Egypt. This is a Revolution.

by Charles Baker on March 1, 2011

Happy-Egyptian-Flag-Raised

On Friday, January 28, 2011 an emboldened crowd of Egyptian protestors rumbled by my friend and I. Leading them was an Egyptian protestor with an outstretched black baton and a raised police riot shield. Not five minutes earlier, the announcement had come over Al-Jazeera Arabic: Security forces have retreated in Cairo, the Suez, and Alexandria. Protestors are now in control of those cities.

My eyes followed the surging crowd as they ran south towards one of the major conflict centers in Alexandria, Menshia. I turned to see my friend, his jaw dropped and eyes wide open. I said just two words in Egyptian Arabic: dee thawra. This is a revolution.

This is a revolution. I was there as it came to fruition. Media coverage may suggest an uprising of violent and epic proportions, as media tends to do. But what I experienced on the Egyptian street was markedly different. Here is my attempt to describe those experiences during the first days of the revolution.

Egyptian people versus security forces

Egyptian people versus security forces

Saturday morning January 29, 2011 I awoke expecting the worst, though I wasn’t sure in what form I’d find it. Yet, I walked to my balcony and peered out into the street. It seemed as if Friday’s day of anger and the overthrow of the security forces had never occurred. In my neighborhood, called Smouha, things ran smoothly. Shops were open, taxis whizzed up and down the street, and the unfinished apartment building across the road from me was bustling with construction workers. They all decided to show up to work, revolution, or not.

Once I ventured out into the city, I found that not only were many things running as they were the day before, but some were running more smoothly.

I took a taxi downtown. As we pulled up to the intersection, I expected to see chaos. The intersection had been run by city traffic police and was ordinarily managed in such a way that traffic from all four inlet streets barely flowed. Now without police, I figured the intersection would be a hopeless gridlock.

Instead, I saw that traffic was flowing efficiently (something almost unheard of in Egypt). Roughly ten Egyptian men were standing in the intersection, directing traffic. The men were treated with respect, obedience, and patience by the drivers despite the fact that they had no official authority. That was exactly the point, they were citizens with no official authority, and it was clear that everyone understood it.

This scene represented, in a nutshell, a major aspect of the revolution. Average Egyptian citizens, after being abused, extorted, and oppressed for years had reached the point at which they could run the country more effectively, benevolently, and fairly for all Egyptian people than could the Egyptian government itself. And everybody finally knew it.
That day and the days after, I witnessed many similar scenes. It was clear to me that the Egyptian people had awoken, they were rising up to win back the pride of their country. I had never before seen people so wholeheartedly undertake what they innately perceived as imperative civic duty and responsibility.

The Egyptian revolution within the narrative of the Egyptian street reflects exactly that. The Egyptian people want their country back and they demand the basic rights to ensure that any new government be beholden to doing right by its people. It is a true popular revolution, driven first and foremost by ordinary Egyptian people from every class and all walks of life. Now, as Mubarak steps down and the country begins to reform, we ought to hope and expect that the spirit of the proud and responsible Egyptian people is what truly guides the reformation process.

Charles Baker was studying abroad in Alexandria, Egypt until he was evacuated in late January 2011

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Max March 1, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Insightful post… far different than the coverage we heard about in America, where Egypt was depicted as turning into a protesting flash-mob overnight.

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Adam March 3, 2011 at 3:58 pm

While this post is hopeful and positive, it fails to take into account the basic realities of a revolution in an autocracy. Egypt’s authoritarian was not just a small group of people running the show in a dark room, but encomapassed the majority of the bureaucracy that ran the nation. From the police (albiet, abusive as they were), to the accountants that made sure government checks arrived on time, many people benefitted from Mubarak’s administration being in power. Should a call go out for everyone associated with the regime to leave as well, the country will experience a new horror, one based on an inability to function. While Mr. Baker optimistically saw that average people were able to manage traffic flow for a few days, the skill required for that task is far different than that needed to manage the billions of dollars that flow through the Egyptian government throughout the year. America sent 1.6 billion dollars in aid to Egypt in 2010. Granted 1.2 of that went to the military, an institution that is still relatively intact, 300 million dollars of American money are now in jeopardy of being managed by whatever inexperienced people are found to replace those connected to the regime. The unfortunate fact is that while a revolution of ordinary people sounds great and ideal, a government is not run by ordinary people. It is maintained by skilled bureaucrats, experienced officials, and government employees that attend to the everyday needs of society. The efficiency of the former Egyptian government is certainly debatable, but the fact remains that should all those attached to Mubarak be removed from office in an effort to cleanse the nation of his despotic influence, the Egyptian people will find themselves with the new problem of managing the country themselves, and for a people that have had their lives dictated to them for decades, this shock could be destabalizing for decades to come.

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Charles Baker March 10, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Thank you for your critique, which I think raises some valid issues. I’ve tried to respond to what I consider the main aspect of your concerns about my hopeful article.

You mention — correctly — that a government must be manned and “maintained by skilled bureaucrats, experienced officials, and government employees that attend to the everyday needs of society.” I agree that a country ought to be maintained by those who are capable and devoted to attending to the needs of their society.

However, the personnel at the highest level of Mubarak’s autocracy and in the cadres of his most loyal security forces, long ago abandoned the needs of Egypt and its people. It is primarily at those levels that the Egyptian people are demanding that the slate be wiped fully clean.

You also imply that the Egyptians who have unique skills as civil servants prior to the revolution and plan on using them to truly serve their society ought to keep their jobs. I for one agree. And, as far as I could tell, so did those in the streets in Alexandria. The Egyptians were way ahead of you and me.

While I was living in Smouha, I had a friend, who I’ll call Yousef. His brother was an active officer in the police force. He (as many other officers did) decided not to show up for his shift set to begin around 12:00 AM January 29. I went down to Yousef’s apartment to visit that night around 01:00 AM. Yousef, usually a bubbly, gregarious, and really sharp guy let me in and we sat there silently in his living room.

He was shaking while he held himself and stared straight ahead into nothing. He stuttered and stammered as he tried to speak. After finally getting him to talk coherently a bit, he mentioned that he and his whole family were terrified. They were worried about all the civil and bureaucratic infrastructure of Egypt being gutted – similar to your concern – and the country devolving into total chaos.

Not 24 hours later I was informed by Yousef – as he, his brother, and I all stood outside our apartment building guarding it from thugs – that the police officers who were still around planned on meeting the next day to try and figure out how to reinstate a police force that would work with the people, not necessarily with Mubarak, to put a stop to the looting and to assist the army in maintaining order. Only one day later, I heard from another contact on the ground in Alexandria that the police had returned to the streets – albeit bringing with them serious tension – and seemed like they were working with the people.

Though this is anecdotal evidence, it shows that the Egyptian people were aware of the concerns that you yourself raise, and they began responding to them early on during the revolution. They recognized that Mubarak at the helm, or not, some of the Egyptian population had specialized skills and they needed to be used appropriately.

As I said in my post, this was a revolution in which people from ALL classes and ALL walks of Egyptian life participated. That includes some highly skilled mid and low-level civil servants that are necessary to now maintain and rebuild the country.

That’s why, despite the anxieties and deepest fears which I harbor about the worst possible fates for Egypt and its people, I will not yet allow them to blot out the optimism I felt when I saw the Egyptians of a new day, in their moment of trial, act in the responsible, deliberate, and benevolent ways that they did.

It’s sure tempting for me to go down the pessimistic track and write about the possibility of Egypt devolving into chaos, but I feel obligated to report what I saw and experienced.

Thank you once again for your comment,

Charles Baker

Also, if you’re looking for more signs of hope check out these two links below for a start. The first article, from Reuters, was actually picked up by the Rendon Group’s Overnight News Summary on March 1 and the other article is from the Christian Science Monitor on March 4.

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