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Egypt's quest for dignity - Anna Björkman

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Since my return to Stockholm on the 14th January, 2010, after two-and-a-half years in Egypt, my mornings have taken the following pattern: a bit before 7am my alarm clock calls a start to the new day, I turn on the Swedish P1 radio station for the news, breakfast, shower and off to work. In this way, I began my transition back into Swedish society, a hard process that even now feels unfinished.

Then, a year to the day after my return, the rule of Ben Ali in Tunisia came to an end. The region from which I had so recently returned, for which I still feel strong ties and deep affection, was embarking on a period of unexpected transition. On the 25th January the streets of my former home town of Alexandria, like those of Cairo, filled with protesters yelling: Al-ashab yurid isqat al-nizam! ‘The people demand the fall of the regime!’ I did not believe then that what the continuous and persistent protests called for was possible. I was wrong.

When I was still in Egypt there was, at times, a feeling of something brewing under the surface. I felt it particularly among the lower middle classes, hit hardest by rising food and fuel prices, and by political stagnation. They were sliding into poverty, barely scraping through the month with no allowance for unexpected expenses.

The Muslim Brotherhood was the only real opposition to Mubarak. Al-malak, my friends in Alexandria called him: ‘the king’. Not least because he had taken over the royal castles in al-muntaza, the large park at the northern tip of the city. The political situation and disillusionment with the Mubarak regime would often give rise to debate in public places – quite different from Syria, where I was told that ‘opposition to Assad cannot even be uttered in the toilet’. These debates would usually lead to speculation as to when he might be assassinated, and most often ended, the excitement passed, when someone brought up the might of the army and the security apparatus assuring the safety of Mubarak and his family. Not once did I hear a discussion about the possibility of revolution, perhaps because the young people I spoke with had as their reference point for political change the murder of Sadat in 1981; more probably because the idea that the divided masses of this enormous country would stand together on the streets with one united agenda seemed inconceivable.

‘Egypt is a universe, not a country,’ my Palestinian friend Youmna told me in 2008. She was right then, and she is right today. The class structure of Egyptian society is still shaped by colonial pasts, perpetuated by the symbolic proximity of the North to Europe and the Levant, and the South to continental Africa. Social class is determined by money, accent, skin colour, family name, and sometimes a mixture of all these elements. A person’s social standing would determine their university studies: a law degree, for example, was reserved for those with quite low grades from college, implying that the family could not afford to pay for extra lessons. (Not necessarily a sign that more knowledge had been acquired, but certainly of the possibility of paying bribes to the teachers for higher grades.) Foolish foreigner (khawaga) that I was, I tried to bring friends from different social classes together for my birthdays or other occasions. Usually these attempts worked only for the children, who paid no attention to social status. The parents soon grouped themselves into my two main rooms, separated by a long corridor; the only interaction between the different groups would be the mutual exchange of pleasant greetings and wishes for God’s protection of the respective families’ wellbeing. Besides these distances of social class, the sheer scale of the country - twice the size of Sweden, and four times that of the United Kingdom - made cohesion a struggle.

I should say that none of my friends in Alexandria were particularly engaged in activism for social change or politics, when I was there. They were like most other Egyptians: kind, warm-hearted, hospitable and with ‘light blood’ - damm khafeef - an expression that implies that they approach things lightly, trying to see the positive sides and the funny aspects of life’s harsh reality. When I started to suggest that we mount projects using culture to wake people from their everyday grind, their lack of involvement in social or cultural movements, my friends told me, ‘Anna, you will get a lot of gray hair and you will become very unhappy if you take on the challenges of this country as your own.’ I saw that they were right and that I, as a foreigner, did not have the capacity to create anything more than another elite club.

If you read Alaa Al Aswany’s books about Egypt, life in Cairo and Egyptians abroad, you will catch a glimpse of how the spheres of power in Egypt work, and also of the concerns of the poor.[1] Aswany predicted the revolution that started in January 2011. He was a part of the Kefaya (‘Enough’) movement, which brought together intellectuals and opposition activists with the aim of changing the regime. Kefaya had its peak in 2005, when presidential elections were held; after that, it continued to give rise to protests and strikes, but with less impact. Aswany did not predict a date for the revolution; but, interviewed by The Observer in 2009, he said:

I've read the history of Egypt very carefully. Don't be taken in by the way Egyptians look. It is not always significant. Before the 1919 revolution, we were occupied by the British. Our leader was sent into exile. I have read the [contemporaneous] reports of the British embassy and they say that they do not expect the Egyptian people to react to this at all. Yet the next day, the most important revolution in Middle East history took place![2]

I can still recall the smell of the so-called lakes outside of Alexandria, the stench of chemicals, sulphite and decomposition, and the way this smell would be carried to my bedroom by the morning breeze, as if Egypt was always my home; yet I see that I was, indeed, taken in by the way Egyptians look. I was fooled by the lightness of their blood, the impression of always choosing the easy way out of anything. Egyptians learn by heart at school, which leaves them poorly educated; but what they lack in knowledge, they make up for with ingenuity. Principles, religious or cultural, can be renegotiated, if there is a way of advancing one’s economic or social situation. I do not say this as a criticism: our priorities would be the same, if we were over 80 million people with absolutely no guarantee of help from any state institution, be it for medical care, food or other needs, and with few jobs that pay enough to make ends meet.

On the 25th January, 2011, Egypt rose up. Egyptians of all sizes and shapes, social classes and colours; Coptic Christians and Muslims, women, men, girls and boys took to the street. And in my kitchen, in Stockholm, every morning I listened without breathing to the news. I dared not breathe. The events that followed - the police and army crackdown, the ‘thugs’ let out of prison to create mayhem on the streets - all made me hold my breath. When the telephone and internet lines were cut, all I had of Egypt and my dear friends was the Swedish correspondent, Cecilia Udén, who continued reporting from Tahrir square, and whose voice made it into my kitchen at 7am on those cold mornings of late January, early February. And I wept. Tears were added to my morning rituals. Tears of joy, despair, fear or hope; separately, or mixed together, depending on the latest developments. While the winter morning was still dark, snow lay thick and calm outside my window, all I could do was get swept away with the sounds and the voices of the country that had so recently been my home. Al-ashab yurid isqat al-nizam.

At some level, the news of Mubarak’s stepping down on the 11th February left me worried. I thought of my friends in Alexandria, patrolling the streets at night to keep their mothers and sisters safe. I thought of friends who had not been to work since early January, knowing how they would be suffering from not getting their monthly salaries. But of course, I had been home for a year and was beginning to see the situation from a Swedish perspective. Egyptians are ingenious: they have ways of finding ways, ways of helping each other, in chains of services and loans within small community groups of friends or family, and they had won their fight for freedom. Now reports from friends began to fill my inbox. They were painting the facades of the rundown buildings on the Corniche, the road that runs along the seafront. Buildings that probably had not been painted since the 70s or 80s, and which gave Alexandria its unofficial strapline: ‘Nice, with acne’. Most of the emails and Facebook posts and news reports told stories of a newly-won pride. ‘It is the first time in my life that I can say I am an Egyptian and feel proud’ was a sentiment I heard and read many times. Tears of joy and pride accompanied my mornings, yet still I had reservations about what would come after. From Tunis and Egypt, the revolution moved on. Pride had been restored; now another struggle took over, the fight for dignity.

In Egypt, corruption runs deep. Governmental institutions were in a dire condition, even before the Mubarak regime, and this cautious edge to my hopes had to do with this. In June, I met an Egyptian PhD student in Stockholm, and she had only one thing on her mind: she wanted Mubarak executed. Others at lunch that day tried to tell her that democracy takes time, parties have to form, institutions have to be built, a constitution has to be drawn up. But to her and to many others, Mubarak’s head would represent a step toward dignity and justice, democracy would come later. The position was not hard to understand: democracy in post-revolution Egypt implies having to discover the political positions of each of 50 or so political parties, most of which came into existence after the 25th January, of which 14 are parties embracing political Islam. The electoral system is extraordinarily complex. Since most Egyptians had only experienced the rule of Mubarak, and were ill-acquainted with democratic procedures, it wasn’t so difficult to understand the need to see him punished.

And so the elections began. The military rule has been in some ways worse than Mubarak’s regime; protesters have stayed firmly on Tahrir square, in spite of occasional violence and clashes with military or police who have sought to evict them from the square without success. Election results so far point to a rather comfortable victory for the Freedom and Justice Party, otherwise known as the Muslim Brotherhood. The Salafist party (Hezb al-Nour, the party of the light) has also done well. Islam stands for purity and dignity, and has become the bonding currency of Arab countries. People have faith that the righteous men (and some women) who represent parties calling themselves Islamist will be honest, that they will continue providing social services to poor people and will create a more just society than Mubarak’s. The Salafists are a relatively new and untainted party, adhering to radical Islam, and many poor people receive charity from them. (Inspiration for the Salafi movement comes from Saudi Arabia, as does its funding.)

All of this causes unease in the West: fears over the future of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the broader power dynamics of the region feed the stigmatisation of political Islam as a hostile power. But maybe now it is our turn to be patient? Our Arab neighbours fought for freedom and democracy, and they have taken steps towards getting there. Social justice movements around the world have already been inspired by the Arab Spring. In 2011, we owed our inspiration to gather and to protest for dignity, for social justice and for what matters, to Tunisia and to Egypt. In Tel Aviv, the J14 movement ‘Walked like Egyptians’, while on Twitter, Occupy protesters report learning and chanting Al-ashab yurid isqat al-nizam.

I’m not defending Islamists. I worry about how they will affect the possibilities for women to be part of public life and to participate in politics. I worry about family law being guided by Shari’a, as it discriminates against women. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the women’s movements are quite strong and united, and throughout the ongoing revolution, Egyptian women have marched side-by-side with men, or on their own in women’s marches protected by solidarity walls made up of men, to raise awareness and to stop discrimination. In Egypt, the events of 2011 gave rise to a new kind of civil society: a grassroots movement that is not divided across the lines of class, religion, sex or geographic location. The Egyptians have united and have not given up; they stood up to Mubarak, they stood up to thugs and police, they stood up to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and to whatever powers have been trying to alienate Coptic Christians from Muslims, they stood up to sexual harassment, and they are still standing. Tahrir square has become a symbol for the Arab Spring and for revolutions and protesters across the globe.

I did not believe that such a divided universe of a country would find a way to speak a united language in so short a time. The lightness of the Egyptian blood saw, in the Tunisian example, an opportunity to live a better life, grasping that chance to turn a bad situation into a new beginning. In my kitchen, on those winter mornings, I sometimes felt that I have wanted to be back there; but I realised that it wasn't my revolution, it was the Egyptian people's, all of them, united.

I do not claim that Egyptian civil society has changed in structural terms, or in a sustainable way; the challenges that lie ahead for the country are enormous. Yet I see hope in the way that Tahrir square now represents a gathering place for all kinds of Egyptians, and the way they have come back, when there is a need to reclaim hold of the revolution. I now have faith in the movements of Egypt and the bonding power which the revolution has created. The pride felt by Egyptians after Mubarak’s departure and the cohesion of civil society will now be put to the test, with the results and aftermath of the elections. I still worry for my beloved universe.

They say that if you drink the water of the Nile you will be bound to Egypt - umm al-dunia, 'mother of the world' - forever; that you cannot resist being drawn back to its power. To me, that power is made up of the Egyptian people who can move me to tears, and have taught me generosity and humanity. Keep up the quest for dignity, keep up the revolution!

  1. Alaa Al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building transl. Humphrey Davies (London: HarperPerennial, 2007); Friendly Fire: Ten Tales of Today’s Cairo transl. Humphrey Davies (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2008); Chicago transl. Farouk Abdel Wahab (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2008)
  2. Rachel Cooke, 'The Interview: Alaa al Aswany', The Observer, 31 May 2009, R4