A couple of days ago, a friend of mine asked me what I was doing at the Tahrir sit-in. When I asked him what he meant by that, he commented that I was acting differently this time, that instead of analyzing and taking a macro view of things, I was actually on the ground, not writing, and doing things all around the square instead. He simply found it out of character, is all.
I explained that I was there because I believe in the demands, and that the “Tahrir dance” we have been doing – going to Tahrir to get the government to move its butt – has gotten tired, and that in order to ensure that they continue moving said butts, it’s better to simply stay in Tahrir. But that was only part of the truth: that’s why I went there, but what intrigued me and got me moving around, doing things and staying there, was the fascinating social experiment that the sit-in was creating. In essence, Tahrir was very quickly becoming a miniature-size Egypt, with all of its problems, but without a centralized government. And the parallels are uncanny.
It didn’t start off being this way: it started off being more of a camp. That first Friday was a mess, trying to find the appropriate spot amongst your friends, dealing with the sun and how it turns your tent into more of a sauna than a habitable environment, your friends showing up to show their support (and to also find a refuge from the horrible heat of the protest). That first night, we were a nomadic society, dealing with issues of habitation. But at night, after the Muslim Brotherhood left, more tents came, and it turned into a very relaxed happy camp environment for all those involved. The next day, I managed to get an electrical connection from those stealing it from the street lights, which changed things dramatically: immediately we moved into civilization. I went and got electrical plugs, a fan, and an ice-box , thus ensuring that the modern society experience was complete.
And that’s when it hit me – I was facing a unique opportunity here, one that very few people get; the opportunity to create a new nation, alongside everyone else, from scratch. We were in a space without a centralized government or arbiter, where all the political movements and parties of Egypt had presence, and were free to duke it out or to work together to create the best nation possible. A chance to create the “Free Republic of Egypt” I spoke about before. So immediately I went to work promoting and helping to facilitate ideas such as the school, the cinema, the library and the radio, bringing in Mahmoud El Esseily to do a free concert, and discovering great talents like Ashraf the Rapper, thus creating education, art and culture. And naturally everyone loved them, worked on them, cooperated and financed them (great kudos go to Tahrir Square Nation, Darbel Bahlawan and the Andalus Center, along with the great people that made things happen such as Nazly Hussein, Ahmed Samih, Moataz Atallah, and last but not least Lara Baladi and Khaled Yusef) and some wrote about them, and it seemed like we were really creating utopian society, forgetting that there was no utopia. But how very quickly this utopian society turned into a parallel miniature Egypt, with all of its problems, took everyone by surprise, although in hindsight it may all seem very predictable. Paradise was found, and lost, predictably, but the lessons and insights it gave me made the whole thing invaluable. I will give you my experience, as I saw it and lived it, and you can see where the parallels are.
It all started with the tent area we were in: the first night the tents were next to each other, in an unstructured formation. Immediately we started having issues with those passing by: asking intrusive questions, staring at us (we had girls, in our tents, and we were talking to them in the open…imagine) and leering at the girls. So the next day, we changed the formation of the tents, to create more of a circle of tents with a big space in between, to allow our visiting friends and people without tents a place to sit, socialize and sleep, and creating a single entrance/exit into the circle of tents – all in order to protect us and shield us from the intrusive eyes and actions of the same people whose rights we were there to fight for. In essence, without noticing, we – the people judging suburban compounds as being elitist and classist – created one without noticing. And what made it hilariously worse, was that in our quest for securing the area by creating one passageway into the circle to control access to it, we also ensured that we wouldn’t be able to escape if we got attacked. Egyptian safety standards at their best.
And then came the street kids. Three of them showed up, 8, 12 and 13. I came into the circle one day and found them hanging out with us because the people in the camp, in their quest for equality , took them in and even started teaching them things and playing with them, while sharing our fans, comfortable habitat, cold water, juice and snacks with them. And when supplies started coming, we started unpacking and organizing them and they helped us in doing so without asking, and in cleaning the area. We got so comfortable in that dynamic that we started asking them when we got new stuff to put the water in the ice boxes and to help us in cleaning the tents and surrounding areas, thus effectively, unwittingly, creating what very much looked like a child labor situation (even though it’s not, and not a single child was forced to do anything but always asked to help), and one where the children worked for their food, drink, fun and accommodation, which is trickle-down economics at its most basic level…by a bunch of human rights activists and revolutionaries.
Then you had the security situation, which in essence was always about keeping the entrances of Tahrir secured and manned at all times, all done by a bunch of volunteer individuals who kept checkpoints secure. You immediately started noticing that at some checkpoints people were not being searched by the people claiming to handle the checkpoints, and you started hearing that volunteers were leaving the checkpoints because the other “volunteers” were treating people violently or with disrespect, facilitating fights, or allowing women who have knives in their bags to come in, or allowing the street merchants access to the square for a fee, even though we didn’t want them there (border control issues: weapons and drug smuggling, and an undocumented immigrant workforce that is necessary to support the economy but is completely unregulated, thus causing all kinds of problems). At the same time, you have the Mogamaa situation, which is the central government building that everyone agreed to shut down for a day to pressure the government. A group decided to handle doing that, and when it was time to open it the next day, that same group refused to open it and called everyone else cowards and not revolutionary enough. You started noticing that this was the same group that wanted to get people to attack bridges, and allowed smuggling, and caused fights at the check-points. You and others who noticed the same thing started working together and connecting the dots and monitoring those, thus creating the Tahrir Intelligence Services. You noticed that they belong to three groups: the Free Revolutionaries, the Independent Revolutionaries and the Voice of Freedom, which no one knew or had heard of before that day, and were controlled by a man that calls himself “General Hassan”, who always caused problems and tried to do stupid stunts that would surely make the outside world hate us. When you finally forced them to open up the Mogamaa on Wednesday morning, they started running all around the camp side and doing all kinds of stunts and starting fights to upset people and get them stressed out and agitated. Upon monitoring them, you noticed that they are three groups of sixty working in shifts. One of us followed them on Thursday morning at 4 am, and he saw them leaving the Abdel Meneim Riyad exit to board three Central Security trucks. When he tried to film them, they noticed and attacked him. We had been infiltrated by a bunch of saboteurs working for the state. Their last stunt? Coming to our tents at 4 am, trying to put numbers on them and get our names for a mandatory security meeting to make the Square “more secure”. We noticed they didn’t try to mark all the tents, and in our group, they went for my and Nazly’s tents only. And then they started causing noise and trying to wake people – most of whom went to bed around 3 or 4 am – up at 5:30 am, to join them in a march, because the “lying State TV” was claiming there were no more people in Tahrir, so we should show them how many we were by marching at 6 in the morning. For real.
So, if Tahrir was a miniature example of Egypt in a controlled lab environment, those movements symbolized foreign intelligence services, spies and double-agents; basically external forces trying to destroy our state and foment divisions amongst our people. And then you have the street kids, which to us are the product of poverty and the failure of the state’s social services, all the while completely turning a blind eye to the fact that they are part of an organized street gang that stole our phones, laptops, sleeping bags and supplies, because apparently accusing them of that would be “classist” of us. And even if we know it, kicking them out would be wrong, because we are supposed to “reform and rehabilitate” them, so we continue to give them access to our circle, while the robberies are continue to happen, although on a lesser scale. The combination of those two forces – the “terrorist” spies and the organized crime units proved to be too much to handle for some tents, so they packed up and left the Square, which symbolically meant they were immigrating. We didn’t mind that much, because the empty spots were occupied by other tents, and we didn’t ask ourselves who the hell would join a sit-in on its sixth day anyway?
All of this forced us to contemplate the issues of security, crime and punishment, which are a hell of a lot harder to address in practice than in theory, especially with a population like ours, one that has no problem utilizing violence for disciplinary ends. We then heard that a group – which turned out to be the “Free Revolutionaries”- created a prison for “caught thieves and criminals”, in which they were gathered and tied up, hanging, in order to deliver them to the Military Police. So activists like Mona Seif and Ragia Omran from the “No Military Trials for Civilians” group ended up going to them and fighting with them against both the idea of the prison and handing them to the MP to be given a military trial, one of the main things this sit-in is trying to stop. And then we faced the other dilemma: who would we hand them over to instead? The police? Hahahaha!
And then we heard stories that two thieves were caught by people, beaten up, stripped of their clothes and tied, hanging, from a tree and beaten for all to see and the media to document – this in a protest that demands human rights for those arrested by the police and the end of police torture. So, when the news came that some people caught a 12-year-old thief that they wanted to torture, activists like Ramy Raoof had to secure him a human rights lawyer to go to the scene, because we had noticed that the people stop what they are doing if for some reason a lawyer tells them that what they are doing is illegal. And this hint later on developed into the solution that everyone agreed on yesterday: they creation of the security tent, where caught criminals are taken and investigated, and then handed over to the Public Prosecutor’s Office by a human rights lawyer from the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. One problem, solved, for now.
We started realizing the need for some sort of decision-making body, so attempts to create one started in earnest, by holding meetings at which at least one representative of every tent (whether for individuals or movements) met up to figure out what were are going to do, effectively starting another debate if this was even democratic at all, because, really, what does it mean to participate in a sit-in protest? Do you have to have a tent, or can you be one of those people who support and come when they can? And since the decision-making process is in favor of those who have tents (since they are the true sit-in participants), and not in favor of those who come and join the sit-in after work and go back to their homes at night, bringing supplies and ice with them (who in this scenario, symbolize Egyptians abroad who come to the country for visits and subsidize our fragile economy), it echoes the calls to prevent Egyptians living abroad from voting, since, really, only the true Egyptians stayed in Egypt and didn’t abandon it and escape it to greener pastures and only visited when it’s convenient for them (expatriate rights). But even that became a side-issue, since there were at least four such meetings every day, for the past seven days, not trying to reach a decision, but trying to create the mechanism by which we will take decisions. All of them so far have miserably failed (democracy building).
We also have 12 stages in Tahrir now, belonging to various groups and parties, which are all loud and trying to drown each other out, all playing the same patriotic music, and which have people yelling and screaming from about their plight, the abuses of the SCAF and the rights and the blood of the martyrs, each with varying degrees of eloquence and ignorance, on and on and on, making us sick of hearing about them and wish for some different music or silence. Naturally, they represent the current state of the media in Egypt. And in order to make the resemblance more eerie, while some of us manage to get on one of those stages every once in a while, the only true media outlet we have is Tahrir Radio, which is an online radio, broadcasting maybe twice a day from there. Oh, and 2 days ago, a bunch of Salafists attacked the stage funded by various groups including the FEP (the party founded by Naguib Sawiris), for playing music and poetry alongside news and speeches, and stole a laptop and two thousand pounds from the bag of one of the girls there. Does that remind you of something that happens all the time in Egypt?
Or how about the fact that we lose electricity in the morning, because the government started shutting down the electricity circuits and then turning them on at night, so we have to go buy generators (i.e. mini power plants) , which require gasoline to operate, and every single gas station – all of which are outside our borders- nearby has “instructions” not to sell it to so we have to get it elsewhere and incur higher costs of transportation, and yet still face power-cuts when a generator runs out of fuel (Egypt’s energy issues)? Or that our main focus every day in the sit-in is to get more people from outside of your borders to come to Tahrir and join to make us stronger and having them bring supplies with them, which causes more trash, more street vendors, and more “crime” and thus making everything uglier (Egyptian tourism and its side-effects)? Or that many of the new tents are now occupying areas of the circle used for sidewalks and many people have closed the entrances next to them and created the equivalent of backyards or terraces that they are imposing on everybody (illegal construction and settlements)? All the while, there are those who are camped next to the Mogamaa, and they have the natural fence protecting them and a security guard at every exit – we call them Qattamiya Heights. Are you noticing the similarities?
For some people what I just recounted will be heartbreaking, but to me it’s brilliant, because it’s a learning experience in governance unlike anything the world has ever seen, and it gives all of those new parties and movements that aim to rule the country a chance to take a much closer look at the issues facing us and figure out the limitations of their solutions and cracks in their organizational structure. While fissures were created, the challenges also created a huge number of alliances that were never possible before, since every group, no matter how hard they worked, started realizing that they can’t manage or carry the problems of the country alone, and that in reality, theoretical solutions are not always the most practical or effective ones. They were all driven to their breaking point, and humbled, but also learned all of their weaknesses and are destined to come out of this stronger than before. You see, an extraordinary experiment like this allows the activists to have a great learning curve, and it also allows innovation to take place, such as the crime and punishment situation. Egyptians, when confronted by figures of legal authority that they still respect, act accordingly and without a violent challenge to said authority. If we had human-rights-oriented law enforcement, we wouldn’t have the security problems that we have now, because then Egyptians would respect the law.
Or take the other lesson, which I learned while searching people at the checkpoint (which didn’t have enough of our people because many of those part-time protesters almost never assumed any responsibility in helping with the security situation, coming over to have fun instead – another lesson there about citizen responsibility) was that the checkpoint people, even if they had some bad apples in them, act right if an imposing figure shows up and treats people decently no matter how much they abused him with rudeness. I was there with 3 other young guys, and my demeanor in always politely asking people to be checked and apologizing smilingly afterwards got them all imitating me instead of acting upon their discretion. They basically need a good leader and a role model that they fear or respect (I am a big dude) around, and they will imitate his behavior, and start acting the same way, and discover that it makes things much easier.
But the ultimate lesson came from one thing: “No Military Trials for Civilians”. This group was started by a few girls who refused to compromise on that principle despite everyone attacking them or warning them against antagonizing the military (myself included at first, and I admit I was totally in the wrong there, and then I started supporting them in the ways that I could), and their persistence against all odds and huge pressures to keep this issue alive, drew more people to their cause, and made it the number one demand on every list of demands in all of the movements there. We might never control this country or rule it, but that may not be our role. Our role is to frame the debate and the demands, and push and advocate for them by explaining to people how they relate to them and benefit them directly. We get to frame the debate, and whoever frames the debate in a democracy has a huge effect on it and its future. And in reality, if we are not dictators, that’s all that we should aim to achieve, because our people, despite what you may think, are not stupid people, and if you are persistent enough, they get it. There is lots of work to be done, and apparently we were not ready for it, which is why I would like to send a personal thanks to the SCAF and Egyptian security and intelligence apparatus for this awesome experience, which is, without exaggeration, the best experience of my life so far. You provided us with much needed training in governance, made us understand our intellectual and social vulnerabilities and weak points, and in the meantime you showed us how you operate and how far you are willing to go. All of this is brilliant, and very well-played, but since you won’t end us, or the revolution anytime soon, because the equation is still unbalanced, you just basically helped us in a way you can never imagine, and one you will surely regret in the future. We were amateurs, you made us professionals. The game is on.
But as an ending note, here is some food for thought: If Tahrir is a microcosm of modern day Egypt with all of its issues, and it managed to get there in a week, then being there for the next few days is crucial to understand what might happen in the next few years and how to prevent it. The lessons that we will learn from being there now, about our problems and the proposed solutions to solve them is invaluable for a nation that is seeking a new beginning like ours, not one that we created from scratch like Tahrir was. All of those people with readymade solutions should go and try them out there before proposing it nation-wide. All of those people from outside who know how to best solve our problems should come and help us solve them, because as a nation we will also need this help from Egyptians from abroad, whether we like it or not. Basically if you are interested in figuring out what the problems facing our society and the best way to solve them, Tahrir is where you should be heading to right now. And you must stay with us, and help us in every way you can if you choose that responsibility. We no longer want tourists who want to have fun and give advice from afar, we want people who love this country so much that they are willing to get their hands dirty, even if it means standing at a security checkpoint for 2 hours a day, and spending the rest with your friends there. Let’s go, and try, and fail and learn with us there, because that’s better done in Tahrir than in Egypt. It’s really simple: If everything is hazy, and you want to know what’s going to happen next in the country, Tahrir, right now, even if this sit-in lasts for one more day, is the place to be.