Egypt’s revolution: diary of an “intellectual guerilla”

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt – The January 25, 2011, “white revolution” triumphed against tyranny in Egypt by a combination of the youths’ vision and their technology expertise, good luck, in addition to the armed forces’ tacit endorsement of their fundamental legitimate demands for democracy, a respect for human rights and social justice.

Their good luck lay primarily in the government’s slow-motion response to few of their demands, coupled to Hosni Mubarak’s much-delayed arrogant speeches. This led to their realization that the whole regime had to be abolished.

When we all worried that the demonstrators would suffer from exhaustion, or that the protests could fizzle out, a number of tragic events outraged public opinion greatly, namely, what we now call the “battle of the camels,” which left many young bright promising protesters dead … and the public breakdown in tears, on a TV channel, of Wael Ghoneim, a Google manager in Dubai and online activist. He had just been released, after being arrested and kept blindfolded for 12 days, shortly after the protests began. So, the crowds kept streaming to Tahrir Square over the following days, but they never lost their courtesy, grace and humour.

For 18 long days, those who remained at home like me held their breath. But then, I’ve never been good at protest rallies. A few years ago, as I was stepping out of the Royal United Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London (RUSI), having attended a meeting there, someone berated me for not having demonstrated for one cause or another … I can’t remember which. Before I could answer, my good friend Dr. Afif Safieh, the former Palestinian ambassador to London, Washington and Moscow, retorted, saying, “She’s an intellectual guerrilla.” Well, I’m still doing what I do best … for the Palestinian cause, for the plight of the Iraqis and the Kurds under Saddam Hussein, for my beloved Egypt always.

Right after the parliamentary “elections” [November-December 2010] I had absolute proof that the powers-to-be were watching Internet traffic, but I continued doing what I could to support ‑ and garner support for ‑ the legitimate fundamental rights that we were demanding.

Now that our youth have freed my country, memories, emotions, facts keep coming back to me. For the sake of my grandchildren and their generation, I’ll try to write my impressions about that wondrous event, how it developed, its highlights, and its climax.

Jan. 26, 2011:
The Internet is not available at times. Nevertheless, the government denied tampering with it, or with Facebook, Twitter, and websites of local opposition papers, as well as foreign papers and satellite TV stations. Today, the authorities said they will do so tomorrow. My God, I thought, we’ve become so dependent on the Internet. Also, mobile phones weren’t operating.

I decided to stop buying Al-Ahram newspaper, as did many of my friends.

Jan. 30:
A TV crew discovered 23 bodies in the Alexandria mortuary, shot by the police. Several had ghastly mutilated faces. Their families, assembled there, screamed for retaliation against the police.

Feb. 3:
For the past few days, I could hardly sleep … three hours at the most, and I’m unable to do anything except watch quickly developing events … statements … interviews, both in Egypt and abroad, on TV stations. The Internet is back thanks to the new prime minister’s orders. Ahmad Shafik has taken over at a difficult time. He seems to be trustworthy, but I’m in a wait‑and‑see mode to judge his performance, despite his excellent career history, whether military or civilian. He is reputed as being competent … an achiever, and his character is a mix of flexibility in methodology, i.e., ready to listen to others’ opinions and adopt them if they’re good, while decisive in firing under-performing people. I met him officially once last July, when we were seated next to each other over lunch, and found him extremely polished, diplomatic and courteous, with a low-key sense of humour. One of my 31 first cousins (on my mother’s side), a retired air force general, was his assistant for many years.

Feb. 4:
Thank God for blessing me with many friends, even among my daughters’ friends, and the younger generation of family members, who phone me daily, sometimes more than once, to make sure I’m alright, safe, in need of nothing, offering their services, and also to pick my brain about developments, analysis and predictions … though in this extremely fluid situation, internally and internationally, when events are moving so quickly, no one can claim to foresee what is in the cards. Today is decisive. May God Almighty save Egypt from any mischievous forces, local or foreign, at this grave historical juncture.

As for provisions and petrol for the car, I had to drive outside of Alexandria about 60 km to refuel and refill. Most petrol stations are shut, while others had long, long queues. Shelves in supermarkets in town are emptying, while crowds are of a number unseen before. Apart from that, I had to remain at home since the 25th.

Feb. 5:
A New Yorker article on the newly appointed Vice-President Omar Suleiman made for chilling reading. I received it from sources outside Egypt. Mubarak’s going-away “present” to us, Suleiman, the perverse head of the feared Mukhabarat [secret police], would have thrown Egyptians under the yoke of a sadistic leader, one worse than his master. He is said to have enjoyed personally supervising the torture of the people “renditioned” by the U.S., and even devised new ways of abuse. He is very popular with the Israeli government, and had a direct hot phone line to Israel. “Bibi” [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] was overjoyed by news of his appointment. I suggest he be “exported” to the U.S. or to Israel, once the regime is toppled, hopefully. I’m sure he’ll be highly appreciated there. Ha! Ha!

Feb. 7:
Very few of the “mafia” oligarchy, who amassed fortunes illegally, were named, and will be prosecuted. Many more, from the lists I have, should also be brought to justice, and, if found guilty, have their fortunes, in the Swiss banks, or elsewhere, returned to their rightful owner – Egypt. These funds could pay back Egypt’s foreign debt; establish labour-intensive infrastructural projects and industrial and agricultural enterprises that would absorb the hundreds of thousands of unemployed, or underemployed and underpaid youths; also substantially increase wages; create a fund for the unemployed; and improve health and education, and other services.

Feb. 10:
I’m infuriated, nauseated, and much more, after Mubarak’s speech. He has no shame, no pride. Benjamin Netanyahu must have been cheering that his buddy is still here, and must have popped more than one champagne bottle.

Feb. 11:
FINALLY!!!! At hearing the news of Mubarak’s capitulation, in a terse 50-word communiqué by Omar Suleiman, I could not help myself jumping up and down, screaming, laughing, crying.

I can once again be proud – very proud – of being an Egyptian. I’m unbelievably happy to feel that my country, hijacked long ago, has been returned to me by these valiant youngsters, who kept to their promise to march peacefully, despite attacks by criminal NDP [Mubarak’s National Democratic Party] thugs, the only time they had to be violent in self-defence. They proved that they could be stronger than one of the worst tyrannies.

Thank God for ridding Egypt of Mubarak’s going-away “present.” Finally, young Egyptians have given us an “ex‑president.” We never had one, except for Mohammad Naguib, who remained under house arrest until his death.

Feb. 12:
The channels I watched during the past 17 days, by order of priority, because of their objectivity and credibility in my view, were France 24 in French and English (Arabic was canceled), and BBC World (English and Arabic). Sometimes, I used to turn to Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera International (Arabic was canceled, then restored later), though the latter often aired news that it was forced to deny later. Al Arabiya seemed to side with Mubarak, or at least, was wary about the democracy movement gaining ground. Statements by American very senior officials on CNN were often contradictory, mirroring policies that seemed vacillating, which I saw as the dilemma/conundrum they were faced with, namely, side with the ideals of the revolutionaries, who demanded democracy, and on the other hand, the pressures by Netanyahu, who was markedly frantic, during a press conference with Angela Merkel. Israel even allowed the Egyptian army to deploy some units to Sharm El Sheikh. Did Bibi know that his buddy would eventually move there? I never watched Egyptian TV, but will start now that the regime fell, and that consequently, the Minister of Information, Anas El Feqi, was removed. He reminded me of Saddam Hussein’s El Sahhaf, at the time of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. I strongly feel that this post should be scrapped, and Egyptian TV and radio turned into a corporation, independent of government influence.

Feb. 13:
One of the guests on the Andrew Marr show this morning on BBC TV was the Egyptian ambassador to London, H Seif el Nasr. Although he made a very good impression, both in replying to probing questions and fielding others, I was infuriated. Asked whether Mubarak should be put on trial, because of the billions he had amassed, he said that that was not the Egyptian’s way – that we retained a certain deference for our leaders.

“Deference” for a corrupt and corrupting “leader”?!!! How can Mr. Ambassador – or anyone else for that matter – have “deference” for a swindler-in-chief, who not only sucked Egypt’s resources dry, but also allowed his sons and their cohorts to embezzle in a grand manner, to terrorize the population, and to kill and maim with impunity.

I won’t apologize for my outburst, as there’s too much on my chest.

I find it revolting that a clique – quite a large one as a matter of fact – have skimmed off Egypt’s resources, then claimed that our country’s economy has grown in the past five years, under their stewardship, while ignoring the fact that half the population lives in abject extreme poverty … that the education system and health “services” couldn’t be worse (which forced the poor to go to private doctors, and pay for their medication, and hire private tutors for their children – private tuition fees in Egypt totalled approximately LE5 billion last year [Egyptian pounds, about $850 million in current dollars] … that university graduates’ monthly wages were LE300, while some ministers’ was LE2 million a month, such as the former Minister of Interior, Habib El Adly … and some senior police officers’ pay was five and six digits, while policemen’s were a mere couple of hundreds, sometimes less, which led the latter to terrorize small merchants and the poor to pay them “mafia type protection” or a bribe to do the job they were supposed to do … and more and more.


As for Tahrir Square, based on TV, the Internet, reports I received from others and my own observations:

1. The demonstrations were peaceful at all times, except when they had to defend themselves against the NDP thugs, who used rocks, Molotov cocktails, and even stormed in on camel and horseback, one night. They were even targeted by snipers on rooftops, and those killed had bullet wounds to their heads and chests.

2. Neither American nor Israeli nor any other flags were burnt.

3. While thugs manhandled and arrested foreigners, protesters were friendly towards them, and never attacked any of the hotels.

4. When the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to shout Islamic slogans, they were silenced, once and for all, by the other participants, and modern‑attired young women were seen having serious friendly discussions with bearded Islamists.

5. Egypt’s streets were notorious for sexual harassment … not one case was reported;

6. In the beginning, the participants were the educated middle-class and upper middle‑class computer‑savvy male and female youth, followed later on, as their movement seemed to gain popularity by their sheer resilience, by families from all walks of life, members of professional syndicates and labour unions, artists (singers, actors, painters, musicians, etc.), authors, poets, opposition politicians … thousands waved the Egyptian flag, and either sang patriotic songs, or newly created ones … evenings, they listened to poets and singers, cracked jokes about Mubarak and the regime, and, more seriously, planned for their next steps.

7. They regularly swept the square and even hired mini-trucks to take the garbage to the dumps.

8. Families, individuals and the troops distributed food, some cooked in homes, and some from delivery shops, as well as water bottles.

9. Doctors and surgeons, elderly and young, assisted by their nurses, left their private hospitals, provided sophisticated medical equipment, medicines, bandages, etc., and set up field hospitals across the square, the biggest in the well-known Omar Makram mosque (where my mother’s funerary service took place, one year ago).

10. Homes surrounding the square provided the girls with the opportunity to rest a little and use their bathrooms, while shops, cafes and other establishments allowed boys to use their toilets.

11. Later on, public toilets in the square, shut by the government previously, were opened and refurbished by the participants … the sign on it read Maqar al Hizb al Wati, a play on words by removing the noun (meaning the headquarters of the NDP).

12. Apart from those who demanded that Mubarak must leave, for the regime to fall, for the NDP to be banned, some placards, used by the demonstrators, affirmed the Egyptians’ sense of humour, such as, “Mubarak, leave, my wife is in labour and the baby doesn’t want to see you” … “Mubarak, leave, I miss my wife (I’ve been married for 16 days)”, “Mubarak, I’m a carpenter, tell me what glue you use” … “Suzanne, if you love him, take him away” … “Mubarak, I’ve been holding this sign for too long, leave, my arm is hurting” … “America has Batman and Spiderman, Egypt has Suleiman”…

13. To show the regime their resilience … their decision to remain in the square until their demands were met, and that life would go on regardless, two young fiancés had their marriage ceremony performed by a sheikh in the square … the bride wore her wedding dress, while the crowds cheered and offered their congratulations, along with sweets and sherbet.

14. They showed their inventiveness in many ways, from setting up tents, mainly for the female participants to sleep under more comfortably, as well as to shelter under when it rained; to connecting to the street lights to charge their mobiles, or to boil water for hot drinks; to establishing a supervised nursery, with kids given toys, colour pencils and papers; water and food distribution, as well as garbage collection points (the latter also with a humorous sign saying “NDP MPs [members of Parliament]”); and more; in fact, Tahrir Square became a well-organized mini-state.

15. The male demonstrators formed a circle, holding hands, and guarded a “lost-and-found” display in the middle, where many, many IDs, mobile phones, even cash and other objects were exhibited;

16. Most importantly, despite Pope Shenouda’s call to the Coptic community [Pope Shenouda is the head of the Coptic Church in Alexandria] to stay away from the demonstrations, thousands of his parishioners joined, as a show of solidarity with Muslims.

On 6 January, the Coptic Christmas eve, Muslims from all walks of life had held vigils as human shields at churches across Egypt, following the New Year’s Eve massacre at a church in Alexandria (now documents have proven that it has been the work of the police, under the supervision of the former Minister of the Interior).

I was deeply touched when I saw the Copts holding hands and encircling the Muslims at prayer times, to guard them, while the police, assisted by their hired thugs, used water cannons, bludgeons, machetes and swords, live and rubber-coated bullets and tear-gas canisters against them all.

The Copts also helped their Muslim brethren in the pre‑prayer ablutions, by pouring water for them … and because the youngsters didn’t have enough mikes for all those in the square to hear the words “Allahu Akbar” [God is great] which is repeated during prayers to sync their movements when they bend and prostrate, the young Copts relayed the words to those far from the mikes, and could be seen and heard shouting “Allahu Akbar.” I still get goose pimples, even while I’m writing.

17. As a final act, the demonstrators decided to clean up the square, one more time, before going home, and even gave a “bath and scrub” to the two lions at the entrance of Kasr El Nil bridge, and painted the walls and the pavement stones that had been damaged.


Across Egypt, when the police forces vanished, the youngsters were stationed at street intersections. Never was traffic as regulated as when they were in charge, and drivers cooperated beautifully. No driver tried to “burn” a red traffic light, something unheard of for many years.

At the same time, when garbage collectors also disappeared, housewives and twenty-somethings and teenagers swept the streets, gathered the garbage in sacks and stacked them at streetcorners, painted tramway stations and walls that had been damaged by anti-Mubarak graffiti. I saw one of them, Safiyah, the daughter of the late prime minister of Egypt under the monarchy, Nuqrashi Pasha, who was killed by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1948. In some neighbourhoods, including mine, mini-trucks were hired to take the garbage to the dumps. This is continuing until now, and the streets in some areas have never been cleaner.

When the police opened the prisons, freed thieves, burglars and other criminals, abandoning their weapons before disappearing, neighborhood watches were established right away. In the evenings, fathers kept watch in front of the buildings, armed with iron pipes, wooden sticks, kitchen knives, and, in rare cases, licensed pistols or shotguns. From midnight on, the sons took over that responsibility.

In tandem, the army deployed tanks to sensitive areas. For instance, because I live about two hundred meters from the residence of the Alexandria governor and the Jewelry Museum on one side, and two presidential residences on the other, several tanks have kept my building safe. Nevertheless, male residents also spent the night guarding us.

The Swiss Federation of Banks froze the Mubarak assets half an hour after he resigned. Bravo. I hope that Egypt will recalibrate its relations with other countries, based on their willingness to do the same. Some of the countries named in that respect are the U.S., the UK, France and Brazil, and probably many others. Calls have already moved to follow the Swiss example and freeze assets, but I wonder whether it makes a difference that Mubarak’s wife and son are said to be British.

As for Tahrir Square, it has been vacated by most. A score have remained. Those are the families of those assassinated in the square, asking for the perpetrators of violence and assassinations to be found, arrested and brought to justice, in addition to the families of the “disappeared” during the protests, demanding that their whereabouts be revealed and released.

Strikes are nationwide. In the past six years there were 2,500 strikes, and last year, 56 workers committed suicide.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is facing an extremely challenging task, nevertheless, their communiqués are focussed, wisely and matter-of-factly worded, and their actions up to now have been applauded by the people (suspension of the Constitution, dissolution of the two Chambers, prosecution of a number of senior officials and the freezing of their assets, orders to the border police to prevent former officials from travel abroad).

Feb. 15:
My inbox is swollen, what with more and more people becoming keen to exchange information about the revolution (articles, YouTube new patriotic songs and poems composed in the square, slogans, photos of people in the square and elsewhere across Egypt ‑ from Aswan to Alexandria and from Marsa Matrouh to Suez and the Sinai, etc.) – so much so that I’m swamped and overwhelmed.

Feb. 16:
TV satellite programmes, with graphic photographs of some of the torture chambers in police stations, including one in Alexandria, have shown the instruments used against the population. The death under torture of a young man last spring in my city of Alexandria actually was one of the sparks that led to the revolution. A new opposition movement was formed at the time, and became part of the core of the protest organizers. In addition, families now speak openly about what their sons suffered at the hands of the Mukhabarat, after having been muzzled by the perpetrators of those crimes, with threats of retribution.

One of them is my husband’s grand‑nephew. The young man had absolutely no political activities, but was picked up while on his way home, one night. For ten days, his mother didn’t know his whereabouts, until she contacted her cousin, a close friend of Suzanne Mubarak. He was released, on condition he and his family don’t ever reveal what happened to him during his detention, but the boy seemed psychologically broken.

Feb. 17:
Of course, everyone is speculating about what the future might hold. Let’s hope for more of what we all had dreamt for. May God Almighty save Egypt, and may its courageous young women and men be graced with health, happiness and prosperity.

Dr. Nadia E. El-Shazly is an Egyptian international relations scholar and author of “The Gulf Tanker War: Iran and Iraq’s Maritime Swordplay” (1998).

Photo: Cairo, Feb. 4, 2011. Twitter user Gsquare86 via mikeporterinmd