It was a scene I never thought possible on Egyptian soil; a hybrid between Mecca during the Hajj and sunny day at Hyde Park. Thousands upon thousands crowded in Tahrir Square drawing banners, debating politics, singing, dancing and breathing their very first breath of genuine freedom without fear. I entered the square to witness first-hand the million-man march called for a few days after the “Day of Wrath” on January 25th and the “Friday of Anger” that followed. It was a carnival of political will celebrating a new confidence in the air. It seemed nothing less than Providential. From that vantage point, utter depression soon entered the scene with the violent clashes erupting in Tahirir square a couple of days later.
President Mubarak had delivered a rather emotional speech the night before, which tapped into a core element of the Egyptian psyche; reverence for the Father-figure Pharaoh. For the demonstrators, Mubarak was an employee charged by the people to lead them, and who did not deliver and had to be fired. For many others, his speech made him appear as a parent who lived their life for the well-being of their children, who are now being ungrateful. It began to look as though Egyptians were becoming polarized.
With that in mind I spoke with Hatem Azzam, a businessman who put his projects on hold and changed his residence to the Tahrir Square since the first day of protests. He describes himself as someone who for the past two years was inspiring people to work for a better Egypt.
Without any clear leadership behind the protests, I thought I would start with him to get a better understanding of what was going on.
This revolt has been described by sympathizers as leaderless and by detractors as anarchist. What is the decision making process like?
That’s true, there is no clear leadership and that makes communication difficult, but nevertheless, it seems to have served our cause. What we are witnessing is the development of a culture of civil discourse. An issue comes up and people speak their minds out, and a decision materializes in the process. The nature of Egyptian politics didn’t allow for this to be cultivated in the past, and the current revolution is acting as a catalyst for it to emerge. Of course, there is a core group of activists, such as the organizers of the April 6th movement, but there is no official board, party or group that decides on behalf of the demonstrators.
How would you present this revolt or uprising to American readers?
First, I would like to stress that it’s a revolution, not just an uprising. I would also like to emphasize that politics in Egypt is no longer the simple binary of Government versus Muslim Brotherhood, but that there is a third way reflecting new currents in society that want to see a democratic and developed Egypt that finds its place in the global community.
A fear voiced in American media is that what started as a movement by young and educated Egyptians may end up becoming a pretext for an Islamic revolution?
The movement that led to this revolution included Muslims and Christians, pious and secular, and people from all walks of life. Of course one may expect that Islam, as a religion, inspires its followers, but we are far from having a system where we open up the Qur’an in the Parliament and start to dictate laws. Turkey, not Iran, is a closer example of the direction Egypt is heading.
What do you make of the clashes that took place in Tahrir Square between pro and anti-Mubarak demonstrators?
When Mubarak delivered his last address clarifying that he never intended to run in the upcoming elections and that his only desire was to end his career in public service by overseeing a set of constitutional reforms that would ensure more democracy in Egypt, to be honest, many of us were rather perplexed. We spent the night thinking and weighing our options. For one, we had garnered a huge amount of national momentum and global support that we now needed to maintain and further develop. Our message was heard loud and clear and perhaps it was best for our country that we change our mode of action to accommodate the new results. However, the attacks that occurred the following day reinforced the belief that we cannot entrust Mubarak with the reforms he had promised.
What is the main obstacle you foresee in the near future?
We’re now in the middle of a serious psychological war and that is our main challenge. We can’t afford to lose the sympathy and support of millions of Egyptians who may end up preferring the easier way out of the current instability. The main message being conveyed by Egyptian media is that these demonstrations have [brought] the country to a halt, are costing us dearly and people can’t afford it any more. “Your demands have been heard and the government is working to meet them, now go home,” they say. But we’re not going anywhere before Mubarak leaves.