On Friday, November 18, I was standing in Cairo's Tahrir Square for the first time in 2011, inspired by the almost festive mood of the Million Man demonstration. Since Saturday, November 19th, the Egyptian Central Security Forces and the Egyptian Military have been attacking the protestors with live ammunition and potent teargas. There are now over 40 people killed and 3000 wounded and the violence continues.
The November 18 protest, the "Millioniya" as it is known in Arabic slang, had been called as a warning to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, (SCAF) which has been running the country since the fall of ex-President Hosni Mubarak. The SCAF had recently announced its intent to reserve supra-constitutional powers expecting the constitutional committee, which is being put into place, to accept this requirement. The protestors of the 'Millioniya' have no intention of allowing the Egyptian revolution of January 25, 2011, a true people's non-violent uprising, to be hijacked. At this time their stand is turning out to be deadly.
Yet as I stood there on Friday the 18th, Tahrir was filled with protestors of various political affiliations and for the most part, a funfair. People were serious in intent but also chatting with friends and acquaintances and buying smoked peanuts and lupini beans. It was my first time to Egypt since the January revolution and my friends were showing me around as I "relived" the glory of the revolution in Tahrir Square. I had longed to be a part of it having only experienced it vicariously glued to the internet and TV in January and February. As an Egyptian who has lived 40 years in the U.S. with part of my heart still left in Egypt, it was bittersweet; both a dream to be there and yet again being only an observer.
My visit throughout that week was largely a delightful tour of the "newly-born Egypt;" one that I had never imagined would come in my lifetime. I had come to participate in a forum on Universal Values and Social Transformation sponsored by the Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW), a U.S. based NGO. GPIW brings international spiritual leaders and practitioners to places that have recently experienced social upheaval. GPIW had arranged gatherings with Egyptian activists and similar contemplatives with the intent to participate in shepherding the healing efforts in Egypt. We found that the healing had already started. This was characterized by, as one of the GPIW international visitors, a Buddhist monk, noted, the absence of a need for vengeance for past injustices. Instead was a feeling among the 150 or so participants of keeping their eyes on the prize; a free Egypt.
I had spent the week from November 13 to 18 in a state of elation. I talked with the forum participants and with family and friends and saw a society transformed. The buzz was about the upcoming parliamentary elections and an open discussion of all facets of Egyptian society and politics. People are engaged, informed and empowered. Gone is the perpetual din of complaints, despair and negativity I had witnessed over my lifetime. People embrace democratic values innately. True, democracy is in its infancy but it is spreading from inside.
Egyptians have already vaulted the political gap of many decades and embraced principles and human rights they have never practiced. Freedom of expression, freedom of press, freedom of assembly and association are now a part of their expectations. Most of all, the fear is gone. The suffocating smog of fear created by Mubarak's repression and intimidation has been lifted.
A short afternoon visit to my father's family in Alexandria touched me deeply. The family tradition of a weekly Thursday gathering at my 76 year old Aunt's home was spirited and fun. In my eyes, my many cousins of all ages and my uncles and their wives, were transformed into citizens. In the past I had always considered them disaffected and indifferent, showing no sign of hope of altering their society and even their own lives. They had seemed complacent in accepting their fate as oppressed citizens with most limited of rights under the endless rule of Mubarak followed by his son succeeding as president.
That Thursday, without my asking, they shared their views on everything. The parliamentary elections, set for November 28, are a newly defined set of rules and processes. As described they are confusing involving elections over several days for a parliament that must include both individual candidates, (one third), plus two thirds of MPs voted in as part of party lists. In addition, a quota system requires the inclusion of laborers and the 'fallaheen,' i.e. Egypt's peasant class.
My father's family is from the fellaheen, now a generation removed, yet they are divided on this last point. The quota issue is a leftover from the former regime and while initially intended to be representative of a total constituency, it was seen as corruption with those spots reserved for Mubarak's cronies. My cousins described the debate over the quota and whether women should also have been a part of it; they weren't in the end.
They also described Egypt's dozens of parties and their ever changing coalitions in what is a complicated political landscape. From the outside, political and voter education is necessary for all classes of society. However, my family members have educated themselves about their voting rights.
Overall I found an impressive level of political savvy among Egyptians of many classes.
Among the concerns of my family and almost all the Egyptians I met, is the political capabilities of what they say are inflexible and rigid philosophies of parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, (MB), and other newly formed Islamist conservatives groups, known as the Salafi current. The fear is that these various groups will take the majority in parliament; appealing to the uneducated, illiterate masses of Egyptian society. The MB, and in particular the Salafi, use strong societal pressure; pushing on issues such as personal morality, to allure voters to usher in an Islamically-led political philosophy. They also play upon what Mubarak often used, the fear of international anti-Muslim sentiment.
My family's concern, and this is a true undercurrent in all of Egypt, is that the ultra-conservatives will rush into power and stay forever. They do not deny that MB and the Salafi should not have a place at the table, but rather that these political Islamists will not be able to, regardless of the somewhat compromising rhetoric that has been expressed by these groups , share power. My family fears that they will have to relinquish their newly experienced difference of opinion and that the MB and the Salafi will become a repressive force on the new Egypt. From their determination and excitement it does not seem likely they will let that happen. However the MB seems to be shooting itself in the foot and is forging opportunistic agreements with the SCAF. The lack of their presence now in Tahrir Square and in other protests is noted and Egyptians are losing respect.
Today, the ongoing conflict in Tahrir Square and all over the country between the people and the government is indication that most Egyptians, including my family and friends, will not succumb. By all confirmation it is both the military and the police attacking civilians. Many are saying that the continuation of the protestors in the street in spite of the risk is a second revolution, and perhaps a necessary one as the first may have come too easily.
Still standing in the square, the protestors are not conceding to any of the compromises thrown at them by the SCAF rejecting the new prime minister and demanding the SCAF step down now. In the midst of the unprecedented and gruesome violence, the protestors are determined to keep the elections on November 28 as well as the continued call of a presidential election as fast as possible. The demands are starting to be addressed with a detailed timetable being negotiated.
What happens next remains to be seen as changes are taking place minute by minute. Yet it is clear that Egyptians recognize the honor their accomplishment of January has earned them worldwide. They also recognize the responsibility. As one Egyptian woman at the GPIW forum expressed with solid determination, "We have no intention of giving up our revolution!" I, for one, believe they never will.