The Nomad is a series of stories, fascinations, encounters, observations, experiences, joy of the moments by me, Ulrike Reinhard – all around my travels. Stay tuned!
Ulrike Reinhard is The Nomad 🙂
The following experiences are from notes I’ve taken during my various visits to Egypt duing the so-called Arab Spring. The text below i’ve written in 2014, I haven’t edited it since then.
March 3, 2011.
I was curious to see what life was like in post Mubarak Cairo. I met up with my friend Mohamed el-Gohary for dinner. Right around the corner from Tahrir Square.
We had Koshary – the national dish of Egypt.
Cairo is a 24/7 buzzing city.
But these days it was different.
Somehow Cairo had shed its dusty, stinking Moloch image.
And in its place one great big party. Faces painted in the colors of Egypt. Flags. Music. Smiling, happy people. All ages. All social groups.
The following day was a Friday. I will never forget this day. Friday prayers at Tahrir Square.
Goose bumps still run down my back when I think about it.
I have never experienced a more powerful gathering of people. Powerful in a very positive sense.
It was intense. Impressive. Overwhelming.
I took out my camera but wasn’t able to record.
I only took a few pictures. I couldn’t do more.
I felt like I was doing something wrong.
I didn’t want to disturb the Egyptian people during their prayers.
Not that they didn’t welcoming me.
They were very happy to see me. They came and shook hands.
They were laughing. They were so proud.
But these prayers weren’t my happening.
It was theirs. And theirs only.
Thousand and thousands of people kneeling towards Mecca.
The Square wasn’t big enough to hold them all.
Men. Women. Children. From Cairo. From outside. All together.
Celebrating their victory over Hosni Mubarak.
They’d overthrown a dictator.
Something they’d thought was impossible for more than 30 years.
The power of the many.
All of a sudden their fear was gone. They’d had enough. And taken action. Peacefully. Patiently. And they succeeded.
They liberated themselves. Finally there was hope. For a better life for all of them.
I had to step aside. A bit away from the crowd. Tears of joy were running down my cheeks.
I felt so keenly what they’d achieved. And what it meant to them. It was all about them, the people.
It was NOW. As if there was no tomorrow. It was their moment.
Five months later.
Mid August 2011.
I was back in Egypt for a week.
Friday. Again. Cairo. Tahrir Square.
But no prayers allowed on the square.
Its center was guarded by armed soldiers.
Noone could enter. Not in daytime. Not in nighttime.
Countless military vehicles were parked in the side streets off the square. Packed with battalions of young soldiers. All dressed in black cotton uniforms. Waiting. Waiting for what? This wasn’t at all clear.
The situation wasn’t aggressive.
Here and there a few spots of simmering tension. Absolutely bearable.
This time the prayers took place inside the mosques.
Afterwords people came out into the square. Not so many.
Their joy was gone. Doubt hung in the air. Uncertainty. Disappointment and dissatisfaction.
The economy was collapsing. Unemployment sky rocketing. Corruption at a peak.
The “better life” wasn’t coming as fast as people thought it would.
Countless new parties were formed.
They were holding rallies through the country. Democracy trains. Egypt was getting ready for its first election.
Not for a new government but a National Assembly.
Its task was to write a new constitution.
And And prepare for the first democratic elections.
The hopes of Egyptian youth – the Facebook generation – were flying high. They dreamt of playing a significant role in Egypt’s future.
Just as they did during the revolution.
Participatory models for writing the new constitution were up and running. Offline and online.
There were cooperation projects with Tunisia. And Iceland.
There was support and advice from social activists and experts from around the world.
Many people I know and who are part of my network were involved.
So was I. Just on the edges though.
We all felt that if Egypt – much more than Tunisia – could get through this transition phase peacefully it could once more become a role model for the entire Arab world.
Almost exactly two years later.
Mid August 2013.
I was on a five week trip through the Middle East. Working on our we_Middle_East magazine. Cairo was also on my schedule.
Yet the situation seemed to be out of control. Fighting. Shooting. Killing.
What had happened?
A new constitution had come into force.
The first democratic election for more than 30 years had taken place. People all over the country had stood in line to vote.
The winner: The Muslim Brotherhood.
Mohammed Mursi – became the new president. June 30, 2012.
Not at all surprising.
Every evening I had long conversations with friends in Cairo. They told me Tahrir Square had turned into a battlefield. What was going on there was so confusing.
From the outside it looked like civil war.
At least for the Egyptian people.
And for people who knew Egypt’s social fabric.
The Muslim Brotherhood had its networks all over Egypt.
They’d been working in the grassroots communities for decades. Providing social services.
They were very well connected with the population.
They were part of their daily life.
But Mursi and his brothers some wrong moves which divided the Egyptian people.
They started to re-write the fresh Egyptian constitution.
Giving the president more power.
Moving the government towards
Many people didn’t want this.
They wanted democracy. So they went back onto the streets.
Back to Tahrir Square.
This time military wasn’t as patient as it was at the end of Mubarak’s era. They stepped in, gave Mursi an ultimatum to step down and removed him when he didn’t.
And then they took over. Again.
But this didn’t stop the protests. In contrary.
The epicenter moved from Tahrir Square to Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. The headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mursi’s supporters organized a sit-in thousands of people joined. Demanding Mursi’s release.
They saw him as the legitimate president of Egypt.
Elected by the Egyptians.
The demonstrators where asked by the military to leave the square. Again an ultimatum was given. And again the militia took action. They cleaned out the headquarters, killing more than 1000 people.
For the “sake” of the Egyptian people – the military said.
In the West a pointless nit picking discussion – “Was it a coup or wasn’t it?” raged on.
Members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were detained. Many of them faced the death penalty.
Mass sentencing. Mass executions.
And a stunning silence in the West.
As I write these lines, Mursi is still on trial.
The old military system was back with a vengance. And a new face. The powerful WE of the Egyptian people was gone.
Torn down. Washed out.
Once again emergency laws were in force.
April 28, 2014
I am back in Egypt.
Just before Egypt’s second democratic election in a short time.
The arrival hall of Cairo airport is empty.
An eerie almost frightening emptiness.
In the parking area I can choose between hundreds of taxis.
All the drivers are desperate for business. Rates are almost at rock-bottom.
The roads were as jammed as ever as we approached the Cairo city center. It was hot. Not humid though. The air full of exhaust fumes.
The four lane roads easily turned into seven lane roads.
Self-organization at work.
My driver’s cigarette lighter passed from car to car on our way to Tahrir Square.
And returned just in time for him to light his next cigarette.
Lining the streets: Sisi posters. Sisi, Sisi everywhere.
Sisi the poster boy.
The former military general – now dressed in a civilian suit – was also smiling.
But a much more distinguished smile than that of my cab driver. His military uniform always reminded me a bit of Gaddafi.
My cab driver was convinced that Sisi was the right man. The man of the hour.
He told me that Sisis would become Egypt’s next president.
And that what Egypt needed was a strong hand.
People were tired of fighting and the never ending unrest.
People were longing for peace. Employment. Security. A better economy. And there was no one else in sight who could achieve all this.
But the military.
We arrived at Tahrir Square. Business as usual. Back to before January 2011.
Traffic jams. Horns honking. People shouting. We parked around the corner and went for lunch. Same restaurant. Same Koshary.
Just like two and a half years ago.
But the euphoria was gone, the atmosphere subdued. The chill of disillusionment had clearly started to bite.