For most who pass through Egypt, it is a tourist destination; a place to see first hand the remnants of an ancient civilization. During the winter months resort towns along the red and white seas serve as a sunny getaway for middle class westerners, but what is lost on most of these visitors is the vast inequities and contradictions that exist in the country.
While topless sunbathers in the resort town of Sharm el Shakh sip on pina colodas, young girls in villages across the country undergo the traditional practice of female genital cutting. While a quarter of the country’s population is trying to feed themselves on less than two dollars a day, the well-connected businessmen and bureaucrats are cutting exclusive backroom deals that add billions of dollars to their personal wealth.
This marginalization of not just the rural poor, but also the diminishing middle class has fueled an undercurrent of discontent among the population.
For years, the Egyptian populace’s response to the Mubarak regime’s corruption has been characterized as either apathetic or ambivalent. A busted water main could pour water onto the street for days without so much as a second look from the local residence. Almost all government services, from education to healthcare, were riddled with dysfunction and a lack of accountability. It was this complete lack of trust and or lack of expectations that characterized the relationship between the government and those it governed.
An unsaid agreement that the people could enjoy limited freedoms – as long as they didn’t actually expect or work for change – helped keep the country stagnant for decades. Those that did try to rock the boat often faced arrest, torture and in some cases death at the hands of the police under the auspices of the 30 year old emergency law put in place after the assassination of former president Anwar Sadat.
It was for these reasons that, before January 25 2011–the first of 18 days of demonstrations that would eventually lead to the removal of the regime–such a thing seemed unimaginable.
In recent coverage, much of the western media seems to attribute these events to social media such as Facebook or institutions like Wikileaks that, although played a significant and positive role, were not as crucial as the resourcefulness and strong sense of community among the Egyptian people. Although the demonstrations first began out of the multiple grass-roots youth movements, it could not have been sustained without a sophisticated network of dedicated volunteers from all segments of society.
At every stage of the protest came a new set of challenges that had to be met; from things as simple as providing food and shelter to those in the central square, Tahrir, to combating government suppression of information and the movement of protesters.
For example, in the first week of clashes with police they were ordered to disband in hopes that a fear of chaos would sweep the nation, bring back a welcomed return of order, and assign blame to those agitating against the system. But instead, citizens took matters into their own hands. Neighborhoods banded together to secure the streets, direct traffic and created a sense of confidence in themselves. In Tahrir, checkpoints were set up at every entrance by the people in cooperation with the army to keep the protests peaceful. When it was cold, blankets were brought in. When it rained, tarps and other materials were brought in for shelter. Even a system for disposing of waste was set up entirely by volunteers. The level of commitment to the cause and the sense that “we are all in this together” prevailed.
Mahmoud Said, a student volunteering with the doctors in the square, reported having helped move over a thousand sick and injured people from the square to hospitals following the days of clashes with pro-Mobarak protesters.
In some instances, he literally carried them over his shoulder to any vehicle that was nearby. Makeshift clinics with medical supplies from local pharmacies were set up and staffed by volunteers at different locations. Bakers and shop owners passed out free bread and snacks for the people.
(Pictured above): two different volunteer-run community medical clinics to serve demonstrators.
Although the opposition is fragmented it is in many ways centered on this key principle that “We are all Egyptians” – Christian or Muslim, middle class or poor, secular or religious – we have all suffered under the current system and we all want the same basic rights and return of our dignity.
Left to right (above): 1. a group of demonstrators, 2. another group of demonstrators, wearing hats for protection from incoming rocks, 3. an entry into Tahrir Square, and 4. a volunteer security checkpoint.
Left to right (above) 1. Celebratory atmosphere, 2. Demonstrator holding a sign with a caricature of Mubarak, 3. A message concerning U.S. involvement, 4. Volunteers organizing trash cleanup (a full time job!)
(Randall Adkins is a longtime Norman resident of Egyptian descent, a KVOY Volunteer, and school teacher currently working in Cairo)