Maher Hathout is watching the protests taking place in Egypt today with an eerie mixture of nostalgia, hope, fear and déjà vu from his home in Southern California. An Egyptian-American, Hathout, 75, is one of the most progressive voices in American Islam.
But 60 years ago, Hathout was in the thick of student protests, battling riot police on the very same Kasir al Nil bridge that has already produced iconic images of protestors praying before torrents of water shot from water canons atop tanks and amid plumes of tear gas. Last week, the protestors played a game of advance and retreat with the police as they struggled to get past the police line and advance onto Tahrir Square, or Liberation Square. They succeeded.
60 years ago, as a young student protestor, Hathout says the scene was almost exactly the same. Thousands of protestors had flooded the same bridge, except then, the protestors were largely students; and, instead of heading to Tahrir Square, their goal was a mile east -- Abdin Square, home to the presidential palace. Then, like now, they demanded that their leader step down.
Gamal Abdel-Nasser, a young and charismatic officer, had, just two years earlier, led a bloodless military coup by Egypts "Free Officers," which included future President Anwar al-Sadat, overthrowing the Egyptian Monarchy and liberating the country from perceived British influence. He was hailed a national hero. Abroad, Nasser was also winning the hearts and minds of the Arab world through his talk of pan-Arab unity and because of his stance against the West. However, instead of returning the country to civilian rule as promised, he began to consolidate power, increasing opposition to his rule.
Internally, a power struggle had emerged between President Muhammad Naguib, one of the officers who had helped stage the coup, and Nasser, who was seen as the leader of the revolution. Naguib had demanded that the officers return to their barracks. The Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most popular and powerful opposition group, and the country's other political parties sided with Naguib.
A crackdown had already begun. Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and political activists had already been jailed by Nasser. But, on that day in 1954, on that very bridge, Hathout and others could smell the victory, the freedom. The leadership in the Muslim Brotherhood had planned the protest, keenly aware of the power struggle between the two leaders and certain that the time to support Naguib had come.
Hathout, then a student leader, was an agitator with close ties to the various groups on campus, including the Muslim Brotherhood. He had a reputation for fiery rhetoric and was adept at leading protests.
As the thousands of students started to cross the bridge, the leaders of the protest, some of whom were on motorcycles, were cut off from the rest by lorries of armed officers.
The sea of protestors had been decapitated from its leader. Hathout looked around and yelled to the students around him to hoist him above the crowd. He continued the chants demanding that Nasser return to his barracks, and that the constitution be reinstated to allow for democratic rule -- the same demands that are being made in Cairo today.
But then, without warning, the bullets began to fly. The students had never been fired on before. Normally, warning shots might be fired into the air, or the protestors would fend off some beatings. This time, blood filled the streets. The students frantically dispersed. Hathout ran through the crowd, panicked himself but trying to keep the protest from ending, yelling, "meet at Abdin, meet at Abdin." In the confusion, he suddenly found himself standing right before the firing squad. He had run the wrong way. He dove behind the stairs of the bridge to find a student, bleeding from a gunshot wound. A medical student, Hathout tore off his shirt to try to stop the bleeding, screaming for help. Others carried the young man off. Hathout made his way to Abdin Square, hiding the bloodied shirt from the people on the bus. When he arrived, though, it was all over. Within just a couple hours, an agreement had been reached between Naguib, Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood. With a wave of a hand from the balcony of the palace, the crowds dispersed. Hathout sat on the ground, pulling on the shirt-tails of other protestors, begging them not to leave.
Last week, the protestors took the bridge with no incidents. But today's violence in Tahrir Square brings back the memory of what happened to the students on the Kasir al-Nil bridge in 1954. It was the day that eventually consolidated Nasser's rule. Hathout and many of the other protestors, shortly after, were jailed, many for years. The student uprising would be quelled and years of relative quiet would ensue.
For years, the Mubarak regime has used fear the fear of Islamic groups both at home and abroad to justify it's autocratic rule. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood is taking a back seat in the protests in Egypt. The protestors on the bridge and at Tahrir Square this week come from all walks of Egyptian society. They are young and old, the impoverished as well as the middle class and some well-healed Egyptians. There are Muslims, Christians -- both religious and secular.
Unable to ignore the protests any longer or to discredit the peaceful protestors as terrorists or angry mobs, the regime today moved to another tried and true tactic of scaring the people by unleashing chaos on the streets of Cairo. Reports that looters and thugs were captured with identification cards from the Ministry of the Interior were reported by regular protestors on Twitter and by various news organizations. In the face of violence, over the last week, Egyptians have responded by creating their own neighborhood watch committees, organizing traffic and providing essential public services to neighbors in need. Ironically, this latest attempt by the government to wreak havoc may have backfired and produced more confidence on the part of the people, instilling people with the feeling that they no longer need a government they have come to see as corrupt and unable to meet their basic needs.
Throughout the week the government also attempted to isolate the protestors by cutting off access to mobile phones and stopping internet service for the entire country. The week's events, however, proved that it is difficult to cut off any place from the digital grid. Anti-government protestors got their messages out to friends around the world, who, in turn, posted and Tweeted away.
Last night, President Mubarak resorted to yet another old tactic: stalling for time. In his speech to the nation repeatedly pointing to his "30 years of service to the nation -- in times of war and in times of peace" the President called on the Egyptian people to trust him to finish out his term and to provide for an orderly transition of power.
These are, however, different times. This revolution is 60 years in the making. Official unemployment in Egypt is greater than 10 percent -- a gross underestimate -- and is up to three times that among the youth who make up the bulk of today's protestors. The protests against Nasser in the 1950s didn't quite capture the imagination of the entire nation. Many Egyptians were willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to a leader who had helped liberate them from monarchical and colonial rule.
Today's protestors are too young to remember Egypt's wars or to recall Mubarak's military service to his country. They have known no other president than Mubarak and to many in this generation, Mubarak has done little more than over-stay his welcome. In just the past few years Egypt has faced food shortages and unemployment has skyrocketed. The country's youth are struggling.
And the existence of Al Jazeera, Facebook and Twitter is assuring Egyptians that, this time, the world will not forget about them. Despite the regime's efforts to bring out its pro-Mubarak thugs, these social network sites are assuring Egyptians that they, in effect, will not be jailed. They will not be silenced.
The Egyptian regime can turn to its old tricks of intimidation. But the only thing that might bring down this revolution is more of the violence that we witnessed today at Tahrir Square.
Hathout and others who were on that bridge with him 60 years ago are watching carefully.
"We walked the same walk," Hathout said of the moment on the Kasir al-Nil bridge. "We were about to get there and it was stolen from us."
"And we are the one's who should be the least surprised," he said of today's violence. "We can be saddened and shocked, but not the least surprised. This is what dictatorships do ... The regime does not mind if it burns (the country) to ashes. But something deep in me says that the revolution will prevail -- but through a road full of suffering."
As if 60 years has not been enough.