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Joshua Hoyt Headshot

Courage: Cairo, Egypt

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2011-09-29-tree.jpg
Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt: Graffiti portrait stenciled on a tree of a woman killed in the fight for Democracy during the "Egyptian Spring" Revolution. The inscription says: "My rights are on with you."
Few Americans understand the meaning of physical courage in politics. I am not talking about the moral courage of one's convictions, which is certainly present (though not often enough) in American politics. I am talking about putting one's own body in the way of a brutal beating, or risking arrest and certain sadistic torture, or even death, for one's beliefs.

I am reflecting on this after a day of meeting with many of the organizers of the "Egyptian Spring" uprising and 15 day vigil in Tahrir Square that toppled the 30-year-old dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.

As a young man I studied for my junior year of college at the Universidad Central of Barcelona in Spain. I was there in November of 1975 when the Spanish dictator of almost 40 years, General Francisco Franco died. I went to the Ramblas, the central walking boulevard in town, where I witnessed, experienced, and felt how dictatorships use terror to maintain their power. The Ramblas was full of roving wolf packs of fascist youth, working closely with the secret police and the military police.

There was fear in the air. Shopkeepers scurried to mop blood from the pavement and to shut down their flower shops and pet stands. The military police circled the zone in jeeps to intimidate opponents. The fascist gangs would encircle individual students suspected of being left wing, and then beat them bloody with chains and tire irons. No one spoke up, no one intervened, and I watched one of the beatings from 10 feet away, paralyzed with terror. Yet the political violence that I witnessed was not even close to what the opponents to Mubarak risked.

On June 6th of 2010 the police dragged the young blogger Khaled Said out of an Internet café and savagely beat him to death because he was exposing police corruption. If you have a stomach for the horribleness you can read about the incident and see a photo of Said before the beating and after his death. But if you choose to look at the photos ask yourself the question: "If this is the punishment for blogging and speaking out, would I be a blogger? Would I have the courage to denounce this?"

I ask the question because yesterday I met a slightly overweight engineer with glasses, Fekry Nabil, who began a secret life as one of three administrators of the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page after the murder of Said. This Facebook page attracted hundreds of thousands of followers, and was one of the first to call for the demonstration of Tuesday, January 25th, 2011 that launched the "Egyptian Spring." Nabil, along with Gamal Kamel and Egyptian American Muslim civil rights activist Ahmed Rehab yesterday described the three week whirlwind of mass protest that led to the shockingly sudden collapse of the Mubarak regime on February 11th.

Before the "Egyptian Spring" uprising, Egyptian security forces were so ubiquitous and so brutal, and opposition groups were so infiltrated, that only a small hard core of political activists participated in anti-regime protest. Mohamed Gamal was one of this small group. Gamal is a devout Muslim who, though not a member, worked closely with the Muslim Brotherhood because they represented the only viable expression of political opposition to Mubarak. Mohamed was arrested multiple times, and grew tired of the inefficacy of small protests where the activists were corralled by the police and arrested.

The protest of January 25th was different than the previous protests in part because much of the communication leading up to the protest took place through Facebook and Twitter, mediums that the government did not take seriously. On January 25th march organizers gathered in 11 separate locations and headed towards Tahrir Square. Ten of the groups were beaten back by the police, but one made it to and held Tahrir Square for a short time -- shocking all both within and outside of Egypt.

The streets were battlegrounds, which was unheard of in Cairo. Ahmed Rehab is a prominent commentator on Muslim civil rights in the U.S. (and a board member of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights). He described the scene by saying, "For those in Chicago it would be as if Michigan Avenue and the Daley Plaza were suddenly and unexpectedly the scene of mass demonstrations, choking tear gas, violent beatings of protesters by the police, and the occasional shooting of demonstrators by the police forces."

Nabil missed the demonstrations of January 25th. He had been detained as "suspicious" by the police while returning from a trip abroad. Fortunately the police never discovered his role as a leading e-activist. Nabil was released and participated in the subsequent mass demonstrations of January 28th. The arrest, 12-day detention, and eventual release on February 9th of his Facebook page co-administrator, a Google employee named Wael Ghonim, became international news.

The Mubarak regime was shocked by the large numbers of demonstrators on Tuesday, January 25th, and massively mobilized their police forces on the following Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Smaller street skirmishes kept the police on edge, and the regime shut down the Internet, cell phone, and even land line phone systems to prevent communications between the activists.

On Friday, January 28th the end of the Muslim Friday prayers (their Sabbath) around 2:00 launched massive marches from locations all across Cairo and its suburbs towards Tahrir Square. For most the idea of bringing down the Mubarak regime was unthinkable. Most would have been well satisfied with the dismissal of the Interior minister and a reduction in police brutality and corruption.

The marches grew spontaneously and gained momentum. Nabil Fekry and Ahmed Rehab began their march from the same Mosque (Mostafa Mahmoud, in the Mohandeseen district), though they did not know each other at the time. At first there was almost an exhilarating, celebratory aspect, with women, the elderly, children, and people for all social strata marching and joining in the chants. However as the march approached the Kasr al Nile bridge that crosses the Nile and leads into Tahir Square, a massive police cordon stopped the marchers.

There the elderly, women, and children faded away, as for the next hour hours tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of young men pushed into the police lines as they were tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets, beaten with batons, and eventually shot at with live ammunition. Protesters fought back with their bodies, then rocks, and finally Molotov cocktails. The violence on that bridge, and the struggle of the protesters to reach Tahrir Square, was posted on YouTube and shown repeatedly on international news. A short search on YouTube shows astounding footage, as video was uploaded almost as it happened.

Fekry Nabil saw one of his best friends die, shot point blank in the neck with a rubber bullet. During the day he saw 8 corpses, and police armored vehicles running over protesters. Gamal witnessed an elderly woman killed when a tear gas canister was fired into her face. Ahmed saw one of the first protesters to hurl his body at the police line beaten to death with police batons.

Each of the activists, Fekry, Gamal, and Ahmed, told how the rage and adrenaline provoked by the police violence changed the nature of the protest. The confrontations with the police raged across Cairo, with demonstrators using decentralized hit and run tactics and decoy attacks to exhaust and frustrate the police. During the course of the uprising some 850 people were killed. General Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal currently are in prison, accused of ordering the firing of live ammunition at protesters.

Late in the afternoon working class and poor youth arrived in marches from the further away suburbs. The fresh reinforcements rallied the tired protesters, and the poor youth had no problems confronting police violence with Molotov cocktails, clubs, and the arson of the headquarters of Mubarak's National Democratic Party headquarters, looming over Tahir Square.

Around 11:00 pm the police lines were overwhelmed and the police withdrew from the streets. The protesters occupied Tahir Square, and what began as a rally against police brutality became a determined sit-in with the demand for Mubarak's resignation. Tahrir Square was held as a democracy camp for the next 15 days in a back and forth, frequently violent defense from the attacks of police and civilian thugs. Around Cairo groups of thugs and secret police invaded the offices and homes of known opponents to the regime, beating, arresting, and torturing many of them.

Finally, on February 11, 2011 the military abandoned Mubarak and he resigned. During the Tahrir vigil Ahmed Rehab spoke repeatedly with the international press, well aware that his prominence on the media could make him a target of the police. "It was not when I was in Tahrir Square that I was afraid," he said. "It was when I was alone in my apartment. If the police were to knock on the door, it was over."

I end this post where I began it, on the question of courage. In 34 years of work as an organizer and activist for social justice in the U.S. I have never again had the feeling of helpless physical terror that I felt on the night that the dictator Franco died and I watched the fascists and police beating their opponents. I give thanks to God for our Democracy and the freedoms that we take for granted. And I honor the courage of those in Egypt who died and those who put their bodies and lives at risk in the struggle for these freedoms and an Egyptian democracy.

Joshua Hoyt has been a community organizer for the past 34 years, working largely in Chicago and often with Latino, Muslim, and other immigrant communities. He is travelling in Egypt to learn about the organizing of the "Egypt Spring." His reports and those of his colleagues (including Ahmed Rehab) can be read at www.icirr.org.