Local man studying in Cairo witnesses, recounts revolution

Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 10:05pm
By Brett Regan
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Photo by Brett Regan 

Editor’s Note: Just a few of years ago, it seemed unlikely that Brett Regan would have a front row seat to a revolution. Like a lot of young Middle Tennesseans, the 26-year-old graduate of Centennial High School in Franklin was searching for some direction. First he tried Middle Tennessee State University, but he dropped out during his sophomore year. After working construction in the area, Regan moved to Lake Tahoe, Calif., where he spent two years grooming the slopes at Heavenly Mountain Ski Resort. 

Restless again, Regan enrolled at San Diego Mesa Community College, which is how he made his way to the University of California, San Diego, where he studies Middle Eastern history and politics. It’s also how he made his way back to Nashville, in a manner of speaking: Regan was hired as an intern at the Washington, D.C. office of U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper. 

The fast pace and policy debates appealed to Regan, who was offered full-time work with Cooper at the end of his internship. He declined. Instead, last August, he enrolled in the Arabic Language Institute at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. What began as an effort to learn the language ended with Regan as a witness to monumental changes in one of the world’s oldest civilizations. This is his story. 

 

I approached the crowd just as it left Tahrir Square and split right, in front of the Qasr Il Nile Bridge toward the Ramses Hilton hotel and along the cornice on the bank of the Nile. There were only a couple hundred protesters around 1 p.m. I learned about the protests from Muhamed and Aya. Muhamed was my Arabic teacher at a language school in Zamalek, a wealthy island of the Nile where I studied while on winter break from the American University in Cairo. Aya, the secretary, helped out during my lunch breaks and would listen as I struggled to tell her — in Arabic — about my plans for after school or just read children’s books aloud. 

Muhamed and Aya said there was a Facebook group organizing the protest for Jan. 25, a national holiday in Egypt honoring the police — or at least that’s how it was intended. From here on, though, that date will mark the first day of protests that led to a democratic revolution in Egypt. And there I was — until I couldn’t be anymore. 

The director of the language school canceled classes on that Tuesday, ostensibly to respect the holiday, but everyone was excited to join the protests, although no one came right out and said so. It was a secret everyone thought everyone else already knew, but we stayed quiet just in case. It’s strange to think that just a couple weeks ago, I never heard anyone express dissatisfaction with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, even though I could sense it from almost everyone I met there. 

My roommate Matt and I joined up with the protesters and walked under the 6th October Bridge. I was nervous to see how the protesters would react to our pair. It’s possible that I could be mistaken for European, but I am clearly not Egyptian. Most people in Egypt pegged me as American from a mile away. I recently tried passing for Canadian, and even that was taken with a certain amount of suspicion. 

I had always felt safe in Egypt and comfortable telling anyone who asked that I was an American. Most Egyptians, even if they speak little English, would say, “America, very good,” or “Obama, very good.” Egyptians are unusually friendly: Often, you’ll get a “welcome” or two as you walk around in public. But after that Tuesday’s protest-turned-riot — seeing the canisters of tear gas stamped with “MADE IN USA” — I made the decision to be more cautious. 

All the street lights were blinking yellow, and smoke from tear gas, still being fired a few blocks away in Tahrir, made each street seem a little more mysterious. Men all over the city were setting up roadblocks in preparation for potential looting and to keep police vehicles out. I approached a makeshift roadblock on my way to Tahrir. An Egyptian man who looked to be in his 40s asked Matt and I where we were going and where we were from. I told him that we lived in the area and wanted to go to Tahrir — and that I was Canadian. 

“If you are American, it’s OK,” he said. “We don’t have any problems with you. This is about Mubarak. I talk to Americans who say they are from Canada. It’s no problem. We like Americans.” 

Egyptians probably understand better than most the notion that governments aren’t always an expression of the wills and wishes of their governed. 

 

The group of protesters stopped occasionally in front of government buildings, the State Broadcasting Building and several others. Early that Tuesday afternoon, the riot police were there to impose a presence but nothing more. They would line up shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the group to block a street, but as those leading the protest stayed straight, the police line opened at the last second, and we passed through. Many of the protesters held flags that had been printed for the march, small and green with white plastic staffs. On them were a white crescent and a cross. 

The flags provided me with a certain amount of comfort. I saw a young man who looked about 25 years old holding three flags and asked if I could have one. He handed one to me and asked where I was from. I spoke to him in broken Arabic and told him that I was a student at AUC. He told me he had graduated from Cairo University. He was a lawyer and a DJ, and he was pessimistic about job prospects in Egypt — that’s why he was out in the streets that Tuesday. I saw two young boys, no older than 7 and with no parents I could spot. They were filthy, shoeless, marching and chanting and yelling at the street cops sitting on chairs in front of the important buildings. 

I wish I could say that I knew the background for the protests better, but I don’t think many people really did. In Egypt, it seemed that voicing dissatisfaction with Mubarak wasn’t something people were willing to do, at least in public. I tried to ask one of my teachers at AUC about upcoming elections (this was in October; I was referring to the parliamentary elections that were held in November), and she said, firmly, that she didn’t vote. Often when a student would ask her how she felt about certain political issues concerning the Middle East, she’d joke that the government might have bugged the room. But it was clear she was not happy with the political situation in  her country. 

The protests seemed to surprise almost everyone in the world, including Egyptians. Even those who organized them were taken aback. Prior to the first protest on Jan. 25, the only opposition party that seemed to have any support was the Muslim Brotherhood. With the proliferation of cheap technology and social media, though, becoming a member of an opposition movement is much faster, easier and safer. (How many doctoral theses will be written about social media and the revolution in Egypt in the coming years?) By gathering protesters anonymously, this new opposition could gauge their support without risking becoming one of the thousands of political prisoners in Egypt. 

The protests came about, I think, because of a lack of social mobility. Again, with the proliferation of communication technology, mainly the Internet, the monopoly on information is gone. Young Egyptians can bypass the state filter and read about international issues through a more objective lens. They can see the way the rest of the world lives and compare it to their situations. And they decided they wanted a less corrupt, more transparent and democratic government. They wanted social mobility. 

On every street we turned, the sidewalks were packed with Egyptians who had come down from their apartments and out from their shops to witness the unusual sight of a political protest. I recognized a hesitance on the faces of many, a fear of the repercussions of standing up against the government. By Tuesday evening, that fear had faded for most. The protestors called to them to join. 

“Aren’t you Egyptian?” they would ask. 

Most didn’t join the ranks, but the number of marchers grew hour after hour. Meanwhile, police seemed to re-evaluate how long they would let this go on before cracking down. The chants turned from “join us” to “down with Mubarak” as the numbers brought a certain amount of protection through anonymity. Hundreds of protesters turned to a thousand or more. Protesters tore down posters of Mubarak and his son, Gamal, which are plastered on buildings, trees and shops all over Cairo. The crowd was jubilant at the destruction. 

The secret was out. Since the rigged parliamentary elections in November, in which the NDP won nearly every seat, the kettle had begun to heat. By Jan. 25, it was at a rolling boil. 

 

After several hours of marching, I began to hear calls to head back to Tahrir Square. There was no central leadership directing the protest march through the streets — owing to its origins, to be sure — but there were familiar faces always at the frontlines, leading chants and helping to give direction. The closer we got to Tahrir, the more the police would block the most direct routes into the square. Instead of meeting them head-on, the march would weave through side streets, avoiding police so that if there was going to be a showdown, it would be at Tahrir. In a final effort to keep the crowd from arriving at the barricade at the square, police drove a large personnel carrier through the crowd. Like many of the decisions made by the police throughout the week, it was too little, too late. 

The energy peaked as we approached the square and saw the hundreds of riot police standing with shields and batons just in front of a crowd of several thousand or more. The protesters erupted in cheers at the sight of us. A pair of young men from the march started running toward the police. Then 10. Soon everyone broke into sprint to break the barricade and meet the others in Tahrir (Liberation) Square. As we reached the police, men began lifting huge chunks of sidewalk — the sidewalks in Cario are badly cracked and broken — over their heads and smashing them into smaller pieces on the pavement. As protesters picked up the pieces and chucked them at police, I told Matt I thought it would be wise to get to the sidewalk, separate ourselves from the crowd a bit. 

Just as we reached the sidewalk, though, everyone scrambled. Police had fired the first of what I can only guess would be several thousand canisters of tear gas into the crowd at Tahrir Square. I ran through the thick smoke spewing from the canister, holding my breath and closing my eyes to try to avoid the effects. It didn’t work. After maybe 10 steps, I had to stop briefly because I couldn’t breathe or see. 

I found Matt a block out of Tahrir, where protesters and police were both trying to gather themselves for a return. Most of the riot police looked like high-schoolers. I walked back into Tahrir and watched from the sidewalk as the protesters, over the course of a couple hours, overwhelmed the police and pushed them back to an inlet street right next to the Ministry of Interior. The police brought in a fire truck to hose protesters who had come too far to stop. The truck and its crew were overtaken, and soon a young man was on top of the truck waving an Egyptian flag. The crowd began singing “Bilady, Bilady, Bilady,” the national anthem of Egypt. 

All over the square was a sense of victory and community. A makeshift clinic where the protesters who were injured by batons or tear gas canisters were stitched up was established in front of a great restaurant that I had frequented when my girlfriend came to visit in December. Others handed out water and Kleenex to those who were still reeling from the tear gas. As night fell, the police stayed near the Ministry of Interior and held what little position they had left. I was exhausted and ready to head home. Matt and I walked the two blocks to our apartment, ate some famous Abu Tarak koshary and recounted the day’s events. In Tahrir, thousands of Egyptians, young and old, Christian and Muslim, did the same. 

Late in the night, the riot police stormed back into the square with more tear gas and rubber bullets, and dispersed the crowd. By Wednesday morning, Tahrir was empty. All evidence of the previous day’s events had been cleaned. 

Still, it was clear that Egypt was a different place than it was the morning before. 

 

On Wednesday and Thursdaythere were small, scattered clashes between protesters and police around Cairo. The sounds of concussion grenades and the smell of tear gas came in through my window. On Friday, Jan. 28, protesters all over Egypt came into their streets and demanded political change. Over one hundred people died. 

I walked around Cairo throughout the first week to watch history unfold. Images of hundreds of protesters, who moments before were throwing Molotov cocktails, pause to kneel and pray will be with me forever. The “vigilante groups” I’ve heard described on the news were made up of my neighbors and the boabs (doormen) of my building armed with whatever they could find to try to keep local businesses and homes safe. 

As of Friday, Feb. 11, Mubarak had stepped down, agreeing to cede power to a council of Egyptian military leaders. As I write this I am in route to John F. Kennedy International Airport via Barcelona. I was forced to evacuate Egypt, the place I called home for the last five months, because the University of California terminated my exchange program and my evacuation insurance covered a flight that might’ve otherwise cost thousands of dollars. I took a cab to New Cairo, where other UC students were sitting in the lobby of the J.W. Marriott, a secure five-star hotel near the airport. It was the nicest place I have ever stayed. I had a few cocktails and checked into my room, ordered room service and went to bed. The next day I was on a chartered jet to Barcelona, where I spent two nights. Everything was paid for and relatively stress-free. 

I came to Egypt because I wanted to go somewhere completely different from what I was used to, learn a new language and assimilate into a new culture. There’s a lot about Egypt that’s different, revolution notwithstanding. But what I will remember most about my time in Egypt are the similarities. 

Muhamed, my teacher, is only two years older than me. We talked with each other about women and how we both wanted to travel more, see more of the world. We talked about how we were both broke and needed a car. We were supposed to go to the Egypt-U.S. soccer match on Feb. 9 together with Aya and several of my American friends, but it was cancelled. 

University students in Egypt want the same things I want: to graduate, find a job in an interesting field, buy a house, maybe raise a family someday. They want the opportunity to earn a good living. The parents I met in Egypt want what my parents want: to provide for their children and watch them learn and grow and be successful. We call it the American Dream, but the ambition to better oneself is a global value.

Prior to the Jan. 25 rally that started a protest that will change Egypt and the entire Middle East, I had subscribed to the international consensus that Egyptians were politically apathetic and left with two choices of government: an autocratic police state under Mubarak or an Islamist theocracy under the Muslim Brotherhood. I was wrong on both accounts. Egyptians are asking for real democracy and better transparency, not a political puppet show with an 82-year-old president working in his third decade as head of state. 

I think that’s what I would want, too.  

3 Comments on this post:

By: yogiman on 2/14/11 at 7:35

Thanks for your comments, Brett. It looks like Egypt may have opened the door to rebellions in other countries that are beginning to look deeper into a desire for democracy.

By: localboy on 2/14/11 at 9:58

"seeing the canisters of tear gas stamped with “MADE IN USA” "
Looks like at least one company has found an export market...either a tear-gas manufacturer (for the gov't) or a template-maker (for the revolutionaries).

By: VenusMattson579 on 8/2/11 at 4:35

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