Betting on Egypt

At the strangest of times when I am in London, I remember Egypt – and vice versa. I am sitting in anticipation, like millions of people around the globe, awaiting the announcement of the presidential elections. I am irritated that instead of thinking of what everyone else is thinking, I an entertaining silly thoughts, like, for instance, how the English love to bet on everything and that walking past Paddy Power shop windows, I would, no doubt, be seeing “Morsi vs. Shafiq” signs. It’s different in Egypt though; not just because betting is prohibited (at least in public), but also because when you bet, one thing happens and not the other. And, as any politically aware person will tell you, the two candidate’s running this presidential race are not set to “win” anything. Whoever is announced, as being 50.9% in the lead and the people who are inclined one way or the other, will not “win”. This is the first election between two runners up where someone entirely out of the competition is in the lead.

Hysteria is gripping anyone who is thinking politics. Normality and apathy are the lived experience of anyone whose life in Egypt is a daily struggle to put food on the table that they have forgotten what day of the week it is. Many are bored and just as many are angry without really understanding what the results will actually mean. What do I think? I think that the results will mean nothing at all in terms of political relevance. Either president, who will be doing the victory dance for going down in history as the 5th President of Egypt, will really be celebrating becoming the new mask for those who really are in power – the mask for the next few months (yes, I do not think that this one will last the four year term).

People have turned an eye from the Constitutional Declaration issued by SCAF recently and are concentrating on which area (Nasr City) or (Tahrir) will be pulling at the fireworks (a lucrative business this time of year). This is the same mistake we are guilty of repeating for the last 18 months. We are a bunch of people easily distracted – rumors, shootouts, parliament (yes, even parliament turned out to be a distraction too) and we are not focusing on the real game. We were even recently distracted by how Mrs. Morsi chooses to dress – this highlighted the acute inconsistency we suffer. It is important to note that Khalid Saeed’s mother, who the very same people look to with the utmost pride, wears the same attire. It was also a shame to see that the liberals fighting for civil freedoms were the same ones poking fun at her.

The rat race – oh sorry, the presidential race – is not entirely political. It has been an opportunity to highlight the social differences people are battling with in Egypt. While there are no official records of the election results, indications show that Morsi won the vast majority of Upper Egypt’s votes (mainly impoverished areas) and Shafiq won most the Delta’s large constituencies (the urbanized affluent who have material things to protect). While people are occupied with legitimacy, it is these differences and the underlying fears and motivations that interest me and should interest all those who care for the long term welfare of this country; because, even if the results are non representative, the incentive behind voting for one candidate over the other is more than relevant.

The position taken by the activists was confusing. The race saw the Social Revolutionaries back Morsi – they would have backed the devil if he was the only opponent to any one at all connected to the old regime, but later changed position once Morsi refused to withdraw his candidacy after Parliament got dissolved. Some supported Morsi out of principles and others were accused of selling out their revolutionary spirit because their hatred and mistrust for the Brotherhood blinded them, so much so, that they began seeing ex air force commander Ahmed Shafiq (with SCAF behind him) will be the guardian of a ‘civilian’ state.

So we sit here with the same feeling you have when you are in a hospital waiting room knowing that you will get bad news shortly, just not knowing how bad. The only thing that’s keeping my spirits up is Egypt’s history of having a “brush your self off and get up” culture. I’m betting today, not on the politics of Egypt, but on the people who’s kindness, generosity and humor are mentioned in every book I have ever picked up that has been written on this magical land.

** Nelly Ai is an anthropologist who teaches at the Institute of Education, University of London and Anglia Ruskin University in the UK. She is currently in Cairo for her PhD research and is an active observer and commentator on Egypt and the Arab World.

This article was originally published on Bikya Masr here: Betting on Egypt.

Egypt, the Elections and a Culture of Waste

 

Piece originally published in Bikya Masr. Egypt, the elections and a culture of waste.

Everyone in Egypt is playing the guessing game. Conspiracy theorists are of one opinion one day and another the next – a great indication that win by either candidate is a disaster to both the future of Egypt and to the revolution. If the Muslim Brotherhood wins, it is the end of a dream towards a secular state and a blow to the struggle towards equality. If Shafiq wins, then it’s the end of the freedom of expression and many of us will probably be rounded up, legally of course, and we will be sold the idea of stability at the price of civil freedom. There is currently one thing that is occupying my mind more than the question everyone is trying to guess the answer to, of whether Moursi, or Shafiq will win the current Egyptian Presidential Elections. This thing is: waste.

I cannot get over the idea of waste in the last 18 months since the start of our fight to overthrow the 60 year old dictatorship in Egypt. The waste of life is self-explanatory – those who died during these months were peaceful protestors, mostly young with many dreams of a future with the most basic of rights demanded. They were part of a wider group of people that were counted in millions. Killing these hopefuls did not curb the numbers. The oppressors we are still fighting today wasted these precious people’s lives. But this is not the waste I am speaking of today. I am writing about material waste – money, time and opportunity. We have had, in the last 18 months, 3 occasions where the people of Egypt were granted official days off approved by governments which were not approved by the people and millions of scarce Egyptian pounds spent on campaigns, on the process – only to be told a few months later that their vote actually did not mean all that much and either the result was invalid or they were voting for something unconstitutional etc.

We were all proud in March 2011 when the queues for votes were longer than the queues for bread. I am not sure who went out counting either queue, but we were proud, nonetheless, and we saw this as the first fruit of democracy that we were reaping. People watched closely and began to lose focus as we started to lose understanding of how these votes were being used. The constitution; which the referendum was about got beaten and baked into a completely sour dish and not the cake people were expecting. Then, last winter, 9 months after the referendum, perhaps this is the length of time for Egyptians to get over their disappointments and forget, a huge Parliamentary campaign began for candidates whom we have never seen the faces of before. I was part of one of these campaigns. I was not advocating a party or a particular candidate; I was tagging along networking and grabbing the chance to visit parts of Egypt for my own PhD research. Again, all I could think of was “waste”.  Other than the obvious mishap this is for real democracy, whatever that term actually means, what angers me the most is the amount of wasted money in a country whose economy has been crippled by the uprising! I’m here doing research with street kids for my PhD. One of the most reputable organizations, Hope Village who does phenomenal work with these kids for the last 24 years has seen its donations fall by 50 % over the last year!

Everyone was complaining about the “wheel of production” (which, by the way, no one speaks of now since this wheel is not being touched by protestors any longer) and that Egypt was at the brink of a devastating economic fall. And here were candidates who spent millions for a chance of gaining and securing more votes in constituencies they knew nothing of, candidates who burnt their own campaign offices to create negative press for their opponents. The vote resulted in a parliament that was non-representative of the people and definitely not representative of the whole population – one look and you could not find Wally – where were the Copts? Where were the women? Actually, stop, where were the representatives of the revolution – and I am talking about the all the revolutionary youth, including the Muslim Brotherhood revolutionary youth? They were scattered and weak in numbers, weak in power and weak in support. If this was not enough to dampen the spirits of the voters who tuned into their TV sets to the embarrassment of a Parliament with no political experience, with no history of debate of compromise flooded their sets, then what did flood their enthusiasm was a ruling, backed by SCAF, 6 months later, which saw the entire parliament dissolved, as being unconstitutional. People were quick to call this a smooth military coup – umm, where were you on the 11th February 2012 when the smoothest of military coups was taking place?

This was all after the voters had taken their third leap of faith and gone out, again in millions, to vote for the next president. Here came the waste of opportunity. The final results showed that a vote for the “revolutionary” candidate’s far outweighed those that went for the votes towards fake stability (or candidate’s that had ties to the old regime). Now my question is, why did they not unite? Why were no coalitions formed, when four out of the twelve, yes twelve, candidates were revolutionary leftists?! And now we wait to see which twist of fate awaits us, for in Egypt, there is no logical sequence of events, it seems that the results, just like constitutional declarations are “divine” and cannot be predicted.

So here we are here awaiting the results of our wasted opportunities, we are kept busy by conspiracy predictions (did you know that a case that may see the Muslim Brotherhood declared void as a political party and have their assets confiscated was adjourned to September this year?) And of course, we are kept more then occupied with rumors. Do you have any idea, reader, how many times Hosni Mubarak died in the last fortnight?!

Even if we are to assume best intentions of all involved, Egypt today is in a complete political mess. I abstained. I boycotted – and, may I add, I did so proudly. I said it before, I will say it here for the record: voting for Moursi was like amputating the legs and arms of the revolution; voting Shafiq was like giving it a shot in the brain, close range. Depending on your views on Euthanasia, you would have voted. Personally, I don’t think we should have either maimed or killed the revolution. I believe that all things worthwhile take time, and we should be willing to sacrifice during this time and fight for a tomorrow that we may not live to see, but one which we would be proud of creating for generations to come, as long as we are insisting on bring them into this world.

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.

Flags of Loyalty: The Football Massacre

 

“Some people think that football is a matter of life and death; I think they are stupid. Football is far more serious a subject than that!” Those were the words of Bill Shankley. You will often find them in the humorous quotes section. But I found no quote more appropriate to start off this post after the recent events in Egypt where 13,000 home fans stormed the football pitch in Port Said armed with knives and machetes claiming the lives of 74 young men.

Loyalty to country and to football club! These are the two loyalties in Egypt which cross sectarian, social and class structures. The main flag and the sub flags. But it was still hard to write about football, fans, revolution and death all in one post. It wouldn’t have readily occurred to me what they all had in common. However, links between football and politics are not new – some more serious than others and some more deadly than others. Egypt is not unique in this. Keeping aside the difference in detail and circumstance, one only needs to remember the infamous Winnie Mandela’s United Football Club and their bloodthirsty rhetoric in South Africa. Winnie’s bittering relationship with the Mass Democratic Movement in the 1980’s involved the conflict centered largely by her infamous Mandela United Football Club.

Coincidentally, the Port Said disaster took place on the first anniversary of the camel battle of Mubarak’s loyalists into Tahrir Square. It made the seventy-four deaths personal to those holding not only the football team flag but also the flag seen at the top; the flag held over and above. The ultras had used their experience confronting police at matches to play a significant role in defending Cairo’s Tahrir Square – the heart of the Egyptian uprising – against Mubarak’s security forces. Many on the streets saw the deaths of the Ahly Ultras as punishment for their role in the revolution and not an unfortunate accident.

Tahrir Square once again became the home of the angry, the bereaved and the helpless. Rivals Ahly and Zamalek put hostilities aside and fans stood side by side once again at the frontlines. They marched from outside their respective clubs to Tahrir and, faithfully, Egypt demonstrated its solidarity. Again the square made its calling and again it claimed more lives – at least four more people were killed on Friday and the Ministry of Health announced around 1500 injured between Wednesday and Friday.

[“Facing the Tear Gas” Moment perfectly captured by @lilianwagdy flic.kr/p/bo7zHx]

The lack of security has been at the centre of public debate since the overthrow of Mubarak. It has been the reason the silent majority has remained silent; in hope that quietening the revolution would have it returned. But, subsequent disorder, from attacks on Coptic churches to the abductions, robberies and muggings, has been seen as characteristic of deeply uncertain times. Whether or not the Port Said massacre was deliberately coordinated should not be the focus. The truth of why this happened may always remain unknown, but how it happened is clear: in a city where the head of security was changed four days before the match, in an audience that did not include any officials, 6000 men, without tickets, were allowed into stadiums with weapons, doors were closed on an unarmed crowd, and as a result 74 young men were stabbed and crushed to death.

Whether the conspiracy theorists have, or haven’t got it right, responsibility for the Port Said events should lay with those who claim responsibility for the countries safety and security. Failure to acknowledge this, on the part of the government or the people, poses further threat to the future of Egypt’s stability. The police know, from past events, that they will not have to answer for the fatalities. The massacre and the lack of responsibility raise grave issues of competence, accountability and trust. Political crime or football riot, the consequences will have a big part to play in the fast paced shifting of Egypt’s political landscape.

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.

The Blind and the Blindfolded: Why I wont be Celebrating Jan 25th

Blood is often not given time to dry in Egypt before the betrayal of authority and the silence of the majority begins. It’s because both have not been close enough to smell that blood, to have it splattered on them while they help those braver than they are, to have pleaded for it to stop the death of a friend, to stare at it dried on the clothes they were wearing when attempting to be more influential than the laws of the universe. They betray that which has not hurt them, and that which has not been directly relevant. They forget the closeness of those who have.

There is much that revolution steals from the country it comes to free. 2011 is proof.

The very first day of the year the Two Saints Church saw a bombing that cost the Coptic community around 40 of its congregation celebrating the New Year. The Muslims came out in their thousands condemning the act, that the betrayal was not in their name. Then, 7th January, the Orthodox Christmas saw churches in Egypt surrounded by Muslims holding hands making sure the Christians felt safe inside the churches if not their country. Some say that how this catastrophe was dealt with is worthy of celebration. That this is how the Egyptian come together in distress and show the best of solidarity.

These shows of solidarity are always moving, always necessary and always temporary.

The events of this year moved at a pace too fast for anyone to stop at any one disaster; too fast for those who needed sympathy over the loss of a loved one to receive it before they found they had to be offering it to someone else with a more recent loss. There was a revolution in the winds that blew over Egypt. There was a freedom that would be taxed. The angel of death this year was the tax collector, demanding the debt on a freedom over due to be paid, by the young. And all year Egypt’s bravest were paying the price for generations that had lived and died on the land without ever questioning why it was embedded so deeply in their conscience that they did not deserve the rights so many had lost lives struggling for in other parts of the world.

I go through a continuum between rage and cringing when I hear people speaking of their plans for “celebrating” the coming 25th January. My immediate response is: celebrating what? Celebrating the death of hundreds of Egyptians killed at the hands of those who were meant to be protecting them? Celebrating the humiliation of those arrested/kidnapped by the forever present men of Mubarak’s regime? Or are you celebrating the good aim of the officers who blinded your youth? Perhaps you are celebrating the beatings of elderly women? No? That’s not what you’re celebrating?

Freedom maybe? Celebrating the 12,000 men, women, children on military trials? Thinking that freedom exists on the side of prison bars in which they sleep. As long as freedom fighters spend the night on the cold asphalt the other side of the bars we’re on, then we are not free. If we think we are, then we have not only deceived ourselves, but have betrayed those inside, whose only hope is that we remember them and don’t let go of the fight still waiting to be fought.

At any celebratory event in this age, we usually see a display of photographic shots that capture the essence of the journey towards that moment of triumph we’re celebrating. Which of these pictures will fill the square?

The one of the soldiers dragging the dead into the rubbish piles?

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The one of the Blue Bra Girl

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The one of the two old women beaten by the army while they crouch unarmed on the floor?

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The one of the soldiers urinating on the protestors?

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But even if these aren’t the pictures you’ll be using, even if you use the ones where the people are giving the army roses in February, then you are putting on display pictures that capture betrayal of the confidence obviously misplaced.

I’ll be first to wrap my hips and dance in celebration of this revolution when I don’t hear of hundreds unable to find gas for their homes, when they don’t stand hours for their share of bread when my fellow citizens are not more concerned why I was protesting than what I was protesting for. I will ululate when the execution of the law is predictable and reliable. When there is social justice and I am respected for my humanity then I will draw the posters of celebration myself.

The Egyptian flags that will be raised in triumph “celebrating” this revolution will not be big enough or bright enough to cover the blood and shame of killing the unarmed innocent, not big enough to cover up the lack of reason for locking away the brave who risk and give up much to say “NO!” to injustice. Those who lost their lives fighting for this revolution died for something we still haven’t had a taste of; were blinded and blind folded to give it life and hope. What they exchanged their lives, limbs, eyes and freedom for has still not been delivered, the deal has not yet been sealed. Only one side has paid and so as far as I’m concerned, there is nothing yet to celebrate.

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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