When Hope Dies, Nothing Blooms in that Land

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A generation of youth laying their friends to rest
A generation of mothers with an empty nest

A story about Egypt, and its struggle for hope
A story of millions defying the tightening rope

The struggle for Freedom, Dignity and Bread
About the punishment they got instead

Take Alaa for example who got sentenced 15 years
For being moved to revolt against torture and tears

Thousands of others also, to prison were sent
A handful of supporters protesting wherever they went

Others gave up and they carry the shame
Because the search for freedom…… was done in their name

They’ll squint and say “I’ve seen you’re face before
But they’re so many of you taken, I’ve lost the score”

Those ‘taken’ are strong now with a mission inside
They’re a window to the misconduct authorities try to hide

Slowly but surely stories behind bars are coming out
And you need to keep listening to what this is all about

Loss of physical freedom to become an independent voice
To those on the other side kept in, against their choice

The stories of torture and wrongful detention
Of people ‘too insignificant’ to grab your attention

Till its one of your own who gets dragged by the mob
Until it’s of your loved ones that you get robbed

I understand your desperate need to glorify the army
But their songs and flowers just don’t charm me

From virginity testing to death by beats
From promising not to, but running for presidency seats

From crushing Christian sisters to gassing Muslim brothers
Forcing you to take allegiance to justify violence against the other

Yes I’m talking of the barbaric handling of Rab3a and Maspero
When did the villain ever become your hero?

I’m talking of a generation that solemnly fought
That were betrayed by their protectors but kept afloat

If you’re not part of the revolution don’t be part of the betrayal
Don’t give in to the oppressors and join those who hail

Of course it’s not easy to keep fighting but that’s the cost
which we must pay for years of silence that we’ve lost

Those still fighting for tomorrow have reason to believe
And yes change will come, no, no that’s not naive

It’s a struggle for justice, one that will continue
Thousands of heroic sacrifices that can’t but win you

Of course it’s a long rough journey, yes, I understand
But when hope dies, nothing blooms on that land.

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A Letter to Alaa in Prison, Where he is Free

 

Dear Alaa,

“To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.” Gandhi. And so I will start my letter again,

My dear, honest friend, Alaa

I am writing this letter to thank you and to apologise to you.

I attended a workshop in Bristol last year. One of the professors speaking referred to you as a “problem” for new regimes that came into power in Egypt. They used you as an example of a “new type of youth”, one the repressive governments could not buy nor silence with power or promises of personal gain. I felt so proud at that moment. You were never one that trod on blood that was not given time to dry. You lived the expression of your understanding and conviction that innocent blood would not dry except with accountability, quick justice and with plans on how more blood would not be shed in the name of any flag or any religious book. It is with pride that you should know that this stand you take is not unnoticed, that it resonates in many consciousness’s as a reference point and that you have constructed in your own fight, a truth about what freedom and justice should be by taking this position. Rare are the opportunities to meet someone who is that brave, I do not take that for granted.

I am holding on to the image of you walking around in large groups during Tweet Nadwa giving the microphone to those who had gathered for a chance to have their dreams aired and heard and respected. You handed them in that microphone a tool of expression; literally and practically giving a voice to those who are often ridiculed for what others may call utopian dreams or naïve solutions to life’s complex problems. I hold that image of you because only when I saw how scared of you they were did I realise the power of what you were doing was. The value of that walking around in public spaces celebrating the agency and potential of your equals was a threat to the fragility of those who rule by terror and manipulation. It only made sense that they would try and find any way they could to put you in their cages, believing – foolishly – that those metal bars could keep in the value, the importance, the power, the affect of what you were trying to do. They thought, foolishly that they could imprison the ideas in your head that spread to us like dandelion heads every time they so much as walked past you or your cell.

Often, those who support my work, will attack me if I show discontent at a violation of the rights of someone with whom they, or indeed I, do not sympathise, as if rights were or should be reserved only for those with whom we associate. This often demoralized me and made me feel I was lucky to have an option not to be in Egypt, that I had the option to call another land “home”. But the idea that you represented, the philosophy that’s embodied in what you fight for, is part of what bought me back. The possibility of “fair”, or a collaborative “I”, that had to come together, gave me hope. I needed that the determination to work with the most vulnerable at home, my street kids. The justice and equal opportunity that I felt would come if everyone really heard, really understood, really lived what you were saying, was worth returning for. You made me feel that people at “home” understood the underlying values of equality, access to opportunity, freedom, dignity, integrity, they were free and so were asking for their freedom. It is people like you who gave people like me, with something to offer, no matter how big or small, the chance of coming back and offering it despite it not being profitable, not being progressive in a capitalist way.

I am incredibly humbled by your strength, by your determination and by the honour with which you live to remain true too your fundamental principles. I see how you are never compromising, never meeting an oppressor half way, never being silenced in the guise of neutrality. I admire that you are always taking sides – always – with the oppressed; no matter who that was because it was – always – the principle, not the idea, not the person, not the situation, that mattered to you. The abstract notions of justice and integrity that many construct in ways that suit them, were clearly well grounded and defined as far as you were concerned and I write now to reassure you that all those lessons are in my and many other hearts and continue to inspire us and give us hope. Hope is not a gift that is to be taken for granted in the world in which we live. It is the idea that is embodied in all those things that you do; which bought me back to my “home” country, it’s principles and potential like yours that kept me going was I worked with the street children.

Your family are incredibly lucky that they have you to support the remarkable work they have done, both in and out of prison. I was not surprised when I first found out that Ahdaf Sueif was your auntie. She had been my role model since I first picked up her book in 1992. I was only 12 at the time, and her message of merging the public and private, making the private political, has stayed with me 20 years on. I wanted to grow up and be like her. Then, one day, in a march for Michael Nabil, a lost cause in Egypt at the time, I found myself walking next to her, chanting for the freedom of someone whose ideology we both were not only unsympathetic towards, but fundamentally opposed to; both of us taking sides against the oppressor despite having nothing in common with the victim. I cannot begin to describe my euphoria in that moment. Mona and Sana are also incredible in what they do and when anyone compares my passion for street children with Mona’s work for her civilians tried in military courts, I am humbled beyond words. Your parents must be so proud of you all. It is true in your case that the apple has not fallen far from the tree.

Thank you for fighting the battle long before people had an avenue to express their opinions. Years before the squares and streets welcomed this generations protests you were out there fighting for freedom and getting punished for it. Thank you for the times you grew up without the presence of your own father because he was doing the same thing. Thank you for not being silenced, for being more than you had to be and making it like that was the only way to be. Thank you for not giving up and reminding me that abandoning the cause was an option, but one we did not have to take and one; which you refused even though you had so much to lose. Thank you for being and living the thing that you believed in.

And as I have said right at the beginning of this letter, I am also writing to apologise. I apologise, not only for not being in that cell with you since I share almost all of the ideas that you are in there for. I do not just apologise because you are missing out on so many “first times” your only son is performing without you cheering him on. I do not only apologise for every morning you are not waking up with Manal in your arms. But I am apologising because so many cathartic moments I have lived, have come as a result of all that has made you physically behind bars. My only consolation is that you are truly free, freer than the wildest birds could ever hope to be. And those things you say break inside you every time you are in prison, they are nothing more than the shell that reveals the next layer, the shiner, more refined spirit that brings about hope as soon as it is let go.

I watched a video of you saying that your greatest fear is to grow old one day and look back and see that the results of what you have done would bring sorrow and not joy. Fear not ya Alaa, because that will never be. What is happening now should not dishearten you, or me or anyone else. The truth is, the closer we get to justice, the clearer and purer the concept of justice is, and because of that, our struggle for it increases and the harder our fight becomes.

I am humbly your inspired, grateful and hopeful friend,

Nelly

Judges Holding Grudges

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Sometimes it seems appropriate that the title “Judges” should be changed to “Lawdges” (don’t try to look this word up, it doesn’t exist – yet). It’s time we added it though, to our dictionaries as a way of keeping up with the changing times. When the word “judge” came to our vocabulary it meant to provide “justice”. This is no longer what the judges in Egypt provide. They occupy courts of law (at their best), and not courts of justice, and, as such, “Lawdges” seems a much more appropriate title.

When the execution of the law becomes unpredictable, it’s nerve wrecking. Committing a crime and getting caught, waiting for the proportionate punishment that you subconsciously calculate, is not as terrifying as the anxiety you suffer when the law and the personnel that execute it are unpredictable. That’s what’s wrong with Egypt today for the activists; unpredictability. The recent unrest in Egypt is ignited by different events and during the aftermath of each of the tragedies that the country has witnessed has always included and ended with questions of cleansing the judiciary of corruption. The photograph above is of a sign hung up in Tahrir Square on many Fridays saying: “The People Want Purification of the Judiciary”.

Illustrative Case 1: Maikel Nabil

Maikel Nabil Sanad, Egypt’s first prisoner of conscience after the revolution, was arrested on 4 February by military police and tortured, but released 27 hours later and again arrested from his home in Cairo at 10pm on 28 March 2011 for a blog he wrote titled “The army and the people were never one hand” – a slogan that the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets chanting for months later. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on charges of “insulting the military. It was no coincidence that Maikel was singled out. In April 2009, he founded the “No to Compulsory Military Service Movement”. Maikel demanded that he be exempted from military service after declaring his conscientious objection and as a consequence was arrested on 12 November 2010, also by the military police. He was released two days later and finally exempted from military service, but on medical grounds.

Maikel Nabil’s trial, like most others relating to the same conviction, was void of many of the international legal guarantees of a fair trial. There is no appeal against a military court’s judgment for any of the violations to be rectified. It is imperative that Egypt addresses its human rights violations if it is to provide its people with the climate necessary for progress and if it is to fulfill the guarantees it has given in every human rights instrument, which it has signed and ratified. This is perfectly summarized in the recommendations made by Human Rights Watch in their 2002 report on Egypt: “Abolish Military Order No. 4 of 1992 and seek regular legislative approval of all new laws, or amendments to existing laws, that the government considers necessary to protect the security of Egyptian citizens. Ensure that all trials conform to international standards of fair trial, including granting the defense adequate time to prepare their defense and ensuring that the defense is granted full and prompt access to all relevant court documentation at every stage of the proceedings. · Amend Article 80(d) of the Penal Code to bring that law into compliance with international human rights treaty law protecting freedom of expression and the rights to seek, receive and impart information and ideas. Abolish the Supreme State Security Court and all other extraordinary courts, and insure that all Egyptian courts meet basic international fair trial standards, including by guaranteeing a right to appeal to a higher judicial body. Propose new legislation that grants legal recognition and guarantees full independence to non-governmental associations.”

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As the regular six protestors stood outside the Military Prosecutors, better known as C28, news came from Maikel Nabil’s lawyer, Amir Salem, that the judges had given Maikel an ultimatum. He came out of court frustrated telling us the verdict would be postponed for the third time. The judges told Maikel that they were willing to pass a verdict of pardon should he accept logging on to his blog and publishing a public apology. Steadfast in his conviction that he had done nothing wrong, Maikel refused and the judges holding grudges, sent him back to El Marg Prison and a rehearing planned for the 14th December. There are no laws in Egypt that result in pardon when a criminal “apologizes”. The frustrations at the unpredictability of the law here drove Maikel to escalate his hunger strike to include medications and liquid.

Illustrative Case 2: Alaa Abdel-Fatah

Alaa, one of the most prominent and level headed revolutionaries, was released Christmas morning pending further investigations for 15 crimes attributed to him, the most serious including inciting secular violence and stealing weapons from army personnel. While he was missed during his time in prison, his smiling photos made their way around twitter and news channels. His smile, one confidence of having not done wrong, and his heart breaking letters to his wife after she gave birth with him inside to his first son, touched the hearts of those who knew him and those who had just read about him each time his 15 days were renewed.

Manal and unborn baby Khaled had held on. Alaa wanted to be there by Manal as she was giving birth to their first baby. Named after Khaled Saeed, the little baby was the product of a decision his parents had made during the 18 days of revolution in 2011. Manal and Alaa had at last felt this was a world they would not feel guilty having a baby in. Every hearing Alaa’s family had hoped he would be released and would be able to attend the birth. The judges postponed every hearing ensuring that Alaa would miss it. Alaa’s smuggled posts out of prison spoke of his fear when he realized how unpredictable, how random, how unfair the trial was. Both military and civilian courts ignored international human rights organisations pressure for the release of Alaa due to a lack of evidence and because of a multitude of witnesses and evidence proving his innocence. And true to the expectations of those who noticed the pattern, Alaa was given leave the hearing after Khaled was born.

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Whether or not the charges against Alaa are dropped, the judges holding grudges against Alaa took away something they knew he ached for; in his own words to his wife, “to see your face as you see Khaled’s face for the first time”. The good news is that unlike the people who lost their sons and fathers in this revolution, Khaled would grow up knowing his father and living amongst the revolutionary family of which he is part.

Illustrative Case 3: Mohammed Jamal

Political activist Mohamed Jamal, member of a coalition of committees defending the revolution, was murdered 21 January 2012 at dawn, in front of the High Court, while he was on his way home after a protest in front of the public prosecutor’s office demanding judiciary reform. Mohamed is reported to have left the protest at 4am after organising more marches calling for judiciary independence leading up to bigger protests 25 January. Only minutes after leaving his friends, he returned to the sit-in in front of the public prosecutor’s office bleeding of a stab wound. He fell dead pointing towards the High Court. The murder was recorded against anonymous.

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On the same day, political activist Kareem Abo Zed, member of the revolution coalition in Algharbya governorate, died in an accident on the desert road, on his way to El Menya governorate to attend the 2nd Conference of Egypt’s revolutionaries. No murderers were arrested and the coincidence between the deaths of two activists calling for peaceful demonstrations was not investigated. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information said that “The government is the body responsible for the safety of citizens, and its failure to bring the perpetrators to justice is considered to be collusion”.

The judiciary has so far been unaffected, despite the challenges and efforts of those working to raise awareness of the need for reform. The continued protests, related murders and accidents indicate that till the need for cleansing is addressed with urgency, integrity and transparency, then Egypt will see a continued increase of cases that raise a multitude of question marks and grievances that cannot easily continue to be ignored.

The Other Side of the Wall is Where we Come From

It is difficult being on the other side. Whether that’s on the other side of the world, watching the news of Egypt, where I was less than a month ago; or on the other side of the walls the army are building in a futile attempt to create a barrier between them and their own.

[picture taken by Hossam ElHamalawy @3arabawy]

But the wall in Mohammed Mahmoud came down. By the sheer strength of their anger, the depth of their frustrations, the unreasonableness of their oppression and by the roughness of their hardworking, but bare hands, the wall came down. Nothing surprising was on the other side of the wall – just a reaffirmation of different loyalties. No difference in creed, race or religion that has often caused the building of such walls – just a difference in “sides”. Honored to be taking side with the people, their numbers increased through the night, through daybreak, through the following day. The people torn between keeping their fight for freedom “Selmeya” (peaceful), constrained between the invisible lines of Tahrir Square, or not, they moved in their thousands towards the Ministry of Interior chanting, angry, demanding justice. Justice… a word whose flames have been repeatedly put out in Egypt by the suffocating hand of the law.

SCAF are digging the hole they have sunk themselves in deeper and deeper with every statement they make after a tragedy that comes at their hands, whether directly or indirectly. As the mothers whose sons had gone to watch the football match stood outside the Ahly club hysterical, desperate to know if their children would be coming home that night, the Field Marshall was “deeply regretting” events (though I thought a prerequisite of regret was a decision not to repeat behaviour), and telling the nation that the victims will be considered amongst the revolutions injured and martyred (a direct confession of SCAF’s responsibility) and that their families will receive financial compensation (as if this is why they had gone to the match).

The broken hearts that were watching the events were having salt rubbed into those wounds. SCAF’s insensitivity, lack of responsibility, blood and power hunger was breathing down the necks of those fighting for freedom, fighting for bread and fighting for human dignity. The Ministry of Interior and SCAF seem determined to prove they really are one hand – one hand against the people. A war of attrition that costs us, this side, much. A war of wills that no doubt the people will win. My heart breaks at the price of that victory, but my pride swells that I was once part of that world. I have faith in the side I’m taking.

Police have just erected another concrete block wall on Mansur Street. I wonder what it is they hope to block out? The cracks in the wall betray betrayal and those on the other side can see through them, magnified by the hundreds, the corruption they stand there to protest. Those who give orders to protect the ministry are so far removed from the reality of the people’s demands. The people do not want to storm the ministry! They are protesting there because it is the police head quarters. It is there that over the years, the people who have held office have failed to protect the people. Not only failed to protect them but have often been the very cause of their torture and their abuse. What wall will keep the people away? In this war of attrition, in this war of wills, the will to freedom and the will to justice will win.

On my side of the geographical wall, via twitter, I continue to watch my friends bravely take to the street, confused as to where to go, what to chant or who to trust. They take to the street to protect what they had planted there last January. They go to protect the lack of fear, to protect the fight, to protect the dreams. Dreams that water hoses could not drown, visions that tear gas could not smother and hopes that bullets could never kill.

Egypt: The Thugs That Nursed Me

“Please mind the Gap”. I haven’t heard that in months. I’ve been away from London long enough to have forgotten what is perhaps one of the city’s most famous phrases. My mind holds on to those words for a few minutes thinking about the safety London Underground are trying to afford me. I smile as a silly thought comes to my mind: if it had been the English tear gassing us during a protest, they would probably have prepared megaphones “please mind the tear gas canisters” repeated over and over again.

It feels quite surreal being here. Egypt and my experience there seems a life time away. The people I met and the circumstances we met in feel like some one else’s life. Here I meet people at coffee shops, libraries, Universities, conferences. In Egypt I was making the closest friends outside military prosecutors, dodging rubber and live bullets, carrying the injured, dying and dead, sharing sparse water during sit ins and sometimes in coffee shops having met off twitter. I made friends in Egypt from Cairo to Sohag. I lived a million life times during those few months and I took away with me so much experience and memories, so many laughs and tears, enough to last me this life time and more.

On New Year’s eve, I introduced my dear friend Ghali to a friend from London “meet Ghali, the first time we met was outside the Military Prosecutors.” I wanted to say more but I couldn’t remember which one of the civilians being tried by the military we were standing in solidarity with. This wasn’t the most bizarre introduction. Previously there had been “the first time I met Nelly, I was holding her head as she was vomiting after her first taste of tear gas in June” and there’s also Asmaa who I always introduce as the girl who threw herself in front of me as a tear gas canister was coming my way, the same girl I literally lifted out of Mohammed Mahmoud St when the shooting began. This is how you’re introduced to a different type of friend in Egypt. And I wasn’t even one of the brave ones. I sit on the platform in Euston Square now and I wonder how people like Alaa, Amr, Islam and hundreds of others introduce their 2011 friends.

The most significant of these friends and those who I dedicate this post to, are the thugs that nursed me. I remember the first day I went to Tahrir during a confrontation between the central security forces and the protestors; the night of June 28th. I sat at home watching the news of protestors being gassed by the CSF and that thugs were on motorbikes hurting people and stealing from them. I went on twitter and my timeline was filled with calls for revolutionaries to make their way to Tahrir. This call was to protect each other through our numbers. I saw that Lilian Wagdy was calling for people in Nasr City to meet at the Holiday Inn at 2am and we’d leave together. I called Asmaa ElHadary, who I’d met only once before at the Maspero sit in earlier this month and told her I’m going and to meet me there with Lilian.

Being the organised person I am, I packed my backpack with a phone charger, blanket, vinegar bottles and as much tissue as I could fit in. I got into what I thought was suitable clothes and left my flat to a very quite and empty street. No taxi’s were in sight. I hadn’t thought of this and I still didn’t know my way around Cairo well enough to know alternatives or if it was safe enough to walk to the Holiday Inn (funny isn’t it that I’m thinking of safety when I am going to a site of violent confrontation, but you do). I saw a taxi on the other side of the road quite far from where I was, I quickly put my fingers on my rolled tongue and whistled so loud I actually surprised myself! I remembered all the hours spent in the balcony with my guy cousins teaching me to whistle and being told off that I needed to be more feminine. I was glad today I never gave into that. The taxi driver waved out of the window in acknowledgement and drove round. I jumped in and he asked where I was going. I told him. He drove me to the Holiday Inn and wouldn’t let me out till the others got there so I don’t stand on my own and wouldn’t take a penny in solidarity. I found this incredible. I had missed this spirit in January/February and felt privileged I was being given a chance now. Lilian, her mother and Asmaa turned up and we got into another cab. We bought a box of bottled water and made our way to Tahrir. The streets were eery quiet today. Tahrir seemed like another country with another culture and law unto its own. As soon as we got close we could smell the tear gas, the remains of the smoke from earlier attacks was lingering around; a grey witness of aggression. Mixed in the smokey air, you could smell the sweat of bravery also.

We got out and the water bottles were devoured within a minute buy men whose eyes were watery, rimmed red. There was a police car that was circling the square. An officer was speaking through the megaphone saying: “You want the press to see what we’re doing? We’ll fuck you here first you sons of a bitch before they come”. We caught this on video.

I instantly felt afraid. When the people who are meant to protect you speak with such vengence against you, what hope of safety do you have? What hope of justice can you disillude yourself with? But I quickly realised that this call for solidarity was the best thing. As our numbers grew, the megaphone profanity stopped. Things seemed calm and everyone decided to stay in the square to protect those who weren’t leaving. We spent a few hours sitting around, people getting to know each other, exchange stories of violations witnessed. During the calm a few songs were sung, “Yahabebty Yamasr” (Egypt My Love) and a few patriotic poems. It was like we were being charged with patriotism for what was to come. Alaa was here (always at the front lines), he was telling us that this was a revolution, that he was hopeful, that what was happening today convinced him that we had to be optimistic, that we would win. The only thing that broke the calm were a few rumours every so often that thugs with swords were storming down and everyone would scream out “Selmiya Selmiya” (peaceful, peaceful).

What struck us all were the “thugs”. These men on motorbikes worked throughout the night and early hours of the morning. Two men on each machine going right to the front lines of the confrontation at Mohammed Mahmoud to pick up the casualties that the ambulances would not dare go in to get, place the casualty between them, take them out to the ambulances that were parked in their tens by the metro station exist and back again. They had nothing to drink, to eat and no time to rest. They faced the tear gas, the bullets the canisters and there was nothing else that provided any of us with any comfort other than that these “thugs” would have our back if anything would happen to us.

My first taste of tear gas came as one of the canisters landed just cm’s away from my foot. It was chocking. You cannot understand the contraction of the throat and the panic unless that evil white smoke raked its way up your nostrils, in your eyes, blasting itself unwelcomed through your mouth right to the back and down till it rests in the pit of your stomach. I gagged. I stood at the corner and vomited like I’ve never done and one of the “thugs” came to me and held my head hard (one of the old myths I think that if someone holds you this way they’ll stop you getting a headache, or something). He encouraged me to keep going, threw water on my face and as soon as I was done, he cursed that there was no vinegar.

Having remembered my bottles of vinegar I took them out and was quickly positioned a little before the ambulances so as to act as a filtering for the cases and help those who came out suffering the choking effects of the tear gas. It’s amazing how people organise themselves in such sophisticated ways during these situations. It was fascinating how you didn’t really notice yourself thinking about any of it, you just “do” as does everyone else to complete a task. I suddenly had tens more pieces of cloth to spill the vinegar on, someone else next to me with water and a full, functional working relationship to ease pressure off the ambulances.

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There was a young guy who couldn’t make it towards us after having just come away from the front lines and collapsed on the ground. I decided to run to him to drag him to the side so that when the next tear gas bomb was thrown and everyone ran back he wouldn’t be crushed. But I went in too late. The next canister was thrown and just missing us, it hit another guy; right through the mouth and out the other side. There was chaos. He died.

That was the closest I have ever been to death, mine or someone else’s. I’m not sure if the tears flowing were tears of fear and anger or if they were just a reaction to the tear gas. Hysteria was the enemy now and I could feel it creeping up. It can make you piss yourself in terror or it could kill all fear. It did the latter and you somehow find the people that hysteria has had the same effect on. We decided to go forward and call the guys back. We didn’t know what we were fighting for and the throws were getting closer and the bullets had started. We went in in our hundreds chanting “Erga3, Erga3” (Come back, Come back). We weren’t allowed anywhere near the front. The guys there who had also been labelled “thugs”, pushed us back desperately, labelling us “the Facebook lot” they wanted to protect us saying we were the only hope of saying the truth and what we saw and not allow the state media to fabricate stories of what had happened here that night. We were literally pushed back.

Then the stomping started. I didn’t understand it. I had never been to anything like this and I didn’t understand what everyone was doing. The sound of hundreds of people holding rocks and stomping against lamp stands and metal fences is harrowing. My heart was thumping inside my chest and I was sure it would escape my terrified body and jump out. A guy gave me a rock and said “hit the fence!!! Hit it hard!!!” I did. With all my might. There was no time for questioning. I trusted everyone here and they told me to stomp, then that’s exactly what I was going to do. I later understood there were three reasons for the stomping. The first was so the CSF would realise our numbers, so that we called for help from those around the area and for adrenaline. The chants did the same, the thundering sound of “Elsha3b Yoreed Eskaat Elmosheer” (the people want the fall of the Field Marshal) were not to be forgotten. The chants engraved an echo inside you. Sounds that would ring in my ears for weeks to come. For today, the chants were met by more tear gas.

In Mohammed Mahmoud St itself, a boy of about 8 years old was seen flying across from pavement to pavement having been kicked by one of the CSF. The guy who kicked him was cornered by the revolutionaries into a store, beaten and his shields taken off him. It was the biggest humiliation for him and it was cool water to scorched dignity. It wasn’t the right thing to do in hindsight. At the moment, it was the only thing to do. The state TV later bought images of the CSF personnel getting beaten but no commentary of why or what he had done was seen.

We saw a group of men and women in white coats. The doctors had come out in solidarity. This bought much comfort to us in the square. June was still a time that saw the doctors protected. We were so organised that we took rounds. When things calmed a little some of us left the square to get something to drink (I was introduced to a drink I later became addicted to, Enaab. The ice and the sugar were soothing in the heat that was beginning to scorch us – a taste I associated with comfort after trials for many months after). We went to charge our phones, went to get some perspective, lose some perspective and then go back again. I met Ahmed Fouda who’s alarm went off at 5am, he laughed sarcastically saying that he was meant to be getting up to study for his exam that started in a few hours. He’d been with us all night. We got word from the pharmacies that they were selling medicines we needed in Tahrir for half price in solidarity. On our way in and out of the square we were subjected to much abuse by passers by. Some spat at us, some swore. They were blaming us for the lack of work and lack of stability in the country. This threw me. People in the square were fighting for them, for their dignity, for their safety. It was a slap in the face but one that wasn’t going to hold us back now, but definitely one that would need much discussion later. The night had passed and the day light broke and hundreds of Egypt’s bravest men were injured and today one died. All night on twitter people were following and a new group of people were coming to replace us in the morning. They did. One of the guys, Olva Tito, arrived around 11am, he got shot with a rubber bullet in the neck within minutes of arriving. June was still a time your eyes were safe.

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Everyone knew there was no going home today . This was definitely going to turn into a sit in and a long one. As we tried to find some shade from the sun that was now betraying us, I heard one man say to Asmaa “I’ve lived a chicken all my life, I want to die a man, if not a martyr, at least I die a man!”. The next Friday was a big one. It was a tribute to the “thugs”… People had painted on their arms and faces and wore stickers that read “I’m a thug and proud”. Little babies had stickers on their clothes saying “Thug in the making”.

It hurt to see, during the past months, the classism that had become so unashamed. The poor whose appearance betrayed their social class as working were bizarrely labeled thug and automatically a cause for concern and somehow their appearance and social class allowed the police and military to pick them up and try them as criminals. Months later Belal Fadl was on a TV show and said: “go to Tahir and ask people there what they want, they’ll spend at least 15 minutes speaking to you about politics. Have you ever met a thug who has political demands? The real thugs seemed in sync with SCAF, let out during the protests and sit ins and bought back in during the elections later in the year. SCAFs continued underestimation of the people’s intelligence was cringeworthy.

Having come back to London and having time to reflect, here’s to the thugs that nursed us in Tahrir that day, those who protected the entrances on other days and who were at the front lines every time. The world would be a much better place if it were full of people like you.

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Why @waelabbas is My Favourite Blogger

One of the highlights of 2011 for me was meeting Wael Abbas in person. Many people don’t understand my love and loyalty towards this very “real” and consistent blogger. If you follow him on twitter alone, you might be forgiven to be put off by his obscene tweets often directed at religious institutions and high profile, generally well liked figures. However, this man needs to be taken far more seriously than both twitter and the picture once on his blog of him sat on the toilet claiming that this was his space and if you were offended you were welcome to leave. There is much to learn from Wael; not only from his struggles, or even his political predictions which have proven time and again accurate, but from his unwavering consistency to his cause: freedom and human rights for all.

Wael has been my favourite blogger for some years. He was among the first to use his real name to encourage others to write. Wael became well known for reporting an incident over Eid of mob harassment of women. Following the success of getting the message across he broadcast videos of the brutality practiced by the Egyptian police leading to their conviction for torture. It was not all success and glory, however. Wael started being harrassed by the government. He was also detained with 17 other bloggers in January 2010 after a 9 hour train ride to pay condolences to families who lost their loved ones in the Nag’ Hamadi incident earlier that same month; ironically one of the charges was inciting sectarian violence.

The social media websites that Wael relied on to communicate the violations he was brave enough to report and communicate let him down. In September 2007 his accounts on YouTube and Yahoo were closed and his Facebook account deleted. They have since been restored. But along with Flicker that deleted many of Hossam Hamalawy’s pictures after 25 January, it leaves a lot for contemplation. When YouTube restored Wael’s account, it did not initially restore the 187 videos which included videos of police brutality (of these were violence inside police stations), voting violations and anti government protests it had taken down. The reason he was given for his account being blocked was that he had failed to provide sufficient context about the violence. Yahoo used the excuse of shutting down his account for being a spammer.

Last night in Tahrir, I met Wael personally for the first time. His shy and sweet temperament were things I had already picked up in private conversations on Twitter. In his quietness he was as inspirational. We spent sometime walking around the square and ended up outside Qasr Eldobaara; me holding a candle that wouldn’t fight the wind and having turned down one himself so he could tweet the event, we walked back with the hundreds singing hymns of celebration. He’d forgotten his camera in the car and I confessed to him that I had stopped taking mine around with me, that I felt ashamed of capturing the eeriness of what was here through technology when there was so much feeling and so much to write about. In his easy and assuring manner, he told me I should keep practicing and throw myself right in it, that the pictures would, for people, show what my words wouldn’t capture and my words would show what I couldn’t in the picture. It doesn’t really matter what it is he speaks about, it’s all so clear and simple and “as it is”. His accessibility puts wrong to shame.

I asked Wael how he felt about the people on twitter who were previously politically apathetic and who have suddenly become very vocal and often against him when he had been part of the struggle for many years before they had the courage to be. I had seen some heated tweets back and forth and often felt frustrated on his behalf. His answer however humbled me and made me realise again how much he “got it”. He said, “it doesn’t bother me at all! On the contrary, this is why I’ve been blogging for years, to help in the process of getting others to speak out. I’m happy they speak out now.” This really summed him up. The bigger picture and the principe itself is always what matters. When many were silent on Maikel Nabil because they didn’t agree with what he had to say, Wael was on as much media as he could, days after the arrest, speaking about the seriousness of what happened to Maikel and what it would mean for freedoms if the decision wasn’t reversed. He sticks up for the liberals or the Islamists when they’re down and it’s never the person, but the cause that’s central to his debate.

I wish I had written my masters thesis on freedom of expression in Egypt a few years later than I had so that I could have bumped into Wael’s work which would have made my writing richer and would probably have kept me involved in the cause more exclusively.
There are many amazing personalities that have shone through in Egypt during the last 12 months, each with a struggle and a story, each with a purpose and an powerful dream. For me, by virtue of his unwavering integrity, Wael is person of the year every year.

For being my mentor without even knowing it, thank you.

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Wael Abbas: Awards

– In 2008, he turned down an invitation to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush.
– He was announced the winner of a journalism award by the International Center for Journalists on August 24, 2007
– Won the Human Rights Watch’s Hellman/Hammett Award 2008
– Was named Middle East Person of the Year 2007 by CNN
– Was considered one of the Most Influential People in the year 2006 by BBC
– Won the Egyptians Against Corruption Award 2005/2006

Call to Stand in Solidarity with Mikhail Nabil: 4th December 2011

Today I woke up with severe period pains and decided I’d stay in bed all day… one of the many things that get in the way of women trying to just be involved in every day stuff (because every day stuff these days means getting out to protest in the rain and mud!) So I lazily reached out for my mobile to check twitter and catch up on what’s been happening during the few hours that sleep and I flirt with one another. The only thing that was getting my attention between the hundreds of tweets about the Muslim Brotherhood and the elections and whether people were going to vote or boycott the elections, were the tweets that there were only 4 people, yes ONLY FOUR people outside C28, the military prosecutors, where Mikhail Nabil Sanad’s trial was happening. Here was everyone, so caught up in the new frock of the mockery of democracy in a country where only 4 people turn up to support a conscientious objector, now prisoner, dragged from his own home for writing his opinions in a blog post.

I am told the lack of support Mikhail has inside Egypt is because not many agree with what he has to say. What an embarrassment of an excuse is that?! How can I deserve the freedom that so many are dying for if I cannot support the freedom of someone who is expressing views different to my own?! So, I decided to just deal with the pain and get out of bed and get out and stand not for Mikhail Nabil, but for myself, and for what I believed in. Mikhail was doing me a favour, not the other way round! He was giving me the chance to fight for what I believed in, a chance to deserve the freedom he was fighting for.

I arrived outside C28 and there were 5 people. 3 Egyptians, a German lady and an Irish man. There was no chanting and none of the familiar faces. The splitting had begun and there’s too much going on in the country to even expect a crowd, but three Egyptians?! Three?!! and the three had come all the way from AlHaram despite the rain, the mud and the callings from Tahrir and else where today.

We waited till Mikhails lawyer came out saying he was refused and that Mikhail had an appointed lawyer the judge had chosen (I was beginning to feel I was watching a badly written sitcom by this point). He said the case was postponed till the 4th December. This will be the 7th time the case has been postponed and Mikhail will have spent over 100 days on his hunger strike. He also said Mikhail was coming out to be transferred back to prison in a few minutes. We decided to wait. We wanted him to see that he was not forgotten and that people with faces unfamiliar to him were there representing many (or so I convinced myself)… and indeed a couple of minutes later, the military truck transferring him came out… we knew it was him because his voice came ringing “Down with the Military Rule” “Yaskot Yaskot 7okm El3askar”… He led our chants for all of 30 seconds… and we, sending every atom of love, strength and support to him back in our echos could not help but cry as they drove off with him. I am not sure why we cried. We may have been ashamed at how few we were, maybe because we weren’t sure Mikhail would make it through the hunger strike till next week, maybe because with the elections coming up we feel Mikhail will be forgotten…. but what ever the reason, we all cried… I haven’t heard chants that caused me goosebumps this way in a long time… and I know I will be hearing Mikhail Nabil’s voice for many nights to come.

(You can read how right Mikhail Nabil was here http://www.maikelnabil.com/2011/03/army-and-people-wasnt-ever-one-hand.html)

Whatever happens, I decided today that I would not look back and regret not having stood for the freedom to all that I believe in… and I am writing this today to tell you that I believe with all my heart, that the best way to fight for your freedom is to fight for the freedom of others, fight for the freedom of those you do not necessarily agree with. Be there for Mikhail Sunday 4th December. It counts. It matters.