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My father came back from the supermarket armed with bags full of pasta, rice, flour, and canned products. He rushed there after hearing about protests in Benghazi. This was in mid-February, and the world was not yet aware of the events unfolding in Libya. My mother’s health was deteriorating and we were hoping for an immediate medical evacuation to the UK.
At night, in our cold apartment on the seventh floor of a building in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, I tried to figure out whether the sounds I was hearing were gunfire or fireworks celebrating the birth of the prophet Mohamed in Libya. This year Mawlud was on February 15.
Libya was never a favorite place for me, but I have a strong connection to it. I lived there in 1991 and 1992 when my father was working as a professor, and I visited in mid-2010 when my father started working for the UN.
The country seemed stagnant. No real political change had happened since 1969, when Muammar Gaddafi overthrew the king of Libya and established himself as ruler. Unlike Egypt, Libyans did not live in poverty. They had access to education and health care, but the government overlooked their aspirations.
My mother’s friend, a young Libyan woman in her early thirties, told us once that when the late King of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), King Zayid, visited Libya in the 1970s, he told Gaddafi that he wanted his country to be like Libya. Decades later, the UAE became an international phenomenon in development and advancement - its key cities Dubai and Abu Dhabi are icons of intelligent architecture - but Libya is sadly not very different than when we left in 1992. Today Gaddafi seems relentless to hold on to power even if it means ruling only a fraction of his nation.
Yet in Egypt, it took only 49 seconds for a 30-year-old government to quit. Omar Suleiman, a former intelligence chief and Mubarak’s vice-president at the time, announced the resignation of the president in just two sentences.
When we arrived in Cairo on January 27, as my mum was scheduled for an operation at a hospital there, I did not expect the protest to gain momentum. I had witnessed protests in downtown Cairo during my university years, when police officers brutally suppressed each and every demonstration.
People were so used to having Mubarak as the president because he had been in power for 30 years and the devil you know is better than the devil you do not know, they believed. “Who is our next option, the Muslim brotherhood?” was the usual answer I received from friends and colleagues.
On February 9 the UN issued a memorandum urging its staff to evacuate, which brought us to Libya, where my dad was stationed as part of his job with the UN. The day of Suleiman’s speech, my family and I went to a bakery where we purchased a cheesecake and came back home to celebrate while watching news channels.
I remember the beginning, April 6, 2008. It took me less than 30 minutes as opposed to an hour to reach the American University in Cairo from my house. A few weeks earlier a Facebook group called "April 6 Youth Movement" declared the day a national protest day. The whole country was encouraged to stay at home in solidarity with the workers in the factories of the Mahalla-El-Kubra area who were preparing a strike. It is difficult to state whether the movement was successful on April 6 since it did not reach out the way it was expected to - the overwhelming majority did not join the protests. However, it was the first mass mobilization in a very long time in Egypt. At least 70,000 joined the Facebook group. The government cracked down on the founders of the group. The co-founder, Issra Abdel Fatah, was imprisoned for two weeks. After her release, she vowed to quit political activism for good.
Fast-forward to June 2010, when 28-year-old blogger Khaled Said was beaten to death by police in Alexandria. Said was not the first Egyptian to die at the hands of the notorious Egyptian police. According to reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other organizations, security forces in Egypt commonly use torture, including beatings, electrocution, and sexual assault, against political prisoners, activists, convicted criminals, or any voice of dissent that needs to be silenced.
HRW disseminated the disturbing picture showing a dead Khaled Said with a broken nose, broken jaw, fractured skull, and other visible injuries, and the Egyptian people took to the streets in mass numbers. Notable protests were organized in Alexandria, his hometown, and quickly spread to the rest of Egypt. A Facebook group, “We are all Khaled Said,” was formed, and this group became a very important organizer of the “day of anger” protest on January 28.
That sole picture of Khaled Said and the April 6 Movement were instrumental in mobilizing young people, who represent 60 percent of Egypt’s population, and inspired in them a sense of political awareness and social change, but the most pressing trigger was the uprising in Tunisia.
Tunisia is one of the jewels of the Arab and African worlds. It brings to mind a peaceful image of beaches, beautiful white houses, and an educated middle class. When Tunisians started mass-protesting last November, inspired by Mohamed Ben Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian man who set himself on fire to protest unemployment, the Arab world was shocked.
But Egyptians were already fed up with the Mubarak regime. It was widely circulated that over 30 percent of Egyptians lived in absolute poverty while the president’s friends and supporters accumulated an enormous amount of wealth. The average monthly salary was 400 EGP ($68 USD), while the rich were buying Chloe bags for over 10,000 EGP ($1,700 USD).
Police brutality was at an all-time high. Editors were fired, harassed, and fined. Ibrahim Eisa, a popular opposition journalist and editor of Al-Dustour stated at a conference I attended in Beirut two years ago that there were over 30 cases filed against him at that time.
Tahrir Square, as it appeared on TV during the protests, was empty of cars as protesters made it the site of their uprising. I used to pass by Tahrir Square every day for three years as a student. It took a lot of courage to cross from one side of the square to another. Thousands of Egyptians flocked to the chronically congested square every day to head to the Mogamma, the epicenter of Egyptian bureaucracy and a huge building where Egyptians go to get their passports and papers and foreigners go to get their visas renewed. The square also houses the Arab League, the Egyptian Museum, and the headquarters of the former ruling party, the National Democratic Party.
“If we left the square, the uprising will die off, and if we failed to overthrow the government, the government will slash our necks,” said activist and journalist Nawara Negm to Al-Jazeera TV. Negm was right. Protesters had been arrested, tortured, and persecuted in Egypt before.
Fear was also an important aspect in convincing more supporters to join the protest. The organizers kept calling on workers to join the protests, but feeling uneasy about losing their jobs, the workers initially shied away. Then as the protests grew larger, workers from national factories, the national TV, and many other national companies joined the protest. The larger the protests, the more protection people felt.
I keep thinking of a friend of mine who was arrested in the beginning of February in an anti-government protest in Northern Khartoum in Sudan. He was just released. I hope change also comes to Sudan. I hope we find inspiration in Egypt’s revolution.