Monday, March 7, 2011

Egyptian Women living abroad. The Revolution and Tahrir Square

We Are Egypt Too!

Experiencing the Tahrir Square uprising from Afar – the Expat turmoil

Chronicles of a Virtual Egyptian Revolution

Monday morning in Westchester New York, my friend calls me from Cairo and tells me: Hey, we’re having another demonstration tomorrow. Why: I ask him. People are high on the Tunisian revolution and they want to ride the wave. Cool, I say. Yes, he answers, looks like it will be big this time.. They always are! I tell him.

Monday evening my sister tells me: we have the day off tomorrow. Why? I ask her. It’s the Police forces day. I can’t help but laugh. Is this a joke? I ask her. Of all the forces we have and the police celebrate their..what? corruption? Terrorizing techniques? Bullying?. No, she says, but I think they’re also watching the demos closely tomorrow, I think it will be big this time. Yes of course, haven’t we seen it all? I remind her.

Apparently NOT.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

My sister calls and says she heard it was a huge demonstration. Did he respond? I ask her. No, she says.. Oh well! So how was your day off?

Meanwhile in Tahrir, my cousin was tear-gassed and interrogated and crowds were dispersed. Egyptians didn’t know, local media showing turmoil unfolding elsewhere in Lebanon and Tunisia.

Wednesday - Thursday 26, 27 January 2011

My sister says they won’t leave the square. What are they asking for? I ask her. They want him out. I smile. They want freedom. My smile widens. They want the whole system to come undone. Now I was laughing.. Wishful thinking, I say.

Later on Thursday she calls and says she passed by the square earlier and it was empty. She also saw police forces marching towards it. Best traffic today, she says.

The First Friday, “Friday of a Million Man March”

4:00 am New York time, I wake up, fiddle with my remote control to find CNN and BBC. I log on and connect to Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera. I upload the guardian’s minute by minute blog updates and its Arabic equivalent from Al Shorouq. I look for my sister on Skype and she pops up and says: ten more minutes.

I connect to Facebook and wait… a wait that would soon become a daily ritual for the two weeks that followed.

From New York to Tahrir Square

Two weeks later and on a flight to Cairo, I put my pen down and close my diary. I was too scared to bring in any cameras or laptops after the horrors some journalists friends have seen. The airport was empty but for our small group which boarded in Munich.

Hours earlier I was still glued to all my visual gadgets collecting news, aggregating facts and posting them on my Facebook wall. I have developed a growing following; mostly expats who have come to rely on my updates and the accuracy of their content. For days, I lived only on my Wall. My kids had learnt to avoid me. Living on boiled Pasta and endless hours on Wii, they had accepted the standstill that had gripped my home since that first Friday.

“I’m proud of you,” my son said to me one morning. “I know you’re keeping people informed about what is happening in Cairo and I know this is a very important job.”

It was all coincidental. Rumors were circulating faster than air. Egypt was off the virtual map and many had to rely on slivers of information passed on. I was lucky.. I had contact with two people who still had access to the Internet. I started posting updates through their eyes. It wasn’t enough, their own knowledge was quite limited to disillusioned local television and I started devouring international media coverage, checking sources and only posting what I found credible as news.

I only realized the impact of my endeavor when I disappeared for two hours, and came back to a number of frantic queries. Where are you? What happened? Are you ok? Were the messages pasted on my Facebook wall from many expats with whom a strange and very solid bond was forged.

By the time Egypt came back online, we were quite informed, naturally emotionally involved and very tired. It came as a shock when friends back home started to virtually shoot at us. We were losers either way. Those of us who supported the revolution were deemed irresponsible and careless. Those who were skeptical were accused of being no patriots. Since my self- imposed mission was to deliver updates, I suffered the least. But it got me furious and curious. I wondered how true my virtual experience was to what was unfolding on the ground.

Photo by Akram Reda.

The trip was hatched, planned and booked in less than two hours. While transiting in Munich, my worry over three small toddlers back in New York was overshadowing any revolutionary excitement I might have developed in recent days. But when I landed in the Square, I was finally home and all my worries simply faded away.

Arriving on that last Thursday In Mubarak’s reign I went straight to the Square. I wanted to see for myself. I wanted to lend my voice to those of the million protestors camping there. It didn’t matter if I were a late bloomer or if believed from the start. In the Square no one questioned your motives. Everyone appreciated your presence.

We entered from the Falaki entrance (named after a famous building cornering that street), and after six or seven personal and ID checks, I was allowed inside the Square. I was prepared for the waves of humans that hit me. After all, the scene was already imprinted on my mind from the various media I had been watching. But the energy that engulfed me when I heard the first chants was surreal. I let myself go with the flow; chanting at times, raising my hands in solidarity, swaying to the rhythms of music on a stage nearby and laughing at the occasional printed jokes hanging on tent walls. At that moment I knew. I was right to come back. My kids would be fine for four days, but my life would be forever changed after.

On the first night in Tahrir Square, Mubarak made his third speech insisting he would remain in power. I was sure the crowds would turn violent and judging by my own anger, I couldn’t blame them. Once again, I was wrong! I went home and watched the scene I had left moments earlier just as crowds insisted in one single voice: He leaves. We won’t!

That first night at the square I found my voice. The next morning, I made sure it was heard.

The last Friday.. The Friday of Departure

Right after Friday prayers we headed to the Square and this time, I decided to leave the chanting crowds and go meet the dwellers of the campsite. I sat next to a Poet from Damietta. He was bare foot and quite modest in his manners, but his thoughts were a goldmine.

He showed me his red leather book where he keeps his hopeful rhymes. “This is my Agenda,” he asserted. “This is what they call foreign plots and conspiracy plans.”
His words were so poignant, his politics so clear that he put my humble political savviness to shame. I listened.

A fellow musician took his words and started chanting, we all followed in chorus.
Every hour a young man with a cell phone to his ear would come and announce updates from other manifestations elsewhere.

“They arrived to the presidential palace in peace,” was his last announcement. “And the army is distributing water and food.”

Cries of relief and cheers reverberated through the plastic covers of our shabby tent. So the army was still on board. Rumors of army attacks were finally put to rest. Only then did I realize how worried I was all morning!

As slogans were crafted, and jokes were circulated, I could see the mix of hopelessness and resilience playing on every face. He won’t bulge, that part was clear. I was more hopeless than many and I felt that nothing short of a miracle was needed to break this stalemate!

Once more, I was proven wrong!

Hours later, Mubarak stepped down. The Square came alive with a new, earth shaking strength, and fireworks (though normally banned) cracked on top of our heads.

I wasn’t chanting anymore. I was screaming at the top of my lungs: “Raise your head up high… you’re Egyptian!”

We did it. I did it. I made it to the Square, I added to the numbers. I helped keep it peaceful and civilized and I connected with at least 2 million Egyptians on that Square in a way I would have never dreamed possible.

Watching from afar you can only watch and react to the scenes unfolding before you. You worry and you fear. You hear gun shots echoing too close while talking on the phone with Egypt. You follow the progress of thousands of prisoners as they close in on your neighborhood and your family home. You wake up in the middle of the night to keep the civilian vigilante, who happens to be your young nephew, company as he protects your family from armed thugs and criminals. You see tanks piling up around the Square but you can’t see your friends and relatives who are camped inside.

But when you step inside the Square, you don’t hear or see any of that. You only see a sea of Egyptians from all walks of life, gathered for the simplest and most noble human right: freedom.

Two weeks watching from afar in terror and complete paralysis. Only in Tahrir Square did I finally feel safe and free.


  1. This revolution made us discover who we really are... It is so nice to belong at last... Thanks for the great account...

  2. Beautiful and moving. Tarek was right (I'm assuming it was him you were referring to in your blog). You did some very important work during that early transition period. And you undoubtedly have plenty more to do in the months and years ahead. I'm so glad you remain on top of the news coming out of Egypt today and that you continue to keep us all in the loop.

  3. Ya Laila...It is so good to remember those insipiring and energizing moments in the square. We met bright minds and genuine souls full of hope, belief and determination. I was taken by surprise that a weak education system coupled with decades of youth marginalization could produce such a culturally rich reality. But on the other hand, the suddenly exposed mass corruption of whom we thought were the backbone of the country, is ugly and disgusting.