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In Egypt, We Are All Still Khaled Said

February 12, 2016
An anti-government protester defaces a picture of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in Alexandria on January 25, 2011. Photo: Stringer, Reuters

An anti-government protester defaces a picture of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in Alexandria on January 25, 2011. Photo: Stringer, Reuters

What I cared for and had my eyes steadily on during the 11 February 2011 protests was not the fact that Mubarak stepped down, or rather was forced to step down, to be accurate. The moment, for me, was not a moment to start thinking of “what is next”, and maybe that is a mistake. It sure is.

But when I think of this day, I don’t recall the political fallacies, those who sold the Revolution out, or even those who did not and are now either killed, jailed, or left the country for good. When I think of this day, two memories rush back to my mind. The first was of a young man, early 20s, wearing a black shirt and looking so thin and “weak”. He stood facing the square, watching fireworks as they started to be shot, one at a time, and then tens of fireworks shot together at once kissing the sky we believed we reached. There was a camera shooting the square, showing the young man’s back. This scene plays in my head in very slow motion.

As soon as the podium announced that we shook the Pharaoh out of his long-held place – “Mubarak stepped down” – the young man gave his back to the square, and I saw his face. He stood still, as if paralyzed. He then started moving as if he was in disbelief, looking at the people around him, in front of him, behind him, showing his face to the camera at a time, and then looking back at the square again, and then back at the camera. An ecstasy of fumbling!

He was not trying to look at the camera. I doubt he even noticed it. He was trying to realize a moment. His facial expressions circumspectly conveyed surprise, disbelief, numbness, and as the sounds of people and fireworks started to be louder and louder, he was forced to wake up from his numbness. He breathed heavily. He opened his beautiful eyes wide open with an eagerness of a hungry child who has finally been served food, with the ecstasy of a Sufi worshiper who sees, feels, and truly believes. He tried to crack a doubtful and fearful smile. I guessed he was trying to understand; fully grasp that “this” was really happening, could happen. This moment of realization, that We, “the People”, the Young, could achieve something we ourselves doubted, never dreamt of, and were always told we can never achieve.

The second scene was of an old man, with arms wide open, and a flag in one hand. He started stopping the cars passing through a tunnel, knocking on the cars’ windows, crying, and smiling, and slowly uttering “The People, have overthrown the regime!” He was muttering this sentence with a sense of pride I’ve never seen or felt. He then started to raise his voice, and say the same sentence rapidly, more loudly, as if he was trying to say it loud enough to actually hear it and believe it, prove it. He kept repeating it while crying, and the cars kept honking. People got out of their cars, greeted and hugged each other as if it was not the first time they meet and had long known each other. Two other young men went and hugged him, until his wife showed up with her two kids. He grabbed her from the shoulders, tears streaming down his cheeks, he shock her hard and looked at her as if he was confessing his love to her, and repeated: “Al Sha’ab, Khalas, asqat el nezam”: “The People have overthrown the regime”. That sense of self-awareness, that We, the People, only the People, no one else, managed to do the impossible, that sense of accomplishment, of success, of pride, of Power, long-lost Power, was evident in how firmly he grabbed his wife’s shoulders and then hugged her and cried like a baby. A-maybe-40 years old baby.

Today, I look back and think that I don’t know what happened to these two men, but I know what happened to tens of people I call friends, and thousands others I do not know. I have friends who are jailed, killed, and others sentenced to death, or went into hiding. Egypt today has more than 41,000 people in jail (although the government denies this), and thousands more killed in the course of the last 5 years. Death has lost its sacredness. It is now the norm to go to bed knowing scores of young people have been jailed, tortured, killed, or just disappeared. The public has normalized with it. This is the same country that once toppled a dictator of 30 years for one single man unjustly and viciously killed 5 years ago.

Not even when hundreds get killed on one single day do people care. The international community stopped getting shocked by the news coming from Egypt too. You see, we have become “one of those distant places where it is usual that people get killed on a daily basis”, and the reaction to this would be an imaginary, yet civilized, audience in their heads going like “Ohhh”.

I know not what the future holds, and I am not sure what should “we” do to make sure it looks like the one we fought for five years ago risking our own lives. Five years ago, we knew there was a chance we could get killed in protests, or that we might survive and build the country of our dreams. Now, each one of us is a 110 percent sure that we-undoubtedly – will get killed for simply discussing the idea in the street. Now it is not a risk. It is a fact. And we know it. Today, we discovered that they are all Mubarak, and we are all, still, Khaled Said.

They have managed to turn us from a young, passionate, daring, generation that once cleaned the streets with their bare hands, risked their lives in squares, and guarded homes, government institutions, and public places when the police fled in fear, into a hopeless generation of young people, or who are left of them, risking their lives to get out of this country by all means, legal and illegal, safe, or life-threatening.

They have taken a lot from us, but this moment of victory, this one moment of self-assertion, this scene, this memory, is a witness to what we could achieve, against all odds. They will never be able to take this away from us. It is history. It is ours, and I will claim it whenever I get the chance.

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