On the first anniversary of the 25th of January Egyptian Revolution, I had the opportunity to commemorate it in more ways than one. While I really would have liked to have been in Tahrir Square with the millions celebrating in Cairo, I was stuck in Washington, DC contemplating ways to honor an event that I did not think would happen in my lifetime; the toppling of an oppressive regime that almost destroyed the country where I was born.
Although, I did get a taste of Tahrir via osmosis. The day before, I spoke to my father who is visiting Egypt for the last couple of months on a trip down memory lane away from his 40 years in the U.S. as an Egyptian American. As a man who enjoys adventure and who wants to experience everything at least once, he was anticipating joining the Tahrir crowd. He was as anxious as other Egyptians have been; concerned that celebration would turn to violence. However, he writes:
"I enjoyed my time in Tahrir Square pushing through half a million people. I listened to soapbox speeches, took pictures and mingled. There was lots of excitement of people of all ages, all classes and religious thinking. There were lots of vendors roasting peanuts and selling country sweets who did very good business. It was amazing to see them cook, sell and yell all at the same time."
Knowing how much my dad enjoys everything, I am sure he was a delighted as he sounded as well as awed by the magnificence of it. However, knowing his weakness for Egyptian hot roasted peanuts, I am sure he ate too many.
Back in Washington, DC however, I made my way to the Embassy of Egypt. I had been invited by the Ambassador, an invitation extended to the Egyptian American community, to a reception to celebrate the first anniversary of the 25th of January Egyptian Revolution. I had received this invitation by email several times in the last few weeks. I had also received several emails to join a protest that was to be held outside the Embassy at the same time to demonstrate against the continued rule in Egypt of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the SCAF. The SCAF, which initially said it would hold power for six months to transition the country through parliamentary and presidential elections and the writing of a new constitution, is seen as responsible for much of the violence against the civilians. Egyptians, and Egyptian Americans, have expressed frustration at the military rule they believe is as oppressive as the Mubarak regime.
There is heated debate and controversy in every Egyptian family over whether the army is to be blamed for the current problems or whether the political, economic and even social situations are natural outcomes of the revolution and patience and perseverance must be exercised. Many Egyptian families, including my extended family, have military officers or soldiers among them. After all, Egypt's military is one million strong. It is the tenth largest in the world thanks to decades of military aid from the United States. Most families see their military men as regular Egyptians, untainted by the corruption and living simple lives like the rest of them. However there is seething anger against the SCAF and thus the army by extension.
There have already been several protests in Washington, DC and elsewhere in the U.S. against the SCAF. The emails I received for the January 25th protest claimed that the Embassy reception was being held as a cover to show that "they" supported the revolution when "they" really did not. The protesters see any Egyptian government institution as an extension of the SCAF rule. The email said to bring signs and Egyptian flags to show the guests that we cannot celebrate yet. It stated that the revolution continues until the demands of the Egyptian people are met.
I had contemplated as to which invitation to take up and then opted for both. I am a believer in all ends of a spectrum. I think that in order for change to happen in Egypt, for democracy to develop, there needs to be people who work within the existing system to transform it. There also needs to be others who demand that the entire system change. My belief is that from the two sides, balance will come; compromise will be the final outcome. The two groups commemorating the anniversary of the revolution are exactly what are needed for positive change to come.
As I approached the Embassy of Egypt I saw a surreal scenario before me; video of military officers and soldiers beating civilians and massive protests against the military rule were projected on the massive Embassy gateway. I walked past the demonstration into the Embassy to a lovely reception. The guests were Egyptian Americans of all ages, both Muslim and Christian and, while it is difficult to determine class in America, most social classes were represented.
The Ambassador, Sameh Shoukry, is a refined diplomat who understands the weight of the task before him. He had served for years under the Mubarak regime, yet the Egyptian diplomatic corps had held a professional status and dignity throughout. He asked for a moment of silence for the martyrs of the revolution. In his remarks he acknowledged the protestors outside the Embassy honoring their rights to demonstrate to see a better Egypt. He said that both we, on the inside, and the protestors, on the outside, have the same goal; to herald change in Egypt toward democracy. He asked the guests to invite the protestors in partnership to work together towards that mission. Feeling quite comfortable after hearing that, I mingled and ate lots of mini-fool sandwiches and enjoyed the music.
My time was done and I walked outside the Embassy to join the demonstrators. As I rounded the barrier, I saw one woman look at me with hostility, but I kept walking into the crowd hoping to find my friends. My friends are newly-made in the last year over the course of our excitement of the revolution and building a new Egypt. These are the people committed to demanding the system topple and start over. Most feel that the revolution has been sidelined and that the constitution should be the first item of attention before elections. And while most were invited in as guests to the Embassy, their good conscience did not allow them to support a system they believe is a military junta with no intention of leaving power. They are doctors, lawyers, professors, students, taxi drivers, activists, professional moms, all ages, all classes, and Christian and Muslim. I felt right at home.
I relayed to my friends the Ambassador's message for partnership. I also told them that the music that was playing inside was the same music playing outside; songs of the revolution by new, free-to-be artists that have won the hearts of Egyptians. We talked and I waved good night knowing that my friends are gracious enough to understand that my conscience and my belief allows me to celebrate the January 25 Egyptian Revolution both inside the and outside the Embassy.
On my way home I stopped to speak with an Egyptian who is Nubian; an ethnic group within Egypt. He told me that he is not happy with either the people in the Embassy not the protestors outside. He said no one really understands the plight of the poor and the hungry in Egypt and the revolution has not been for them. I am really glad I met him. He is the most important change agent on the spectrum; he wants to change the world.