What the Young People of Egypt Learned

Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

This summer Egyptians took to the streets in numbers that made their historic anti-Mubarak outpouring two-and-a-half years ago pale in comparison. Once again, the volume of the recent protests took everyone—Egyptians and outsiders—by surprise. But anyone who has spent time on the ground in Egypt since the revolution began in earnest in January 2011 is not confused as to why revolt is still warranted. Rather, what was extraordinary about this revolutionary persistence is that Egyptians still have the energy and resolve to act and to sacrifice, even after the punishing series of disappointments they’ve endured since their initial hopes were kindled.

I watched the extraordinary display of fervor and commitment of this summer’s events from my office and home in East Tennessee—a half-world away geographically and light years away culturally from the grind and passion of Egypt. But having spent considerable time in Cairo and Alexandria over the past two years, I was able to feel the essence of what was being expressed and what was at stake, especially for the youth from whom I’ve had the privilege of learning during their long ordeal.

One of the several profound lessons I’ve learned in following this revolution is how dizzyingly complex social movements of this magnitude are. Yet I think Egyptians would confirm that the essential core is not complex, but rather a simple and essential yearning for dignity and freedom. It was the taste of this freedom and restored dignity that was so promising to Egyptians in the early days of the movement. As the revolution ground on, the young people were sobered by the slow realization that the sources of their violation were not particular people but Egypt’s various cultures. Finally, the betrayal and violence they experienced at the hands of those who took control of the country demonstrated that the cherished freedom they had sipped was dissolving.

The urgency of freedom and the associated dignity that Egyptians crave is difficult for those of us raised and immersed in it to appreciate. We presume freedom and contemplate it only when someone threatens to take a piece of it away. Most of us in our society would have no reason to have experienced what Egyptians did late in January and early February 2011: the sudden acquisition of freedom.

I surely would never have understood had I not had the privilege of witnessing it.

***

Those first two hours in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday evening, February 18, 2011, were among the most profound moments of my life. I was not anticipating that moment—indeed I had no expectations at all as I made my way to Tahrir Square that night. Figuring that I ought to try to “see something” my first night upon arriving, I waded across the Qasr al-Nil bridge leading into the Square, taking a good half hour to squeeze my way through the throngs of people filling both lanes and sidewalks of the very bridge that earlier was (and later would be) a key artery of protest. I tripped over crumbling asphalt, bumping shoulders all the way with people moving in every possible direction with no apparent destination in mind, and not really knowing what my own destination was.

The mood was profoundly celebratory with the characteristic racket of Cairo on steroids—coarsely out-of-pitch blare of vuvuzelas, revolutionary chants screamed from loudspeakers, and the incessant, piercing signature car horn rhythm announcing momentous occasions: Beep! Beep! Beep-Beep-Beep!—Beep! Beep! Beep-Beep-Beep!

Tahrir Square was just a vague concept to me until I entered it in a seamless extension of the flood of people from the bridge. The huge intersection that receives and feeds several main Cairo arteries hosted a massive assembly of people. I just kept moving, and by the time I found myself in the roundabout at the center of the Square, the experience had become dizzying. In a stupor, I turned slowly the full 360 degrees, scanned a barrage of people, squinted through the glare of floodlights, and picked out bits and pieces of conversations that were mostly drowned out by the roar of the accumulated masses.

The spectacle, one week after the dictator had acquiesced to the demands of his people, was exciting. Emotion gushed from the very core of each individual—young, old, male, female, poor, less poor. It was palpable, sensual, this feeling of newly acquired freedom. The euphoria wouldn’t last forever, as we now know from following Egypt’s saga, and as we should have known from a longer familiarity with past revolutions and their invariable cycles.

***

What stayed with me after my first night in Tahrir was the mass unity of distinct individuals. I have studied collective identity, and nearly two decades of studying Palestinians has sensitized me to how essential place and nation are to identity. But that work began after the grounding drama of their first intifada, which ran from 1987 to 1993. Until Tahrir I’d never witnessed the discovery of collective synergy and oneness at its inception. Real-time accounts of the workings of a revolution are rare. Rarer still are real-time accounts of how youth identities form through, and adapt to, the changing social and political landscape.

So I set out to find a few young people to follow as they experienced revolution and its aftermath. Selecting a diverse set—males, females, Cairo residents, Alexandrians, Muslims, Christians, seasoned and occasional activists—proved fruitful both in teaching how such powerful unity is initially forged and how difficult it is to maintain over time. Alas, I failed in repeated efforts to include a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the group.

The particulars of the individuals’ politics are less important to me than the way they experience them. What follows are four brief sketches from among the youths I selected, portraits of engagement that begin to differentiate individuals from the collective mass I experienced in Tahrir, and which shed light on Egypt’s ongoing voyage.

Read more at Zócalo Public Square.