Cairo An accident over one of the many bridges crossing the Nile to the Zamalek district, where we were meeting, forced our guests to trickle into the session as the night darkened until we finally had all seven with us and an earlier guest from the National Democratic Institute (US) long departed, bringing our delegation to full strength for an amazing session. For hours we listened to the very personal stories of men and women who entered Tahrir Square as young professional engineers or music executives or journalists or television personalities, who wanted reform or to right grievances or were change an unjust system, but in the crucible of change that burns bright in a movement were transformed, surprising themselves sometimes, into revolutionaries of a sort whose lives changed forever as they found their voices, deep inside, and rose from fear to help translate a phenomena into a a cause and many causes into massive change.
We had caught lightning in a bottle in this room, but what did we have and who were our guests? Most of them were less organizers, both then and now, than they were people men and women who became the “face of the revolution.” Many were easily recognizable to some of our delegation from interviews in the square, YouTube reports, columns, blogs, and newspaper stories. Gehad Saif had been a popular DJ negotiating a million dollar music and picture deal when his life changed in the Square and his deep voice and mile-wide 1000-watt smile lit up the world in a way that no government police force could stop. Amer Alwakeel had been a television journalist and personality who was fired from the government controlled station and was finally being rehired almost as he spoke with us. Ahmed Mossad has been a journalist, fired as he spoke out 200 kilometers away, but who had been drawn to the square, bringing a delegation of friends from his hometown and then finding an invaluable role from his many years of reporting in writing digests every 4 hours, reading between the lines of the government propaganda and press releases to aid the activists in planing, messaging and response. The one woman with us had become, almost unwittingly, a spokesperson for Coptic women and others, helping define the movement as populist and nationalist, rather Islamic. She told movingly of being raised behind the physical and psychological walls of the Christian minority taught at every level to fear the Islamic majority and finding a different truth in the Square where, as she said “a Coptic girl was being protected by Islamic men, and the only thing that mattered was Egpyt.”
Our new friends here were protest celebrities, moved to the Square to be part of change,and then finding themselves speaking for a generation. They were a lost generation of younger (30 to 40), middle class professional men, articulate with good educations, articulate in more than one language, who saw themselves frozen in place in an military autocracy with dynastic ambitions. Even surviving, they had lost their aspirations. They felt no hope for their children. They feared for the security of their families. The Square took them from having something to lose to having nothing to lose in the way that is impossible without the sweep of a movement.
Two of the group were organizers. One had been forced that way as the state had moved against a family member who had held political office in the Mubarak regime. A simple dispute had adverse and lingering impact and had forced him without a choice into activism. He made a profound observation about the Mubarak police state. He wanted us to understand that protest was not forbidden, and in fact was welcomed, but importantly, when you protested, you “were allowed in, but not out of the protest.” Ahmed Rehab’s translation made it clear that the point was that the police allowed the protests in order to be able to keep current on the identity and effectiveness of the protesters. Without “allowing” protests, the police would not be able to continue to monitor who was organizing, who was gaining courage, and who was worth their concern.
This organizer was clear that the Western “spin” on the role of training by Freedom House and others in Serbia in non-violent techniques had no place in the revolution. Yes, some had gone to the training, and any training was helpful and appreciated, but the people that had gone and came back were not organizers, leaders, or spokespeople for the Square and the revolution that deposed Mubarak. They all had a place, but their role was peripheral. This was more a situation where victory has a thousand fathers, and defeat is a bastard child.
Inlooking at the real organizing that propelled the movement, the 16-year veteran of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of the three originators and administrators of the now 1-million fan Facebook site in honor of the martyr, Khaleel Said, was most informative. He had been an undercover organizer, whose activism and role was unknown. He had been out of the country on January 25th and jailed upon his return for a day of interrogation not for his politics or secret membership in the MB, but because he had traveled so often for his telecommunications engineering business in Africa that he had become an object of the police state suspicion. He was in the same mosque near the same location that Ahmed Rehab had described when telling his own story of January 28th and had helped plan the diversion into the square. Listening to our friend here we could hear the voice of a seasoned tactician, who had learned, as all true organizers learn, the lessons of his time and circumstance, and knew that a winning strategy required a shift in tactics, communications, and constituency in a different direction that power expected to find it.
he leap that led to the change was finally the ability to move the lower income communities to join the common battle by translating the issues from mere pro-democracy and anti-government dictatorship to legitimate popular appeal. Hours after taking the Square on the 28th our friends had no idea that they might win something more than the minimum until hours later, marching from the far suburbs and districts of the informal settlements, they were finally joined by the lower income demonstrators. Then the spark became a fire.
Amer, our television reporter, finished with a statement he read for us to “take back to America.” There was a lot of interest and concern about how the revolution was being seen and misinterpreted in the US and Canada. We were unsure how we could deliver such a message, but we were at least committed to repeating the truth, and perhaps that would be enough for the Egyptian revolution to find a place around the world similar to what it has won on the streets of Cairo.
We were almost two hours overdue for our stay in the hotel room and messages had come in from the hotel staff asking us to leave. Talking to veterans of 18 days of staying in Tahrir Square, there was no way we were leaving one hotel conference room until they had finished saying everything on their mind.
There was movement and magic in the air.