"Hmm, when I grow up, I would like to be free," the 11-year-old boy hummed before he answered me. The answer, for that ordinary question usually asked children at this age, was astonishing as much as shocking. In normal free societies, a young boy's answer to that question would be: When I grow up, I would like to be a doctor, engineer, teacher and so forth but not to be FREE. I repeat, in normal democratic countries, freedom is a given. However, in un-democratic countries like Egypt, freedom remains to be a great idea but has nothing to do with reality. Some, as millions of simple people living under dictatorships and are brain washed by them, may think that freedom is a luxury and that food, shelter and employment are more worthy of being sought. For those deceived, here is the reality: Those basic needs are never guaranteed without being free in a free country.
On the fifth anniversary of the Arab spring that first sparked in Tunisia in January 2011 and caught Egypt on the same month before reaching Yemen, Libya and Syria within weeks, it's important to recall that it was the youth in all these countries who started those revolutions in search of freedom, one that would guarantee their the basic rights including food, shelter and more basically their right of life and physical safety against ruthless military dictatorships they have been living under.
When youth spend the most wonderful years in life looking over their shoulders fearing the security apparatuses, and with little hope for making a living, it results in a lethal cocktail: hopelessness mixed with indignity.
Years before the Arab Spring revolutions, most Egyptians could see the oncoming revolt; you could almost smell it in the air. With poverty reaching unprecedented levels of 70%, it was common to see people up to their waist in garbage dumpsters, seeking anything edible. Most felt it would be a revolution of the hungry, one so destructive that nothing would be spared.
Weeks before January 25, 2011, many youth flared social media with calls for revolution. Nobody expected much, especially not the ruling regime. Former president Hosni Mubarak mocked the youth in a public speech addressing a rally of his corrupt National Democratic Party saying:" Let them entertain themselves a bit." The filthy rich corrupt rally exploded into laughter putting down the misery and agonies of the nation.
Come January 25th, it looked just like any other day. On the way to my office, I could see the usual traffic chaos on the streets and despair on the faces of the passers-by. It was almost 8 p.m. when I finished my work at the newspaper where I heard colleagues talking about a gathering of some youth in Tahrir Square which is a 10 minute walk from my office. That night I was to appear on a late night program on National T.V. Instead of staying at the office until the time of the show, I walked to Tahrir Square to check out what was going on. Unlike the expectations of the majority of the people, that the lower strata of society would be the ones would revolt, I was immediately struck by two obvious things:
- •All demonstrators were youth in their 20's and a limited number in their 30's.
- •The other obvious fact was that the majority of demonstrators came from the elite upper class, youth who attended the most prestigious universities and drove the nicest cars. It was astonishing to see them fearlessly confront the 30 year old dictatorship. How did they get such conviction to give up their comforts, and risk their own lives? After spending hours over the next few days talking with them, I finally got the answers to my questions:
"It's true we belong to wealthy families and have many comforts, and with the opportunity to attend the most expensive universities both here, in Egypt and abroad. However, we still feel the needs of the poor and unprivileged," replied a graduate from an American University in Cairo.
"Morally and ethically we must fight for those who have less, yet that is not the only reason. Pragmatically speaking, if we turned a blind eye to our fellow Egyptians being victimized by a corrupt and tyrannical regime it will put our own lives at jeopardy sooner or later. If we turn our faces away from the agonies of the poor, those who represent the majority, it would not only be selfish but also self-destructive for when they explode, it will be hell," another young well-dressed young man confirmed.
It was impressive how hundreds of youth had similar attitudes, and way more mature than the veteran politicians, most with corrupt and shortsighted views. These same youth were besieged by thousands of soldiers and intimidated by the security and intelligence apparatuses. I feared for them, and expected they would yield within a few hours, yet to my astonishment they never did; they were willing to die for the sake of the poor.
By midnight, the security forces had inflicted severe injuries to scores of demonstrators. Again, I expected them to disperse but they never did. Instead, they held out flowers and roses to soldiers who were beating them mercilessly. As the night wore on, they never attempted to defend themselves, but rather reassured the soldiers that their aim was to defend them and their own poor families. Two days later, after several demonstrators were murdered, they began defending themselves by throwing stones at the attacking forces.
After struggling for two days, other groups began pouring into the square, in defense of their fellow youth and the noble values they stood for. Within two days, tens of thousands joined them in Tahrir Square. Soon after, both the police and the army began attacking every couple of hours.
On February 3, when the regime felt embarrassed before the whole world, it started reaching out to negotiate with representatives of those youth. Unlike the common story that the first encounter between the regime and youth was with former late head of intelligence General Omar Soliman, the first meeting was between Ahmed Shafik, former Prime Minister and close protégé of former President Mubarak. Representative of the revolutionary youth were both stormy and feisty in the face of the Prime Minister's demands to end their sit-in. They were firm and united to carry on with their sit-in until Mubarak stepped down, along with forced resignation of all corrupt officials. Later, there were two other sessions of talks that resulted in nothing. Yet, I have to admit, through all that time, the former Prime Minister was very polite and never lost his temper. After 18 days, the army had to give in and force the President's resignation.
Although deliberately and viciously abated by dictatorships, it is worthy to say that the Arab Spring revolutions have proven that the youth never lost hope in changing their present in order to own the future.
However, besides being sparked and led by youth from the elite upper class for the benefit of the poor, Egypt's revolution was astonishing on several counts:
- • The amazing peacefulness of the youth which surprisingly contradicted their firmness and determination to bring down a dictator, one who had ruled by corruption and deception for three decades.
- •While the police, army forces and thugs hired by the former dictator's cronies murdered thousands and maimed tens of thousands, the youth never gave up their revolution, nor did they abandon peacefulness. On the contrary they threatened to march from Tahrir Square and other squares across the country in tidal waves until they reached the Presidential palace, a threat that accelerated bringing down the dictator.
- •The nobility, romanticism and idealism of revolutionaries, the youth on top of them, in their attempt to fulfill their legitimate aspiration of reshaping not only their future but also the future of their country. The cross-country massive campaign they launched to clean up and decorate the streets with their own limited resources was a mere example of many they set to tell the nation that Egypt belonged to them, all of them.
Yet in thinking they had defeated the dictatorship machine, the youth were soon proven wrong! They had confused the person, the Dictator himself, with the system, the military dictatorship, thinking they were one.
Within months, the dictatorship machine began rolling once again, demonizing the revolution and resulting in not only dashed hopes of the youth but tragic massacres, including assassinations, kidnappings, forced disappearances and eventual indictments convicting thousands of youth, some with death penalties, on false charges in sham trials. Four years after the revolution, more than 44,000 people have been jailed, most on phony charges, and more prisons are being built for newcomers who are wronged charged. Well, freedom is a matter of choice. So far it seems that the older generations of Egyptians, those who grew old under dictatorship, have lost the wonderful taste of freedom to fight for it.
However, whenever I remember that young boy telling me that he would like to grow up to be a free man, I become more and more confident that millions of youth and children behind them have made a determined choice of freeing themselves, along with their country, of tyranny. It will come!
This article was published on: www.yehiaghanem.com