Defending Egypt's streets, and finding a new community
Thanks to the Egyptian authorities, the revolution that is unfolding on Egypt’s streets will not air live on most of its TVs, Twitter feeds or Facebook pages. But that doesn’t mean revolution isn’t happening. It is, and I’m living it.
On January 28, the police were ordered off the streets around the country. The result was predictable chaos. Prisoners escaped from jails (with assistance, it is assumed), and many took advantage of the lack of security that ensued.
The people that Egyptians normally turned to for protection were the ones doing the attacking and, as a result, many feared the whole of Cairo would erupt into anarchy and turmoil. That did not quite happen, but it could have had it not been for two factors.
The first is that the army was called into the city, and were actively chasing down thugs and vandals. The second – to which I can personally attest – was something more spontaneous. People power.
I’ve spent years in Egypt over my life, and love this country for a number of reasons. But an active civil society is not one of them. There is no neighbourhood council around Ma’adi, a wealthy district in Cairo’s southeast where I currently am. Participation in politics has long been nonexistent. Yet in the early evening last Friday, that all changed.
When I took to the streets that night, the original interest was to help defend my family and neighbourhood from vandals, who roamed free amid the police vacuum. As I came outside, however, I found myself not alone. Many of the men of the apartment blocks and houses had left their homes for the same reasons. We were bound by similar fates, and fears.
Our cooperation was immediate. We established road blocks in the street, and searched vehicles coming into the neighbourhood. We fashioned weapons out of clubs, blocks of wood and pipes. We even delivered escaped convicts, whom we had caught, back to the army. It was almost comical how brave people had become, from the old man who scared everyone with his bellowing voice to the party animal from a nearby street who turned into what I can only call an Egyptian Rambo, complete with a buck knife and tattoos.
Most notable, though, was the civility with which we treated each other, both those on patrol and those we stopped. There was no abuse, rudeness or ill will. When cars were stopped and searched, everyone behaved with the utmost politeness and respect.
People brought out tea and coffee, sweets and biscuits, sandwiches and crisps, to keep the neighbourhood patrol fuelled. Old squabbles were absent. In their place was camaraderie and good nature. We were truly a multinational, non-sectarian force. I heard stories of Christians standing guard while Muslims performed their prayers. Expatriates joined Egyptians to defend their collective streets. As the nights went on, more piled into the streets, bringing their children to show how people protected their neighbourhoods together.
As we stood guard, something else emerged: a collective sense of mission. We were all in this together, regardless of class or background. This was something unusual in the area I helped defend, where the gap between rich and poor is wide. But on these nights, class standing disappeared. It just wasn’t relevant anymore.
There were those who worried about stability and the safety of their families, who would never have supported an uprising for those same reasons. But when reports arrived of how the government was responding, the unifying feeling was one of revulsion. Everyone I spoke to held the government directly culpable for the unrest we defended against, and years of repression that preceded it.
People around me wanted two things: security on their street, and the whole of Egypt’s government to change. For a long time Egyptians have been told these two demands are mutually exclusive. But the people of Ma’adi and elsewhere in the country don’t seem to be convinced of that anymore.
No one really knows what will bring the current crisis to an end. But as I’ve learned first hand, this revolution is real, it’s powerful, and it’s bringing Egyptians together like nothing I’ve ever seen.
Dr. HA Hellyer is a fellow of the University of Warwick and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article was published by the National on February 2, 2011:
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