It is hard to find words to describe the sense of immense, almost otherworldly joy that has enraptured Egyptians here in Canada who witnessed the miracle that unfolded over the course of the Egyptian revolution, and came to ecstatic fruition Friday evening. Over those 18 days, as we watched minute by minute, hour by hour, as the Egypt that we and our parents left behind shook off the debris of the Mubarak dictatorship to re-emerge with its eyes open, determined, proud, joyous.
I was born in 1983, two years after Mubarak took power after Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981. Since my childhood, I've played audience to countless conversations between Egyptian friends and family members on whether, if, and how Egypt can ever regain its past greatness. This protracted debate was roughly defined by two perspectives: Egyptians who had seen the country before dictatorship, and those for whom life in Egypt has always been grindingly hard. For some, Mubarak's regime had become so woven into their existence that they defended it, if meekly, claiming it was preferable to the devil they didn't know -- namely, the threat of an Islamist theocratic take-over that would capitalize on our own supposed apathy.
Nonetheless, many young Egyptians, both at home and in the diaspora, can attest to the dreamy yet saddened mood that came over their parents and grandparents whenever they spoke of that idyllic era between the nationalist revolution led by Wafdist Saad Zaghloul against British occupation in 1919 and Nasser's slow erosion of the democratic process in the late 50s and early 60s, compounded by the devastating wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973.
That Egypt of their memory was the home of literary giant Naguib Mahfouz and the flawed, haunting characters that inhabited them, his children of the alleys. It was the Egypt of 'Umm Khoulthoum, the Great Lady, the Incomparable Voice. It was in this Egypt that one of the greatest thinkers of our time, Edward Said, took refuge and grew up after his family was exiled from Palestine. The whole world watched in tense disbelief as this Egypt ignored both the western powers and the USSR by nationalizing the Suez Canal in 1956, thus signaling the closing hour of the British Empire. Just like that, the sun went down on three hundred years of dominance upon which, it was said, the sun never sets.
And, just like that, it is on the banks of our own iconic Nile that the tide of global history has changed again.
Through the 70s and 80s, Egypt fell under the grip of a succession of U.S.-supported autocratic regimes, as the legacy of the Free Officers passed into the unelected hands of Anwar Sadat and then later Hosni Mubarak. Egyptians have never been able to forgive Sadat for signing the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, not out of blind hatred for "the enemy," but for locking their country into an exploitative, humiliating relationship with the west that benefited few in Egypt besides a bloated class of cronies cum businessmen cum parliamentarians. This era witnessed the rise of isolationism, radicalism, and stagnation, as well as the ominous deepening of drastic income disparities. With an ebb in Pan-Arabist and nationalist feeling, Muslims and Christians began to close rank around religious identity. Christians, being the minority, bore the brunt of discrimination, which the regime did nothing to alleviate. Egyptian women, moreover, suffered unprecedentedly during the Mubarak era.
Over the years, Egyptians felt alienated from the country and each other, and a thick cloud of dust and grime came to settle atop that other, fabled Egypt. They knew that something had changed, but few could understand exactly why or how. They felt disoriented in this surreal new place with the same flag and borders.
Alaa Al-Aswany captured this sense of dazed grief in his award-winning novel, The Yacubian Building (2002). His aging playboy protagonist Zaki el Dessouki tried to drown it in drink, debauchery, and an almost masochistic nostalgia. Meanwhile, somewhere across the building's web of relationships, the educated but frustrated young Taha el Shalzi did the same with religious utopianism and homicidal violence. As inhabitants of the Yacoubian building embraced the various refuges of the subjugated, elsewhere in the once-glorious apartment block, one corrupted parliamentarian explained to another the secret to power in Mubarak's Egypt: "The Egyptians are the easiest people in the world to rule," he confides. "The moment you take power, they submit to you and grovel to you and you can do what you want with them." Or so they thought, until just three weeks ago.
Until just three weeks ago, most Egyptians had been content to wait it out until this coming September, when Mubarak was expected to depart either of natural or political causes. The recent return to Egypt of Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei had stirred something long buried, a quiet hope that democracy was within reach. But in typical fashion, the regime responded by working double-time to consolidate either the succession of Mubarak's son, Gamal, or even the "re-election" of the elder despot himself. Mubarak had long promised Egyptians that he would remain their leader until his dying breath, but this promise had come to feel more like a threat.
Just three weeks ago, the seemingly impossible happened: The patience of the Egyptian youth finally ran out, and Tunisia spoke to them like an oracle. A courageous young woman and member of the April 6 Youth movement, Asmaa Mahfouz, broadcast a stirring call to all Egyptians to join her and her friends on Jan. 25 in Tahrir Square. Her rallying call was as ingenious as it was rousing: Though Mahfouz clearly needed no man's help or protection, she turned the tables of honour upon those who would disparage women for protesting publicly, challenging the patriotism, manhood, and very humanity of her audience. It worked. They came in the thousands, then millions, and would not stop coming for 18 days and 18 nights.
They carried upon their hearts the banner of whistle-blower Khaled Said, tortured and murdered last year by the Interior Ministry's infamous secret police, the first martyr and patron saint of the revolution.
In their effort to grasp onto power, Mubarak and Omar Suleiman (and Israel and Fox News, for that matter) had worked furiously to spin and contort the revolution for public consumption, both within the country and beyond. But Mubarak's claims that Egypt would fall into "chaos" without him seemed like an absurdity to anyone who witnessed the "chaos" that befell the country when state services were withheld and Egypt's youth took up the mantle of management themselves: directing traffic, cleaning the streets, feeding each other, and protecting their neighbours. An army of doctors, including my mother, volunteered daily to provide free medical care in Tahrir and elsewhere.
Throughout his presidency, and into his last obstinate days, Mubarak claimed that he and his police state were the only line of defense against extremism and terrorism. But the worst terrorist attack against Copts in Egyptian history took place this past January under his watch (and possibly by his regime's hand); meanwhile, not a single attack occurred during the entire 10 days when security forces were withdrawn across the country. To the contrary, Muslims and Christians guarded each other during their prayers.
On the 4th day of protests, Omar Suleiman showed a surprising, if unwitting, capacity for irony, saying that reform will only be possible "when Egypt has a culture of democracy." Somehow, despite his regime's best efforts to crush it, this culture of democracy sprung from Egyptians like their own breath. Even today, a CNN reporter remarked that this was the first revolution she could recall where the people came back later to clean up after themselves.
As they fought and died for democracy, the selfless, peaceful Egyptians of Tahrir defied all of the narratives and stereotypes of Arabs that they were expected to perform -- that we are apathetic and unchanging, that we don't want democracy and even resist it. They have rejected the lawless, fanatical, irrationally America-hating bit part that they were supposedly born to play. That funhouse mirror of Egypt has been shattered; Egyptians no longer see themselves through it, and neither can the world.
Almost as overwhelming as the revolution itself is the blessing of my parents and grandparents being alive to witness the rebirth of Egypt's greatness -- not greatness in power or weapons, but in its people. I am no nationalist, by principle, but the euphoria of unity of purpose that has come over the Egyptian people is too powerful to deny; it will be needed to carry them into the next era of Egyptian history. Today, unlike any day over the last thirty years and more, Egyptians sport the collective glow of dignity and accomplishment, and remain driven by a mission to restore their country and build this "new Egypt," an Egypt they suddenly feel ownership of and pride in. Their futures, they sense, are theirs again.
As ElBaradei cautioned shortly after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation, the road ahead is long and there is still much to be done. Very true. But the heart of the revolution -- the younger generation and their dreams for themselves and their children -- has not stopped beating. Egyptians are committed to the goals of the revolution. They will not settle for anything less than the civil democracy and the human and political rights and freedoms they have been fighting for, and for which nearly 400 people lost their lives over those eighteen days. They will never accept a return to subjugation.
The Egyptian people, both in Egypt and abroad, will one day, no doubt, recount the stories of these weeks to their children and grandchildren with a dreamy, but not saddened, expression. I hope this feeling really is contagious, and drifts like a wind across Tunisia's and Egypt's borders to likewise lift up our neighbours.
Sarah Ghabrial is a PhD candidate in History at McGill and a daughter of Egypt.
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