world”, the one which the demonstrators lived on the Tahrir Square and which was transmitted with impacting images. On the other hand, an “artificial scene” was set up discursively by people commenting on the happenings. 

When I was following the events on Egytube, at the very beginning, on the first Tuesday of the revolution, the contradiction between what was going on the Tahrir Square and the comments which were streaming on the internet next to the life images were quite surprising. While enormous crowds of people were protesting in the heart of Down Town, the online comments on Egytube started (in the colloquial sms-Arabic style which is spelled in the Latin alphabet) to switch to a conversation about with what kind of contract and which telephone-company the news channels were best visualized on the new i-phone. This conversation was interrupted by all kinds of nationalistic slogans. 

The contrasts of the Egypt on the streets and the “safe worlds apart” continued. While the images of the Egyptian museum were shown and the furious protesters in the background, a completely overdressed reporter with ravishing, shiny and long black hair continuously insisted upon Egypt being the mother of civilization.
The climax of the absurd was definitely reached with the then still President Mubarak’s last speech. While the Egyptians were holding up their shoes and screaming that he should step down, he explained to the world –unshaken as it seemed- that all of this was not meant against him, that he did not take it personally…

Did these contrasts vanish after Mubarak’s disappearance? What does Egypt look like right now? 

On the plane I started to read the Masri al Yom newspaper and was very excited to see that, at the moment, the revolution seems to succeed. The army promises to hand over power to a civil government on the first of October after the completion of the parliamentary elections which are to be held in June and the elections of a new president which are scheduled for August. The new president shall have a mandate for four years with one possible re-election only. If the army really steps back in October, Egypt will have a civil government for the first time since 1952! This quite reminds me of the so-called “Harakiri del Bunquer” in Spanish history where the dictatorial, fascist executive voluntarily dissolved itself and gave way for a democratic future of the country after Franco’s death in 1975. As a matter of fact, regarding the charges of financial crimes against the Mubarak clan, the army already informs that it will not take part in any of these procedures because there is “nobody above the law.” Even though by this attitude, the army might also try not to get involved into further debasing the honor of the former highest officer Mubarak, the explicit promotion of the rule of law as a universal principle is an extremely important statement.

Mubarak’s pictures published in the newspaper are now said to be “coming from the archive” or “to have been formerly published”. All masks are washed away. Not only the ones which had so long disguised the face of this never aging Dorian Gray of the recent Egyptian history, also the streets are held as clean as it may be. The Egyptians took over their country and are polishing it right now. On the cover-page of Masri al Yom a big advertising from a DSL-operator makes publicity for voluntary public cleaning actions of the streets of “our Egypt”.
Even the taxi driver proudly told me that Egypt was being held clean now. This reminded me of one of the points which Misr al-Fatat were demanding from the Khedive Ismail in 1879 during the very first nationalist movement: they claimed that it should be forbidden for ships to throw waste into the Nile. Nationalism is therefore directly associated with cleanliness. All remains of the misdeeds perpetrated by the fallen regime are washed away and a purified image of the nation arises from the ruins. 

"Clean Egypt 2011"

I arrived in a new Egypt, which seems to be on its way to finally belong to the Egyptians who are organizing themselves democratically in grass-root communities wherever institutions are missing or decisions are being taken slowly. Improvisation also plays a big part in this. To give an example: whereas schools are still closed in Giza the ones of the Cairo side of the River Nile are already operating again. In order make their children not miss more classes, the parents therefore decided to hide the label of the school buses in order to make the pupils pass unnoticed.

The contrasts start to be washed away and the Egyptian spirit for improvisation and the will for survival are set free. How will it continue? I am proud to be a witness of life history during this month of March.