Finally I can breathe!” That was my first thought as fireworks and wild cheers echoed through the night on Feb. 11, 2011, when Hosni Mubarak officially stepped down as president. As soon as I could think again through my tears, I breathed very deeply, and the air felt lighter and smelled sweeter . . . it smelled of freedom.
My life changed forever Jan. 25, 2011, when the uprising in Egypt began. For the first time, I can freely vote, demonstrate and join a political party or even run for president! But that’s not all. I have also worked my way out of a devastating personal trauma by taking part in the Egyptian Revolution.
In retrospect, it is amazing how our lives improve when we transcend our narrow personal interests and focus on higher goals. I’ve always respected such ideals, but only when I practiced self-denial did I truly grow in my faith and my humanness. The past seven months have been a crash course for us Egyptians in claiming and practicing many rights we were denied for decades. Some of us have been born into a dictatorship: anyone under 30 today has only known one president in their entire lifetime! We are now discovering – sometimes the hard way – that after several decades of corruption, oppression and tyranny, morphing into a true democracy is not going to happen overnight.
Whether intellectual and well educated or much less privileged, most Egyptians are equal in being almost illiterate politically. Several decades of dictatorship and police state rule saw to it that no one outside the regime’s orbit could acquire the slightest political experience. Competence was regarded as a threat to the unlimited authority of the dictator.
But regaining the sense of ownership of our country has worked like magic. People polished their manners, organized neighborhood cleanup campaigns, hoisted flags everywhere, and showed their pride in Arab and Muslim culture. They also hurried to learn basic political awareness and civil rights, realising it’s not a luxury anymore. Millions have to learn in time for two major elections scheduled before the end of this year: the full parliament of more than 500 members, and the first freely elected Egyptian president.
The Egyptians’ first test in democratic practice came only a month after Mubarak stepped down, in a referendum on the constitutional amendments in March. The voters’ turnout was the largest in Egyptian history with nearly 20 million people casting ballots in one day; almost 50 percent of all voters inside Egypt (Egyptians abroad were still not allowed to vote). However, we’re already used to referendums, it’s just a simple choice between a “yes” and “no” and ironically, that’s the only way we were allowed to “vote” for our president previously. We have yet to experience a real free election process in all its vim and vigour. Egyptians are eager and willing, but the question is whether the stage is set yet to make it a serious and gratifying experience. I have been writing for almost 20 years, yet I never thought I would ever be able to write about politics in Arabic and publish locally. I have been doing just that since February. But that is not enough; like many Egyptians, I’m also scanning the scene to find a promising political party to join. So far, none have earned my commitment.
All the parties that existed before the revolution have lost what little support they had on the ground, largely because they had no role at all in the monumental changes brought on by the simple, nonpoliticised Egyptians.
On the other hand, all the political movements that have bravely led the fight for freedom seem to have been caught off – guard when their struggle culminated in success. They obviously didn’t have a plan for the “day after.” The result could be either another huge success with total fl exibility and creativity, or something much less glamorous due to the lack of planning. The past seven months have seen events in favor of both options.
Despite absolute unity during our 18 days in Tahrir Square at the start of the year, it seems that the strong sense of ownership has a downside. While it is empowering for each of us to own the country, it is clearly devastating that some started believing they owned the revolution itself. There is now a damaging rift among some major coalitions of the revolution youth: between those who want to form political parties, and those who prefer to start an NGO to be able to accept donations and foreign funds – an issue that is dominating the political debate in fear of international interference in internal affairs.
In parallel, the political groups that have been forced underground as a result of persecution from Mubarak’s regime have now resurfaced.
There was a huge rally in Tahrir on July 29 featuring the full spectrum of Islamic movements, including strict Salafi groups who have never demonstrated before. The Muslim Brotherhood held their first official meetings in decades at their headquarters. They have also approached the Coptic Church for dialogue and started their own non-religious political party open to women and Christians.
On Labor Day, May 1, the Egyptian Communist party, which was banned for 90 years, announced that it was resuming its public activities and was featured in several rallies in July. Meanwhile, several new parties were racing to register under the new Political Practice Law.
While finally seeing fresh faces in politics is definitely exciting after so much stagnation, at a closer look, those potential parties leave a lot to be desired. Their names are as confusing as their programs. Everyone is competing for the same buzzwords: freedom, justice and democracy, while the political orientations are blurry, and none seem to stand out in the crowd with distinctive ideas, powerful programs or weighty political figures.
After attending some launching events, I was left with the impression that those parties were large NGOs populated with entrepreneurs rather than emerging political entities for incubating aspiring politicians. Hardly a surprise, after all, corporate politics was the only game in town for so long.
The obvious lack of political expertise available to the budding democracy in Egypt results from a serious dilemma: practicing politics under Mubarak was allowed only through two alternatives: either the ruling party, or the “decorative” opposition parties, which were largely government regulated. Every other door besides those two led to a dark, bottomless pit. Parliamentary life had turned into a pathetic charade that no one believed anymore, and those who accepted to take part in it had lost all credibility.
Therefore, today, experienced politicians are seen as “tainted” by the corrupted regime, and are unacceptable to the revolutionaries; while those who are “clean” enough to be trusted by the people are also essentially inexperienced politically. Political experience was a luxury that was not available to honest people under Mubarak. Consequently, the youth of the revolution who wish to start a fresh political life in Egypt have no choice but to start hastily and almost amateurishly, and continue to struggle to learn real politics as they go. This has resulted in many catastrophic events among worries that this lack of focus might mean a longer process to achieve tangible political reform, and might also mean that discerning Egyptians will hold their decision to practice politics through joining a specific party until some have passed the acid test and proved worthy through actions, not just glossy words.
Yet, amid the stress, uncertainties and political rebirth, a monumental event occurred to remind us all that justice will indeed prevail: Mubarak, his two sons and his notorious interior minister were put on public trial on charges of corruption and killing the peaceful protesters. Most of us never imagined we would ever see them behind bars, but there he was saying “yes sir” as the judge called his name, receded by his new title: the “defendant.”
Seeing them in a cage drove home many lessons: that hard work pays off and corruption never does; that prayers are heard and lies are not; and that the power of the people is indeed mightier than the people in power!
Then the Syrians poured into the streets, braving brutal attacks and chanting warnings to President Bashar Assad of a fate similar to that of his neighbor. Like protesters in London, Madrid and Wisconsin, Israelis were now demonstrating in Tel Aviv behind a huge sign that read “Walk Like An Egyptian” and chanting “Tahrir is not only in Cairo.” On Facebook and Twitter, many wrote the motto of the Egyptian revolutionaries: “Hold Your Head Up High, You’re Egyptian.”
As I look back on the past months, I can hardly believe a year has not yet passed, and the action is far from over. My personal pains are so far away now. I keep reminding myself that as I take part in rebuilding a free nation, I can only be improving my own life, for many years to come.
Sahar El-Nadi is an Egyptian Activist, writer, instructor and public speaker on creative communication, leadership and cross-cultural issues.
A TIMELINE OF THE REVOLUTION IN EGYPT
1/01/11 Twenty-one people die in a bomb attack outside a Coptic church in Egypt, sparking riots.
1/17/11 Man sets himself on fire outside the Egypt parliament to protest economic conditions.
1/25/11 Massive protest in Cairo. The government blocks Twitter and shuts down cellular and internet networks.
1/28/11 President Mubarak makes first TV appearance vowing reforms. More demonstrators die in clashes with police.
1/31/11 Egyptian army openly sides with protesters.
2/01/11 President Mubarak says he will step down in the next election and will see through the transitional government.
2/02/11 Pro-Mubarak supporters try to crush protesters using violence, clubbing and hitting demonstrators.
2/04/11 Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians demonstrate in Tahrir square on “Day of Departure” protest.
2/08/11 Wael Ghonim, a Google Executive who helped organize protests is released from police detention and hailed a hero of the revolution.
2/11/11 Egypt’s vice president announces that President Mubarak is stepping down and handing power to the military.
3/21/11 Egyptians vote on a referendum that provides a blueprint for change in the upcoming elections.
4/13/11 Mubarak is detained and his two sons jailed as police investigate corruption charges.
5/08/11 Twelve people die in sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians.
5/13/11 Egyptians return to Tahrir Square in a show of support for national unity amidst sectarian tensions.
5/24/11 Criminal court charges Mubarak with murder and corruption.
6/29/11 One thousand people injured in street clashes as protesters return to Tahrir Square.
7/05/11 Protesters riot as 10 police charged with killing protestors are released from detention.
7/10/11 Interim PM says he will meet protestors demands.
8/03/11 Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appears at his trial lying on a sick bed inside of the courtroom cage. He pled not guilty to all charges.