Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt: Cairo protesters tell of their fight for freedom

As Egyptians tidy up after celebrating the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, Nick Meo in Cairo heard the stories of five protesters who slept for night after night beside the tracks of the tanks in Tahrir Square.

By Nick Meo, Cairo 4:47PM GMT 12 Feb 2011
sunday telegraph

Suzanne Esmat walked into Tahrir Square a free woman for the first time in her life yesterday, and returned to the place near the entrance where she had prepared herself to die.

In normal times Miss Esmat, 44, is a guide who takes parties of British tourists down the Nile and around Egypt’s antiquities. But these are not normal times, and for the past three weeks she has been a human shield, spending 24 hours a day in front of a 60-ton M1 Abrams tank parked at the entrance to the square.

Every night she slept on the ground next to it in a bundle of blankets, prepared to be crushed under the tank tracks with fellow protesters if the army tried to enter to put down their revolution.

“We have to be ready to sacrifice our lives for freedom,” she said on Thursday night. “I will be here until he goes. Mubarak and his regime are thieves and liars. We have had enough of them.”

The past week has been without doubt the most exciting of Miss Esmat’s life, and one of the hardest. It was also cold, dirty, and frightening.

Around 400 of her fellow protesters were killed by the security forces, including young men shot down in front of her. Regime thugs threatened to kill her and hurled rocks to try to make her move. If the revolution had failed — and there were times when it looked as if it could - her comfortable life with a well-paid, enjoyable job would have ended, and instead she would have been sacked, jailed and perhaps tortured in one of ex-President Mubarak’s prisons.

But the people lost their fear, and then the protesters won. It took real courage, but in less than three weeks they brought down the dictator who had misruled their nation for thirty years. Yesterday Miss Esmat said the people’s revolution was just the beginning.

“We are very, very happy that he has gone. I was at the party in the square until 5am, and now I am so full of hope — not only for Egypt, but for the whole region,” she said.

“You saw the start of it yesterday, with people dancing in the streets in Morocco and Baghdad. All the Arabs wanted to share their happiness with us. We have started something that will change the world.”

Her joy was shared by millions of Egyptians, who flooded into the streets after President Mubarak unexpectedly stepped down on Friday night, 24 hours after he vowed to them that he would stay in power.

Men whooped and chanted and women handed out sweets to celebrate and told their children to remember how they felt because history was being made; it felt as if Cairo’s entire 20 million population was crushed into Tahrir Square.

On Saturday morning protesters organised themselves into teams to clear away the mountains of rubbish that had been left behind and cranes started dragging off wrecked vehicles. Some protesters were determined to stay, to put pressure on the army which is now in power until real democracy can take root.

They were waking up to a very different world. The state newspapers — Mubarak’s mouthpieces for decades — were yesterday pouring venom on their old master, and praising the protesters who they had condemned as traitors in Friday’s editions.

The pace of events was so fast that few Egyptians seem to have thought much about what freedom will be like without a president to decide everything for them, and Egypt has dangerous problems ahead.

Power is now in the hands of generals who may be tempted to become new dictators themselves, and Islamic extremists are poised to succeed in parliamentary elections, whenever they are held.

After weeks of paralysis the economy is in a terrible mess; poverty and overpopulation are terrible problems, and expectations for the future have been raised dangerously high; the temptation to take revenge against regime figures could yet spark violence; and the revolution was so rapid that there is no leadership to offer a vision of a secure political future.

But the mood on Cairo’s streets was incredibly, euphorically positive; hardly anyone seemed to be thinking of the trials ahead.

Dina Sadek, 21, a student protester, was jubilant, and a little stunned, at Mubarak’s fall.

“We did it, and we did it in just 17 days,” she said with a huge smile. “A month ago people were too scared to criticise him in public. Now we have won our freedom and we are proud to be Egyptian.”

She is part of a generation which can hope to enjoy a life of freedom from tyrants - something few people anywhere in the Arab world have ever experienced.

“All through our revolution the older generation have been apologising to us for not doing this 20 years ago,” she said.

But nobody had more to celebrate than the human shields — the heroes of Tahrir Square who were celebrities by the end of the protests. Visitors to the square used their mobile phones to take photos of them huddling next to the tank tracks. Some even slept on top of the tracks.

They were united by their opposition to Mubarak. But they had different visions of the Egypt they wanted to see after him.

Saif Al Deen, 29, was a humble English teacher in an obscure village 400 miles south of Cairo seven days ago. Then he decided to get on a bus to join the protesters.

“Last week I was teaching children,” he said with a shy smile. “I hate Mubarak. He has killed our brothers and sisters and he steals our money.”

The moment he knew that the revolution was going to succeed was when a busload of friends from his village arrived in Cairo last week to join it.

“We feel different now,” he said. “We used to feel shame all the time. Egypt was a big prison for us. Now we feel free and we feel proud of our country. We have a good future. We just want peace and democracy.”

But some of his fellow human shields had a very different vision of the Egypt they wanted to see.

Ayman Abdelmotall Abdelaaty, 43, an IT consultant and father of two sons, said he wanted Sharia, Islamic law, and didn’t like alcohol being served in Egypt.

“But what we really want is justice and equality,” he said. “If the people chose Sharia I would be happy but if they chose another way, I would agree with that. The struggle is not only against Mubarak but also against the West and America. We want Egypt to be a democracy. The West doesn’t care about anything except the peace agreement with Israel — they don’t care how the Egyptian people live.”

The youngest of the human shields was Mohammed, a boy who had run away from home in his village north of Cairo to join the protests on Tuesday. He said he was 15 but he looked much younger .

“I came here because the government is killing the people,” he said with a grin.

Atef Abd El Sattar, 50, said he became a human shield because he had been jailed and tortured by the regime.

Mr Sattar, a devout Muslim, was ordered by the boss at his pharmacy company to shave off his beard ten years ago, but refused and was jailed for 38 days. “In jail they beat me, gave me electric shocks, and tied my hands until I lost feeling,” he said.

“They played screams to me on a tape recorder and pretended it was my wife, that they were torturing her. That is what Egypt has been like for 30 years.”

On Saturday, in the warm haze of victory, the past seemed like a bad dream and the future seemed bright. With the confidence that Egypt has now found no problem seemed too big to be solved.

An hour after the dictator stepped down, a man on a side street was talking into his mobile phone in English to a friend abroad as cheering crowds waved flags and set off fireworks.

“Yes it is over now,” he was saying. “Everybody is optimistic.”


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