13 February 2011
A reader of Egyptian history will discover that Egyptians as a people are normally patient, long-suffering and tolerant, but not necessarily submissive. The recent demonstrations have revealed that Egyptians can be positive and active about the change they demand and believe in. Tahrir Square has become the centre of world attention as the hub of the protests. Yet Tahrir Square is not Egypt in its entirety. Watani decided to sound the opinion of the man in the street, the silent majority which—for better or for worse—did not head or is not heading to Tahrir.
Predictably, many of those who never headed to Tahrir do not share the view of those in Tahrir. Even though the 25 January demonstrations which called for political, economic, and social change were widely applauded by most Egyptians, opinion varies about the persisting masses in Tahrir today. Watani asked two specific questions: what the interviewee’s view of the events was, and why he or she did not participate in demonstrations.
“When I read the call for a demonstration on 25 January on Facebook, I was quite sceptical,” said Atef Mahrous, a secondary school teacher. “Then the scale of the demonstration, its genuine sincerity, and its wide success took me by surprise. I felt very proud of what Egypt’s youth was able to do. The riots and destruction which followed, however, sent me into shock. Howcome no-one could foresee that?”
Sameh Nassif, a Coptic medical student, believes the Coptic demonstrations in the wake of the New Year explosion at the Church of the Saints in Alexandria paved the way for the 25 January demonstrations. “I would have liked to join the protests,” Nassif said, “but the destruction which followed placed me in the position where I had to give priority to defending my family and neighbours against possible attacks. We were able to catch four of the culprits who were assaulting civilian property in our neighbourhood; we handed them over to the authorities.
“I hate to be grouped among the ‘silent majority’ since this is not strictly the case. I consider my participation in civil defence a positive experience. Besides, the protest culture is more or less alien to many of us, but I guess this is already changing.”
Obviously, Mubarak’s speech and his actions towards reform were met with approval by a wide sector of Egyptians, especially given that fears of anarchy and the loss of jobs due to the downfall of the tourism sector and the stock market had taken hold of many. “Mubarak appeared strong and in control,” Mohamed al-Shafei, an Arabic language teacher said. “His choice of Omar Suleiman as vice president and Ahmed Shafiq as premiere, coupled with his dismissal of the old guard in his regime, inspired confidence.
“As to why I never took the active part of demonstrating, the answer is that I was severely disappointed with the media, local or international. They appeared to see nothing beyond Tahrir, and satellite channels such as al-Hurra and al-Jazeera propagated hatred against Egypt.”
Haitham Wagdy, a university student, was among those who approved of Mubarak’s actions towards reform and joined a demonstration in Mustafa Mahmoud Square in Mohandiseen supporting the president. “There was a huge crowd out there,” he said, “and our voice may have got heard very positively had it not been for a similar demonstration with horses and camels that ended badly in Tahrir. I don’t know who was responsible for it, but it was definitely counter-productive.”
A young woman from the over-populated district of Warraq, who works as a domestic help, related how two young men who live on the same street as she does planned to go join the demonstrations on Friday 4 February, but were forced to stay home by the neighbours. “We’ve had enough,” the neighbours insisted; “you’re not to go out there.”
“Don’t hijack the movement”
A few weeks before the 25 January demonstrations, psychologist Mohamed al-Mahdy had talked on Egyptian TV commenting on what was happening then in Egypt. Today his words seem prophetic. Dr Mahdy said that a lot on the Egyptian scene made the condition unsustainable. The 30-year-old emergency law, the security constraints on civil society institutions, the rising prices and widespread corruption, all this made for a potent formula for ‘revolution’. Egyptian history, however, according to Dr Mahdy included few revolutions…so what was there to expect? Dr Mahdy feared imminent anarchy.
The prominent writer and novelist Bahaa’ Taher, winner of the 2008 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, told Watani he was truly proud of the young people’s 25 January uprising. “It has achieved demands we only dreamt would come true,” he said. “I have talked to them first-hand; young men and women, Muslims and Copts, who really want to change Egypt for the better. They should be given a chance. To all the political movements which are trying to hijack the young people’s movement, I say: Hands off. All the other streams on the political spectrum, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have been invited—and have responded—to conduct a dialogue with the new authorities. The young people should be allowed to talk for themselves. No-one should hijack their movement.”
Watani talked to economic expert Mukhtar al-Sharif. “Personal security, food and drink, are the typical priorities of the ordinary citizen,” Mr Sharif said. “Then comes freedom. This is normal, of course. When Mubarak responded positively to the demonstrators’ call for change, many Egyptians saw that their demands had been, or were on the way to be, answered. They saw this as sufficient and wished to go back to the business of making lives for themselves.
“As to why the wide majority did not participate in the demonstrations, have you ever heard of the nadaaba, literally the professional mourner? In Egyptian folk traditions, such a person is brought in when there is a death in the family. Her role is to chant some sad, heart-rending melodies that have the effect of bringing to the surface the profound sentiments of grief, so that the mourners are able to express their grief vocally instead of burying it deep down.
“In case of the masses, they sometimes need someone like the nadaaba to alert their fears and get them to take positive action. This ought to be the role of the Egyptian media and civil society institutions. They should alert Egyptians to the full peril of the various forces threatening their country at this point. While Egyptians are busy calling for freedom and better living conditions, Hamas and Iran are hailing “a new Islamic revival in the Middle East”, Arab satellite channels are propagating an inaccurate image of Egypt, and the White House has gone out of its way to declare—even as it admitted Egyptians should decide their destiny for themselves—what it saw as ‘best’ for Egypt. If all this is compiled to project that the will of the Egyptian people may be hijacked, the ‘silent majority’ would no longer remain silent.