A Tale of Two Revolutions: Tahrir Then and Now

 

We’re walking along the Corniche El Nil towards Tahrir – a journey I made several times before during what will soon be called Egypt’s ‘first’ revolution, two and a half years ago. I am with my Egyptian boyfriend and we are going to celebrate the ‘coup d’un peuple’ that has just unseated President Mohamed Morsi, after four days of massive protests. Or rather, I am there to accompany him as he celebrates; as a foreigner, this is neither my battle nor my victory, despite my love for this country.

The noise is deafening. Car horns honk frantically – the familiar five-note beat that provides the soundtrack to most celebrations here. Drumbeats echo in the distance. Fireworks explode randomly around us – occasionally I hear gunshots too. Every other person seems to have a vuvuzela and all of them seem to be going off in my ear. Teenagers hang out of car windows, waving flags and shouting anti-Morsi and pro-Egypt slogans. Every now and then, a motorbike revs up behind us on the pavement and we scramble for cover.

I made a similar journey when Mubarak fell, back in February 2011, with a motley group, mostly expats, all of us in love with Egypt and determined to show our solidarity with our Egyptian friends and colleagues.  Back then, the women among us weren’t afraid of being mob raped or violently assaulted. Tonight, it is about all I can think of.

Gang rapes and sexual assaults in Tahrir have come to the forefront again over this latest protest, thanks to a vigorous campaign by groups like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguard. They monitor the teeming square, and provide regular, depressing updates. Sixty-eight women have been the victims of such assaults over the last couple of days (that figure is much higher now). I hear of one case on Friday, two days before the main protests are due to begin – a young European girl, stripped naked by around 100 men, groped, fingered and probed until she bled, finally taken to hospital where she required stitches.

I am a woman who values my independence and my freedom but tonight I cling to Sherif’s hand like my life depends on it. I am sure the other women were also accompanied by friends, probably even male friends, before they found themselves separated in the melee and set upon like prey. Everywhere, there are groups of young men – these too-thin, slightly feral, lithe, boy-men that congregate in Tahrir, waving flags, blowing their vuvuzelas, occasionally ripping off their T-shirts and breaking into sensual, impromptu dances.

We walk past Maspero and around the Egyptian Museum, dodging motorcycles and errant flags, trying to carve a path amongst the crowds. I can feel eyes flickering over me and I sense how easily things can change – how mob celebrations can turn into mob carnage in an instant. In the midst of it all, I see a couple holding a baby who is – miraculously – sleeping peacefully through this din. Only in Egypt, I think. I see the crowds surging ahead of me as the square comes into view.

On TV, Tahrir’s power is transcendent. You see a vast homogenous crowd, seemingly moving together in harmony, occasionally lit up by flickering lasers and random fireworks, shrouded in Cairo’s iconic skyline. Up close, it’s a disparate, teeming mess – a cacophony of voices, fireworks, music, traffic – of people moving in different directions, hawkers selling popcorn, mahalabiya, tameya, cotton candy. At this time of night too, it is overwhelmingly young and male.

There’s a frantic edge to the celebrations that I don’t recall in 2011. Despite aberrations like the Battle of the Camel, Tahrir then had become a sacred space – the symbolic heartland of an impossible revolution. The majority of us moved around freely (until, ironically, the night that Mubarak fell, when Cairo’s pandemic of sexual harassment returned to the square). Amid those celebrations, there was wonder, a sense of incredulity and an exuberant, unfettered joy – as if we had all stumbled into the same dream by mistake. Anything and everything seemed possible.

In the two and a half years since, however, Tahrir has borne witness to terror:  bloody battles and tragic deaths magnified by teargas and thugs, horrific gang rapes and assaults, terrible army intransigence, and an exclusive, rather than inclusive, government, at a time when the country desperately needed unity.  From being the heartland of hope, it became a place of no hope, tinged with darkness, where the city’s poor and disenfranchised flocked, littered with rubbish, street hawkers and a million shattered dreams.

Some of that darkness haunts the square still and it is present tonight – the square is dirtier, the people inside poorer, the dancing more frantic. The mood is part blood-letting, part celebration and part sheer relief.  The lumbering, charisma-free (former) president, sheltering under his notions of shariya (legitimacy), has left a country in worse condition than before – plagued by inflation, a faltering currency, power cuts, fuel shortages, sectarian strife and rising crime rates. Egypt has learned that revolutions, glorious though they may be, are only the beginning and the concept of democracy is flawed and fallible. And while millions may agree on removing an unpopular leader, agreeing on what comes next is much, much harder.

The last two years laid bare the fault lines that thirty years of dictatorship tried desperately to conceal – a poorly educated populace with no jobs and fewer opportunities, endemic harassment, institutionalized sexism and sectarianism, entrenched economic and political divides, and a crippling lack of leaders with the experience and moral authority to unite the country and lead it into the future. In Egypt’s favour are its people: pragmatic, resilient – and unwilling to suffer fools gladly. Few countries get a second chance at a revolution. If  a fraction of the energy that drew millions to Tahrir the first time round can be properly harnessed this time, there may just be a light at the end of this tunnel. Once again, we watch, we wait and we hope.

On the challenges of keeping an open heart

When I was much younger, I read an interview with Debra Winger – an actress I adored growing up – talking about a meeting she’d once had with Kathleen Turner, another strong, sensual 1980s heroine who’s sadly fallen off the radar today.

I can’t remember the specifics but Winger said she’d met Turner briefly at a party – or perhaps on a film set – and the latter had been friendly enough, but a little aloof. To paraphrase Winger, she said she got the impression that Turner had made all the friends she wanted in life and wasn’t interested in acquiring any more.

I must have been in my late teens or early twenties at this point and I remember thinking: Why would anyone do that?  There was something very disconcerting about it to me – this idea that you could suddenly reach a point where you’d made all the friends you needed in life and you weren’t interested in reaching out anymore, in meeting new people, in being challenged. It seemed to me to be the ultimate sign of a closed heart.  And a closed heart was exactly what I wanted to avoid.

As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve had two major, but very contradictory, realisations.  The first was a sudden and profound understanding of exactly what E.M. Forster – a writer I read a lot of in my youth – meant when he said ‘Only connect’ – an achingly simple phrase that was only very loosely penetrable to me in my teen years. (That connecting with your fellow human beings, whether by seeking out ‘kindred spirits,’ or by having a brief but uplifting exchange, was actually the very essence of life.) Living as I do here in Cairo, far away from family and friends, those words have often echoed in my head. People can make you miserable, no doubt, but they can also make you blissfully happy.

But running alongside that realization was the slow dawning that age and experience, and perhaps also my life as an expat, had terribly coloured my view of my fellow humans. I realized that I was no longer as willing as I once had been to give everyone a chance. No longer did I repeat to myself fervently that everyone had good and bad points; nor was I willing to be as open as I’d been before. I had better instincts now and I was more willing and able to follow those instincts. To put it another way, as I told friends, I had become smarter, and thus fussier, about who I spent my time with.

Perhaps that, in itself, is no bad thing – it seems to make sense that you should surround yourself with good people, as hundreds of positivity books will tell you.  There is the undeniable fact also that we understand ourselves better as we get older and become more comfortable with who we are, which then influences the choices we make. And yet, it still seems to me a fundamental fallacy, somehow – this idea that age and wisdom make you more discerning about people and your circle will narrow but strengthen as a result.

I think the truth is more prosaic – life and age can harden your heart, and sometimes you never even realize that it’s happening.  An accumulation of hurts, big and small, a multitude of let-downs – as is bound to happen in life – a cacophony of so-called ‘a-ha’ moments (I was an idiot to trust that person/ I was wrong about this one/ this person is going to let me down) and a few rejections move you further and further away from the open-hearted generous soul you once were, or may have aspired to be.

Once upon a time, I chose to trust and to accept that a bruised heart and ego might be an acceptable consequence of that choice, the price I would pay for having an open heart. Somewhere along the line though, I’ve lost that ability, to the extent that my life has now become littered with people who haven’t quite ‘made the grade,’ while the number of people who do make the cut become smaller and smaller.

At the end, it is always a choice. Living like this means a life lived from fear – a fear of rejection and hurt – a life lived from our lower rather than higher selves.  Better, I think, to force open our hearts once again, to live with courage and conviction and love, to remain open to life and to new people and all the challenges they may bring. If the heart is a muscle, as they say, only practice and exposure will strengthen it.

Overprotect it and it will wither away and slowly die.

The End of the Affair

 

 

 

I had my first cigarette at the age of 15. I’m not quite sure how I got my hands on one – perhaps a guest had inadvertently left a pack in our house. I lit it, tried to breathe in, coughed and promptly put it out. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience.

Later, in my first year at university in England, I tried again. This was more than 20 years ago, when smoking, and smokers, was still relatively cool. You could smoke in the majority of public places: on the top deck of buses, on certain carriages in trains, on station platforms, in smoking rooms in offices, in restaurants and bars, of course, and even – which shocks me now – in a cinema. (I still remember puffing away in the gloom of Coventry Odeon though the films I watched escape me).

For a good part of that year, I wasn’t properly smoking. I hadn’t learnt yet how to inhale a cigarette and suck the smoke into your lungs and slowly exhale, without turning red and collapsing into a coughing fit.  Nobody really teaches you how to have your first cigarette – probably because it’s too embarrassing to admit that it is your first cigarette. The fact that I had valiantly – and foolishly – decided to start my smoking life on Marlboro Reds, the crack cocaine of the cigarette world (as it seemed to me then), made my attempts even more painful.

There were many different types of smoker, I discovered. There were the social smokers, perhaps the least loved category – the bisexuals of the smoking world.  Their desire to smoke in the company of others, usually with a drink, would probably have been slightly less irritating if they’d remembered to buy their own cigarettes first.  There were the occasional smokers, who smoked casually and randomly – not dissimilar to the habitual smokers, who smoked because they were used to it and because they could. In Egypt, where I live now, there are many who fall into this category.

And then there were the hardcore smokers, who smoked as if their lives depended on it. Full of nervous energy, twitchy if too much time passed before their next one, sated by the act in the same way that a drug addict calms as he takes his first hit. I see these people now when I return to London, huddled outside bars and restaurants and offices come rain or snow, puffing away like it’s their last cigarette on earth, and it always reminds me of how much the world has changed since I started.

I smoked for many different reasons. I smoked to indulge the angst-ridden teen in me, who’d already decided on a vaguely self-destructive life involving plenty of cigarettes and alcohol, like all the best artists I knew (I was never hardcore enough to go down the drug route). Like many women, I also did it to keep the calories at bay. Instead of having a piece of chocolate, I would have… a cigarette. When my mother lectured me on the dangers of smoking and how I’d lose all my teeth before I was 50 (something that my dentist incidentally also confirmed to me not so long ago), I’d wail, “But would you rather I was fat?”  (This often worked on my mother, who fears fat even more than she fears a dead, toothless daughter.)

And I smoked to quell the restlessness in me, the desire for things I didn’t have and didn’t yet know I wanted, the moments when my romantic soul almost imploded with longing. I smoked when I was angry. I smoked when I was sad – all my relationship break-ups can be characterized by days of sitting under a cloud of smoke, listening to the most mournful music I could find. I smoked when I was happy and out drinking and dancing. I smoked after eating and I smoked after making love.  And I smoked when I was moved by a particular intensity in a song or movie or book – as if somehow the act of smoking, of retreating into myself, would amplify the emotion of that moment. Somehow it always did.

The truth, I discovered, is that you’re never alone with a cigarette in hand.  There is something inherently defensive in the act of smoking, a way of keeping the world at bay, especially when you’re on your own. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve strolled into a bar or cafe around the world on my own and settled down with a glass of wine – or a cup of coffee – and a cigarette, sending out (smoke) signals that I was perfectly comfortable in my own company.

Now – in the West at least – smoking is no longer cool. I grew up on the cusp of that mini-revolution, when images of louche Hollywood stars and legends of cool like Charlie Parker and James Dean, wielding cigarettes the way Clint Eastwood handled his guns, were still just visible on the horizon. I knew that era had died when I went to San Francisco’s fabled House of Blues some years ago and had to pop out every time I wanted a cigarette. The blues without a cigarette is like Egypt without the Pyramids. Christmas pudding without cream. Burton without Taylor. Basically, inconceivable.  And yet, somehow, it happened.

I write all this because I have now joined that mini-revolution – I am no longer a smoker. This – the longest relationship of my life – an act that seemed to define me for years – died two months ago, not with a bang but with a whimper. I’m not entirely sure why – perhaps it was a combination of my dentist’s increasingly dire warnings and an exercise week I participated in, where I realized that my – already horribly limited – ability to run was being crippled by my habit. So it may well have been for the most boring reason of all (for this wannabe rebel anyway): health.

For a while after that marathon exercise week, I continued to reach for a cigarette during my old trigger moments – when I was having a cup of coffee, or my favourite song came on the radio, or when I was particularly stressed by something. But I was doing a Clinton – I’d come full circle and could no longer inhale. And without inhaling, a cigarette is not a particularly pleasant experience.

But this is the thing: I don’t miss it at all. Honest. There isn’t a single day that I’ve woken up craving a cigarette (and I’m a little ashamed to say I often started my day with one). I’ve passed all the tests with flying colours: parties, drinking with friends, a particularly intense movie/music/work/love moment, etc, etc. The relationship had clearly run its course. I am officially no longer a smoker.

And yet. The door is open. There is a pack of my cigarettes on my bookcase should I ever change my mind. I have no hard feelings – my habit now is like an ex I remember fondly, there through all the highs and lows of my life,  always non-judgmental, reliable, dependable – despite a world that increasingly fought to keep us apart. I hope I never turn into one of those ex-smokers who become more self-righteous and sanctimonious than the most earnest of non-smokers.

For many years, I was part of the fraternity, and I don’t regret a single day of it.

 

Al Jazeera – why?

I watch Al Jazeera English pretty much constantly these days – another hangover from the Revolution. I wasn’t always impressed with its revolution coverage, which struck me as unnecessarily emotive at times. Call me old-fashioned but I still believe that us journos need to strive for objectivity, as impossible as that may be in practice.

But its coverage in general is tremendous. There’s a freshness about its perspective that’s always invigorating. CNN is simpIy too… American for me – though I was forced to watch it for a time when I was having problems with my satellite dish and, in fairness, it was much better than I expected. And while I appreciate the good old Beeb and its World Service, the rigid format feels increasingly tired and stale – the antithesis of what rolling news should be about.

Al Jazeera on the other hand offers a genuinely unique – dare I say, third world – perspective on what’s happening in the world. I love the fact that it strives to use native reporters, for example: after years of watching the same old white faces covering the developing world, it’s incredibly affirming to see Sri Lanka covered by a Sri Lankan reporter, or Pakistan, India, South America, Africa – all covered in fresh and interesting ways by people who actually have some link to the area. Or take its documentaries and strands like the wonderful Surprising Europe – a series that covers Europe from an African immigrant perspective. That may sound tiresomely ‘right-on’ but if you haven’t seen this yet, I urge you to. Put simply, Al Jazeera reaches the parts that other news channels simply don’t bother with.

But having said all that, why, oh why did it choose to devote virtually an entire day to coverage of the 9/11 anniversary in the US? I watch Al Jazeera because I’m usually confident that I’m going to see things that wouldn’t be touched by the other networks, instead of which I was regaled by a steady diet of 9/11 commemoration, from Paul Simon and James Taylor singing – both singers, incidentally, that I love – to endless speeches from everyone involved.

Americans have the right to mark this day exactly as they choose to – but does the rest of the world really need to see the minutiae of their day? Writing from a region in turmoil – no journalistic licence here – where Gaddafi’s on the run, Syrians and Yemenis continue to revolt, Mubarak’s trial kicks off again and Egypt and Israel attempt to mend fences – not to mention the renewed state of emergency here in Egypt – was there really nothing else to report on? By all means, cover the anniversary or, better still, show us some timely documentaries about how the world’s been impacted since then. But endless live coverage of every detail taking place serves only to re-enforce the gaping divide between Americans and the rest of the world.

9/11 was a terrible, traumatic event – I still vividly remember watching those images of the plane crashing into the towers and the apocalyptic feeling that descended on us at the time. And there’s no doubt that what happens in America affects us all – Iraq and Afghanistan are testament to that. But the simplistic narrative propagated by Bush and his cronies – those dichotomies of good v bad, innocent v evil, etc – echoed by many of the speakers today (check out Joe Biden’s speech if you want an example) – is irresponsible at best, in light of everything that’s happened since. Nearly three thousand people lost their lives on 9/11. More than 200,000 people lost their lives in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts – at a conservative estimate. And these conflicts are ongoing.

9/11 may have been unique in its conception but it was horrifyingly predictable in its outcome – a tragic and unnecessary loss of ‘ordinary’ life. Setting it apart in some way or viewing it as the pinnacle of evil, as the prevalent narrative suggests, and coverage like this promotes, cheapens the deaths of all those ordinary citizens who lose their lives daily in equally unnecessary, appalling acts of violence – whether state-sanctioned or terrorist.

Al Jazeera – I expect better from you.

Eighteen days: A Tribute to Tahrir

In the future, when someone asks me where I was when I heard the news that Mubarak had finally stepped down, I will have to be honest and say this: I was putting away our shopping. That’s the way life goes – after 18 days when our world consisted of either going to Tahrir or watching it on TV, all seven of us were somehow away from the TV at just that moment when Suleiman finally conceded defeat. In 30 seconds, as someone pointed out, 30 years of this country’s history was irrevocably changed forever.

We hugged, we danced around our living room and then we grabbed our coats and headed straight out to the place where it all began: Tahrir.  We had made this journey so often over the last 18 days, always with different emotions. I remembered the first Friday of this revolt – the day of rage – when our internet and phone services were cut and police and security men manned each street corner.  Somehow we’d made our way to Kasr-El-Nil Bridge where we watched the battle of the bridge unfold, amazed at the courage of the men and women on the frontlines as they pushed their way through the tear gas and bullets, in silent shock later as  we watched the city burn.

I remembered wandering around Tahrir the next morning as buildings still burned and tanks took over the streets and wondering where we went from here. Cairo was at war, but no one was entirely sure who, or where, the enemy was. The police had disappeared and looters raided the streets at night. But the city re-grouped and re-discovered itself and volunteers came out in their thousands to protect the streets.  Soon after, there was that wonderful second Tuesday in Tahrir, the first million man march, when the sun shone down and it seemed like nothing could still the voices of hundreds and thousands of people who wanted – for the first time in their lives – to be heard.

Then there were the terrible days after – an aberration in this overwhelmingly peaceful revolt – when hired thugs roamed the streets and Tahrir became a bloody battleground. Civil war loomed and Cairo, for the first time, became a dangerous city to venture out in.  Yet somehow, the men and women in Tahrir remained and thousands flocked there again the following Friday, unsure what the future held but knowing that, in Tahrir at least, there was still hope.

When I went on Monday last week, I doubted, for the first time. Tahrir had become a carnival, a revolution theme park, as I dubbed it. Hawkers sold everything from roasted sweet potatoes to popcorn, there was a trendy music band in one corner and all urgency seemed to have been lost. The celebrations seemed to me premature – Mubarak remained in power and the old guard, seemed, if anything, to be tightening its grip.  Tahrir was intoxicating, as always – in there, it seemed impossible that the revolution could fail. Outside, on the surface at least, the country was returning to normal.

But when I went again last Tuesday and I could barely move because of the number of people there, I realised that Tahrir had simply gained a new kind of power. Ordinary Egyptians – people who had never dreamt of change – were flocking there in droves to experience it for themselves. We bumped into a friend’s colleague from out in Haram, a working class area near the pyramids, who said he had been too scared to come to it before. He had only seen a few images on State TV, but he’d been told how wonderful it was by his friends. He was overwhelmed now – by the crowds, the sense of freedom, the music, the impromptu chants and the ability to say out loud what people had only said before in the privacy of their own homes – we want the end of this regime.    

It was this sort of momentum that in the end Mubarak was unable to control. The spirit of Tahrir and what it came to symbolise was simply too powerful to tame. It was a microcosm of the very best of Egypt, distilled into the symbolic heartland of this city. In Tahrir, class, creed, gender and age meant nothing – Muslims and Copts protected each other as they prayed, women moved freely without harassment, there was new respect for the young and the urban elite stood shoulder to shoulder with the city’s poor. I met my old professors from the American University in Cairo there and I met the man who parks cars on my street. The spirit of co-operation, of freedom and most of all, of pride was overwhelming. For the first time, Egyptians were doing it for themselves – from cleaning the streets to producing their own Tahrir newspaper.

In the end, this was a very Egyptian revolution, characterised by the warmth, good humour and tolerance that you find daily on these streets. It often struck me that, even in the darkest days of the revolt, there was little appetite for bloodshed or violence – amongst the plethora of signs I would see in Tahrir, I never saw one that called for Mubarak’s blood. For a Western-educated outsider like me, the lack of organisation and leadership often confounded me – how could a revolution possibly succeed when there was no formal opposition, no official spokesman or spin doctor to voice its demands? But here again was its strength – because the opposition was everywhere, from every stratum of Egyptian society, it was impossible to divide and impossible to fight.  It was absolutely a revolution of the people, by the people and for the people.

Today, Tahrir has been cleared and Downtown is returning to normal though the after effects are still reverberating around the world. But for eighteen days, it was the centre of the world and the effects of that will remain for some time. There may be cynicism in some quarters, especially internationally, about the future plans of the military leadership but here in Egypt, overwhelmingly, there is hope. Egyptians – driven by the men and women of Tahrir – have shown the world that anything, and everything, is now possible. The fruits of their labour will not be given up easily, despite the struggles ahead.  

When people told me before that Egypt, after January 25, would never be the same again, I was cynical.  Now I believe. To the men and women of Tahrir – I salute you.

Defiant till the end: Egypt’s deaf dictator

Mubarak remains and we are still in shock. For nearly six hours last night, we watched, we waited and we dared to hope. Twitter was exploding, and for good reason. Every source out there, from the CIA to CNN (including the NDP’s own secretary general, Hossam Badrawi) told us Mubarak was finally standing down.

The rumour mill went into overdrive: Mubarak was resigning and handing over his powers to Omar Suleiman. The Army had taken over and ordered Mubarak to leave. He’d been spotted at the airport heading for Dubai or he’d already fled to Sharm El Sheikh, having pre-recorded his speech.  Meanwhile, the Brotherhood was claiming there’d been a military coup while the BBC cut to Obama, live from Michigan, who told us history was taking place. Whichever way you looked at it, it seemed like a done deal.

We had our own dilemma – did we go and listen to Mubarak’s resignation speech in Tahrir or stay at home and watch it on TV? We compromised – we’d rush there as soon as the speech was over and join the crowds to celebrate. Tahrir was packed within an inch of its life – it was like a thousand wedding ceremonies happening at once, according to one tweeter. Even hardened news correspondents seemed overcome by the emotion. We were this close to history being made – it was like the Berlin Wall falling, someone said. And then we watched the speech and everything crumbled.

At around 10.45pm – almost an hour behind schedule – Mubarak appeared on State TV, looking more and more like his fellow beleaguered politico, Silvio Berlusconi (they share the same plastic surgeon, as one joker said). He looked neither cowed nor emotional; instead, he was forceful, upbeat, determinedly presidential. There were the same old lines: I speak as a father to his children, I will live and die in Egypt, etc. There were a few new ones: an acknowledgment of the deaths of innocent victims and vague talk of political ‘mistakes’. And then the crucial line, almost rushed through: I have decided to delegate some powers to Vice President Suleiman.

By the end, we were stunned, speechless – and confused. What exactly had just happened? I called a friend of mine who’d been in Tahrir – M, a lawyer, who was already heading home. People were angry but calm, he said. Ninety per cent of the people there hadn’t been able to hear the speech properly and were also confused. His own understanding was that Mubarak had handed over all his powers to Suleiman and would remain in an honorary capacity – no bad thing. “It would have been too insulting for him to spell it out any more than that,” he told me. “This was his way of saying that he was resigning.”

That may well be the case but it’s become abundantly clear since that no one knows exactly what Mubarak meant – which would be farcical if it weren’t so serious (check out William Hague’s reaction last night for some classic political blustering). The only thing that matters is that he is still around (it must surely go down as one of the worst, and most incompetent, speeches in history: never have so many people been so disappointed by so little). Meanwhile, that sense that Mubarak, and also now Suleiman, inhabit a different universe to the rest of us was stronger than ever – they seemed like two grandfathers who’d stumbled into a hip hop concert by mistake.  

What’s becoming clear is that this revolution is no longer just about a clamour for democracy. It’s now a power struggle between young and old – between the old guard clinging on to tradition and power, and a new generation fighting for respect and the right to be heard, politically and beyond.  Even as they praised Egypt’s youth, Mubarak and Suleiman were sticking desperately to the old language of paternalism – appealing to the protesters once again to behave themselves and go home. Where the rest of the world sees a generation coming of age, Mubarak and his cronies see troubled children who can, and should, be put back in their place.

Mubarak’s last speech may have won him new support – and sparked the bloody clashes of last week – but it’s unlikely that this one will do the same.  The tide has been turning against him in the last few days – rumours of his estimated $70 billion fortune have been leaking out and there is less and less trust that the regime will keep its promises. Tahrir has virtually become a republic in its own right, drawing thousands of ordinary Egyptians from all over the country who are savouring their first taste of political freedom there – that sort of momentum is difficult to derail.  There is more and more public dissent – yesterday doctors and lawyers joined the protests and there were strikes and demonstrations all over Cairo.  

But yet again last night, this revolution confounded us. Today, on Farewell Friday, thousands upon thousands of people are once again massing in Tahrir and throughout Egypt. The violence that some of us expected after last night’s speech has not materialised – yet.  The army remains neutral, for the moment. There are rumours that Mubarak and his family have left Cairo – surely he must have got the message by now?  The drama continues to unfold before us: a play where everyone seems to know their lines except the lead actor.

10 reasons why this foreigner (still) loves Egypt…

We had dinner with a couple of Egyptian friends tonight and conversation turned inevitably to the anti-foreigner comments we’ve heard so much about lately. One of my friends, from Sweden, asked just why Egyptians might think that foreigners would want to harm the country.

The answer was interesting. “I think some of them just don’t understand why you’re still here,” one of them said. “There was no security, the country was falling apart and we expected you to leave. There wasn’t any reason for you to stay – unless you were spies or journalists.”

It made me think. I can see the logic in that argument and it’s one I’ve addressed before – that bemusement I see in some people’s eyes when I say that I’ve chosen to live here, instead of my comfortable first world country. It doesn’t apply to tourists – Egyptians are justly proud of their country and would be equally bemused at someone who didn’t want to visit it. It’s just that living here and visiting are two completely different things.

So – and especially in light of all the things that have happened over the last two weeks – this is a personal list of just a few of the reasons why I love Egypt – and why I chose to stay:

  1. This is my home. I’ve lived here for two and a half years now and my life, many of my friends and my work are here.
  2. Egyptians: I’ve travelled a lot and I’ve never met a warmer, more hospitable, down-to-earth and downright funny bunch of people. (My standing joke about Jordan was that all the nicest people I met there were Egyptians.)
  3. Egyptian warmth and hospitality, part 2:  apart from the countless “Welcome to Egypts’ you hear on any given day (up to and including the last two weeks) this is a country where a smile goes a long way. That’s the way life should be.
  4. The Egyptian sense of humour, part 2:  whether it’s sly, bawdy, raucous, smart or just plain hilarious, everyone here appreciates a good joke. There’s very little that can’t be, or isn’t, laughed at.
  5. Cairo. I read and dreamt about this crazy, beautiful, fascinating city when I was a child and, so far, it’s never disappointed me.
  6. That it’s multi-layered and multi-faceted and never, ever dull – from the chaos of Cairo to the beauty of Siwa to the hippy charm of Dahab and the sophistication of Gouna. And that’s just a fraction of its charms.
  7. That nearly everything is open nearly all of the time, which makes life so much easier. I can buy my groceries at midnight if I need to, which takes away a lot of the stress of city living.
  8. The sense of community and the ease with which people relate to each other – things that have only been strengthened over the last two weeks.
  9. That there’s always time in the day – or night – for an impromptu gathering or spontaneous party or just a coffee and shisha with a friend.
  10. That all the Egyptians I’ve met have always been more than happy and willing to share all of the above with me 🙂

One final thing: if you’re outside the country and ever thought of visiting, don’t let the last two weeks put you off. A lot of things happened but, for most of us, the good definitely outweighed the bad. If anything, it’s made the majority of us, Egyptian and non-Egyptian, fall in love with Egypt even more…