Whilst in Egypt

Tahrir Square, Cairo

“Sorry for the inconvenience, but we’re building Egypt”

One day after Hosni Mubarak resigned to the will of the Egyptians, whilst people were cleaning up and the traffic was getting back to normal, this sign could be read in Tahrir Square at the centre of Cairo. It summarizes my personal experience as a student living in Egypt, before returning some days ago. It was an event that showed citizens standing up for their country in a way that was historic, horrific, truly unexpected, but most of all, civil.

92 years ago, the Egyptian people rose up to gain independence. Since then, more than 50 years of presidential power has shifted from president to vice-president, after the former had died or been assassinated.

The country’s recent history has been horrific. Up until these protests, more than 300 Egyptians have lost their lives on the street, a death toll that well surpasses that of the Green Revolution that followed the 2009 presidential elections in Iran. This abstract number, however, does not capture the fate of those arrested, imprisoned and tortured during these days and indeed the decades that preceded them.

It was an event that was also truly unexpected;  at least I was completely taken by surprise.  Two days before protesters took to the streets in tens of thousands (a figure that would later rise to millions), I was asked to rethink my return to Cairo. I flatly refused because I had witnessed the parliamentary elections in November 2010, an event that saw a staggering amount of riot police quickly suppress any dissent. It seems I was mistaken.

I arrived on the morning of the 28th of January (“Friday of Anger”). The first impression that struck me upon my arrival was an atmosphere of intense calm. Cairo’s notoriously bad traffic seemed to have mostly disappeared and only very few people could be seen in the area around the central Tahrir Square. Since all communication had broken down at this point (internet and mobile services had been cut off by the government), I decided to get in touch with friends and officials of my host university, whose dorms lay on Zamalek, a drown-out island in the Nile close to downtown. This short trip was soon to become part of my morning routine, as I tried to stay on top of the events.

This first day saw very heavy fighting between police forces and protesters, both trying to secure strategic positions, such as the area around Tahrir Square and the bridges leading over to the island of Zamalek. Even though the police used rubber bullets, batons, water cannons and an amount of tear gas that could be felt far away from the actual events, they eventually gave way. By the next morning, virtually all police forces had abandoned the streets. A few army tanks and infantry had taken up their positions, but only in very few locations, and remained neutral for the days to come.

At the same time, Al-Jazeera was broadcasting news that prisons around Cairo had been opened, so I was expecting chaos and looting. However, what followed took me by surprise and proved that those on the streets were standing up for their country’s rights. Even though some shops were plundered in the first two days, neighbourhoods and protesters quickly came together to organize themselves. Road blocks were erected and groups of residents took turns to guard every street during the nights. During the day, I saw citizens managing the traffic on major intersections, whilst others formed small groups of volunteers to pick up garbage or supply people with water and food. Even though the situation remained very uncertain, with shootings that could be heard at night, it seemed that it was the citizens who finally had control of their country again.

This certainly contrasted to some of the news coverage of the protests, which, during the long hours of curfew, was the only source of information to me. Some analysts were now predicting a complete revolution, like the Iranian Revolution of 1979, with the belief that Egypt was on the verge of being lost to chaos and Islamists. This sentiment echoed the statements issued by Western diplomats and statesmen, who suddenly found human rights back on their agenda. Traditionally, Mubarak had been viewed as a “force for stability” (as quoted by Barack Obama in June 2009) in the region, a bulwark against fundamentalism. The only choice for Egypt seemed to be an authoritarian government or chaos. I hope that now, after Mubarak’s resignation, the Egyptian people will have the chance to elect a truly representative government, not just a president chosen for being the lesser of two evils.

Philipp Sorgenfrei


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