My change of heart during the Egyptian revolution
By Michael Burslem
Published: May 2011
Related Topics: Current Issues, Easter, Global Perspectives, Social Justice
As a Brit I've never before been a revolutionary. Revolution just isn't in our vocabulary. Our American friends, as we might expect, were all gung ho
on it from the start. My sympathies were entirely with Mr. Mubarak, who had served his country well in the Air Force, then as Vice-President under President Sadat, and then as President for 30 years, a total of 60 years. Because President Sadat had been assassinated I thought the emergency laws were a necessary part of Egyptian politics. The country would be ungovernable without them. So when the Egyptian young people started to rally in Tahrir Square on January 25th, to demand the overthrow of the government I thought they were an infernal nuisance. How could they disrupt the traffic through the square and restrict people from getting to their work down town, and not expect the government to dislodge them? I had very little sympathy for them, even after live rounds had been used. I was sorry that some had to be killed, but thought that if they had stayed home they wouldn't have got shot.
Well, that was before I started to look into the causes of the revolution more deeply. There were five main factors:
- Emergency laws
- Police brutality
- Blatant corruption in high places
- High cost of food and housing due to inflation
Egypt has operated under a 'state of emergency' since the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, for all but 18 months in 1980/81. It was reinstated after the assassination of president Sadat and emergency laws had continued in effect ever since. They allowed the president to outlaw demonstrations, hold detainees indefinitely without trial, and issue law by decree. Generally, emergency law provides the government with the authority to control every level of political activity. Under Emergency Law the people feared the police, rather than respected them, as the police brutally enforced the law (and became a law unto itself), as in the case of Khalid Said.
Said was a young businessman in Alexandria. On the evening of June 10, 2010, he was apprehended and beaten up outside an internet café. The police claimed that he had swallowed a joint of hashish when he saw the security forces coming and choked to death. His family were informed of his death, but were not allowed to see the body for obvious reasons (See Human Rights Now
, http://blog.amnestyusa.org/iar/egypt-stand-up-for-khalid-said, but if you're squeamish, don't). The family thought he was targeted because he was about to release a video that he had obtained from friends showing Egyptian police dividing up spoils of a drug bust. They persisted and found the body in a morgue. His brother took a photo of it and posted it on the internet. From there it got into Facebook Kullina Khalid Said—We're all Khalid Said
. Paul-Gordon Chandler, our rector in Maadi, whom I have introduced you to before, said that in his eight years in Cairo there have been many such Khalid Saids.
The blatant corruption in high places only came to my knowledge during the revolution. Mr. Mubarak, his family, and his senior ministers had sucked billions, not just millions, from the public treasury. They needed to learn that democracy isn't just having elections; public servants aren't pharaohs or pashas, but servants, and should be paid as such.
Youth unemployment is universal, but in Egypt it is higher in the educated classes, so it doesn't pay to go to university. The way ahead was by whom you knew, not through skill or hard work.
High food prices are also universal. In the West we can absorb the increases, but in developing countries they can't. Over half the population can't afford to buy meat. I used to think that this was the chief cause of the revolution until Paul-Gordon told me otherwise.
During the revolution we just sat tight in our apartment and watched it all unfold on TV. It was a bit scary because the government withdrew all the police from the streets and released all prisoners in the jails in order to produce mayhem which they could blame on the young people. For a few days it wasn't safe to go out, as the prisoners were looting stores and trying to break into several apartments. They torched the Carrefours shopping centre not too far from us. They were armed somehow and the sound of gunshot was common. People became very nervous and many friends were evacuated. Mohammed, our landlord escorted us to the local grocery to buy necessities, but stocks were very low. He had a loaded revolver. He and other young people formed a squad of vigilantes that protected our neighbourhood each night after the curfew. Most were armed with only sticks and knives. In our neighbourhood they caught eight prisoners and gave them pretty rough justice. Groups like that were formed all over the country. There was no law and order. That was restored only by the army, and one evening a tank rolled by under our window, cheered on by our sturdy vigilantes.
The chief outcome of the revolution surprised everybody. Not only did Mr. Mubarak leave the presidential palace on February 11, and the army take over and the country went berserk with euphoria—that was all to be expected—but what happened in the square during and after the revolution was not. The impossible happened. Muslims and Christians were seen praying together. After the revolution, when the public stormed the State Security Intelligence building, the Bastille
of the former government, a controversial document was found proposing an attack on a Coptic church. Could that church have been Saint Mark's and Saint Peter's in Alexandria, that was bombed on New Year Eve leaving 23 people dead and more than 90 wounded? Before, such sectarian violence had divided Copts and Muslims, but the revolution brought them together. There were numerous signs made in the square and painted all over the country showing the cross and the crescent. On a major highway near us there was a huge billboard with the Egyptian flag with the words "One Blood, One People." Signs like this began to appear after the church bombing, but they proliferated remarkably after the revolution.
The other amazing result of the revolution was that young people, Muslim and Christian working side by side, cleaned up the mess in the square, but didn't just stop there. They fanned out around the country. They swept the streets, painted the curbs, and did a general spring clean. They painted almost every wall they could find with the Egyptian colors, red white and black, with lots of crosses and crescents side by side.
But what of the future? I'm not so pessimistic as some by seeing the Muslim Brotherhood in the square. The Friday after the government fell, Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Sunni cleric and an outlawed member of the Muslim Brotherhood, spoke to the crowd in the square. This was his first public sermon in Egypt in 50 years, having been expelled all that time. He began by paying tribute to those who had died, Christian and Muslim. That was a moving experience. As one letter writer from London to the Al Ahram weekly paper wrote, "The Brotherhood may not be the perfect party...for everyone, but the unwarranted demonizing of the group by non-Egyptians is a great dis-service to the whole of Egypt. We have witnessed great solidarity between Christians and Muslims during the anti-Mubarak protests, which shows that Egyptians, if left to their own devices, can live together without serious secular tensions."
What really confirmed to me that I had become a revolutionary was an article my wife read in Rosayusef
, an Egyptian MacLeans
, by Ahmed abd elHameed elNaggar. In it he stated, "I saw God in Tahrir Square. I saw the God I know. Freedom, Justice, Peace and Love." I did too. It still gives me goose bumps. ...