Day one in Cairo: “They Stole the Revolution from the Youth.”

“They Stole the Revolution From the Youth”

By Sarah Eltantawi

Day one in Cairo

I had to wait at the Cairo airport for two hours upon arrival from Morocco because my brother, set to pick me up, was stuck in traffic due to a pro-Morsi demonstration held in the middle of the tariq al-daa’iri, a sprawling road forming a ring around the entire city that goes a long way toward clearing up Cairo’s unbelievably dreadful traffic.  As is ever the case here, a woman looking worriedly into the distant expanse of parking lot will not be left alone for long; several people offered me help – did I want to use their phone?  Did I want them to call someone for me?

Sometimes I have to be careful when traveling that I don’t apply my leave-me-alone-especially-if-you’re-male-I-know-exactly-what-I’m-doing poker face too stringently; in this case it really felt to me that people wanted to help with no strings attached — even those who would normally be all but demanding you get in their taxi.

I soon uncovered part of the reason they were so helpful — they didn’t have anything else to do.  Tourism, according to the gathered gaggle of men in front of the airport who work in the industry drinking third and forth cups of tea after iftaar — had come to a virtual stand still; especially since Morsi took power, but if they were to be honest, since the January 2011 revolution.  But everyone I spoke to, and they were a very jovial group, felt life would be getting better soon, because people who actually knew how to run the country were now running the country.

Near the drivers and tour leaders were a group of police officers, known as one of the most emboldened of Egypt’s work force after June 30.  Under the Muslim Brotherhood government, the word on the street was that they just didn’t have the morale to enforce security, but felt much better now that they could respect their government.  On this evening they were standing around smoking and drinking tea, loudly complaining about their wives and laughing with wide, toothy smiles.  I tried not to eavesdrop too obviously, but Egyptians are nothing if not socially attuned.  Soon the familiar battery of questions began:

“Where are you from?”

“I’m Egyptian”

“No you’re not.”

“My asl (roots) are Egyptian.

”“Mama and baba?”


“But your accent”

“I was born in the US”

Nods.  Then one says, glancing at me, and then to his friends:

“So, can we trade all the Egyptian women for American Egyptian women in a huge airlift?  Egyptian women are zibaaala (trash)!”  Hearty laughter, drags on cigarettes.

Me: “And I take it al-rigaala are miyya miyya?”  (the men are 100%, perfect?)

“No! Ahna willad siteen kalb, wa anyal min al-sitaat!”  (We are the sons of sixty dogs, and much worse than the women!)  Laughter as they slapped each other’s hands.

People were not what I would call in a bad mood.

If you rely primarily on western analysis of the June 30 events, where wise men seem to sit back shaking their heads solemnly, as if to say — “these poor Egyptians think it’s a revolution, but what they tragically do not understand is that this is a coup, heavy, knowing sigh…”, you would think Cairo would be caught in a heavy, palpable ambivalence.  This is very much not my sense.  In fact, in talking to:  waiters, street sweepers, and drivers, I’ve noticed so far that the quick retort when I explain that western analysts mostly understand this as a simple coup is, first, to laugh.  Then they say, look, we know exactly what is going on, and this is the way we want it and the way it has to be.  Of course it’s a revolution, how silly to think otherwise.  The army stood behind us, and of course they don’t like the Muslim Brotherhood either, because, significantly, no one does except their relatively few supporters, and of course everyone has their own interests and agendas, and of course the old regime is involved, but this is the outcome we all want, and we understand Egypt, and they don’t.

I don’t get the sense of a society with its eyes closed.

The next afternoon I left my apartment in Bab al-Luq near Tahrir to try to deal with getting a phone.  No sooner did I walk the 20 steps out of the alleyway than I was stopped by a man who pointed to his right and said, “midaan Tal’at Harb is that way.”  I said thank you.  He said, “What are you looking for?”

Now, ordinarily, I ignore people, or if I feel I need to be a bit gruff, I’m a bit gruff, but I was just not getting that feeling from this person, so I told him:  “I’m looking for a phone line.”  He told me to walk with him.

“Where are you from.”

“I’m Egyptian.”

“I can see that on your face.  But where are you from?”


“How are you?  Are you enjoying yourself in Egypt?”

“Of course I am, I am fine, thank you.  Ramadan Kareem.  Al-balad ‘amla eh?”  (How is the country?)

Two hours later, I was standing in his mosaic-tilled perfume shop near Tahrir, having given up about an hour ago on getting a word in edgewise.  But my silence was worth it, as it often is in a field site.  Why would what I have to say be more important than him?  So I asked questions.  If I have noticed anything striking in the short time I have been here, it is that everyone wants to talk about the political situation at all times.  My brother remarked that he noticed this, and as a result found Egypt in this sense freer than the United States, where there are relatively strict politeness codes against speaking of religion or politics with people you don’t know well.  I can assure you this code does not exist in Cairo today.

His name was Ahmed, and his main point, made through words but also intelligent, sharp eyes, and passionate body language, was this, said many times, including once while pounding on a table that made the unused Ramadan ashtray jingle and shake:

هذا ليس إنقلاب عسكري ولاكن ثورة شعبية أكبر وأهم من 25 يناير!!

“This is NOT a military coup like they say.  This was a popular revolution, and one bigger and more important than January 25!!”

“They speak of shariyya, (legitimacy).  But Morsi pushes through a constitution so he can keep himself and his shadowy group sitting on the throne, acting exactly like Mubarak if not worse, and this is legitimate?  There are murders of protesters at the Itahidiyya and Morsi releases them that same night because the thugs are his Muslim Brotherhood cadres, and that is legitimate?  And these same people have the nerve to try Mubarak for killing protesters?

Even Mubarak, in his last speech, said he would step down if it would stop Egyptians’ blood flowing.  But what does Morsi say to Egypt, to his people, in his last speech?  That he will die for his own legitimacy?  Ya salam!!  You come before the Egyptian people, and rather than say one sweet word, you threaten the entire population?  You hold a rally supposedly for Syria full of jihaadis and sectarianism and dare us to go out on June 30 saying you will cut our throats?  This is the legitimate president of Egypt?

Let the Muslim Brotherhood learn the lesson: we are not afraid of their threats.  Look at the 33 million that went on the streets after that speech.  Look at the parties on the streets in sh3bi areas when Morsi was gone.  That is Egypt.  We protect our country.  Our revolution was to protect our country from falling into the abyss of jihadism and terrorism and violence.

“You actually think,” said Ahmed to an invisible Morsi, “that you and your gang of murshids are going to run Egypt against the wishes of the army, the police, and the entire population?  You the only ones who will lose in the end with that insane thinking!

The west tells us this is the return of the old regime?  Did they not notice when the ikhwaan were systematically kissing the bottoms of the shoes of the old regime?  Tell me, how did the Muslim Brotherhood challenge the old regime.  Go on!  Tell me!  Did they do anything rather than entrench their own power?  And there is something deeper than this.  We are all the, “old regime.”  We are the same people and the same society that were were in 2011.  What shall we do, uproot the entire Egyptian population and replace it with another one?  We are a gentle and peaceful people, and we do not want that to change!

Tell me, Sarah.  Can you tell me one thing they did in this year that was positive?  Tell me one thing!”

He paused for effect.  I muttered that I could not thing of anything, which turns out is my honest answer.

“The only thing the ikhwaan did was to create new divisions between us!  Islamists and the rest of the people, between sunni and shi’i, a problem we never had.  Between Christians and Muslims.  This is legitimacy?

It was the same system as Mubarak.  What is the difference?  They don’t like people, they jail and kill them.  But even worse!  Under Mubarak, when they didn’t like a journalist, they removed them quietly, under the table.  Here these guys exploit Islam and use their blasphemy laws to remove journalists, right in front of us!  And they call this legitimacy!  This media that they complain about:  they are the ones that put them where they were, in power.  The liberals they complain about and call kuffar.  They are the ones that stood up for them!  What did they do in return?  Give us a president that doesn’t talk to us?  Fills stadiums with gullible supporters from the provinces and talks only to them?  Takes order from a murshid and foreign powers?  This is legitimacy?

I am very sorry, Mohammed Morsi, with all due respect:  you seem like a nice man.  You pray and fast.  But you are not suitable to be president of Egypt, you or the cowards you answer to (like Mohammed Badei) who walks around in a woman’s niqab!  If he had a clean heart, if they were really Muslims as they claim, would they have to hide like that?  You know Egyptians, how kind hearted and sympathetic we are to the humble man.  Do you think we would have turned against them if they were humble men?

Tell the west we are putting our faith in the interim government.  Tell them the army tried to work with the ikhwaan to play cleaner politics.  Tell them we are not a people who will turn against our army, who defended our country in wars.  Tell them the people they think launched a coup did so after we demanded it and that they are our brothers and our cousins.  Tell them they can say “coup” for 100 years, but that we ourselves wanted this and demanded it, it is a popular revolution, and we have hope now again.

And tell them that if the ikhwaan would decapitate their organization and let their revolutionary youth take power – the one’s who say “ikhwaan bila ‘unf”  (the Brotherhood without violence), then they will be our brothers and they will be in the government!”

I finally told Ahmed I had to go write before his words escaped me.  He kindly handed me his card and told me to keep in touch, and added:

“One more thing:  know this.  If the Brotherhood youth rise to power, and if they denounce violence, and if they are more humble, within one year, this country will move forward.  We have hope now and we are trying.  You watch it.

This country, this land here — he pointed vaguely to the street — is protected by God.  Always.”

“Welcome home to your country.”

I walked back out into the dusty street, passed a row of tables set up for the poor to break their fast, dates floating in water.

As I said, I prefer to let people speak, and in the two weeks I am here, I will try to find more diverse voices.  But the fact is, I have not found one single person so far — not even one — who does not echo Ahmed.  I have not been to pro-Morsi protests, and I will try to go, and report on that when I do.  But as for man on the street — so far,  Ahmed’s sentiment is unanimous.

Western structural analysis and hand wringing seems very far away and very irrelevant.  It is clear to me that, at the very least, democratic legitimacy is a complex field that our current literature has not sufficiently theorized.  Failing to account for what Egyptians themselves have experienced and what they desire is clearly unacceptable, not simply because of the obvious arrogance of that posture, but because of what I am now more sure than before is its obvious inaccuracy.

3 thoughts on “Day one in Cairo: “They Stole the Revolution from the Youth.”

  • July 23, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    Thats amazing blod ya sarah, i truley enjoying read it. Go a head. I would love to know you. I am also egyptian american lives in Mississippi.

  • July 23, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    This is wonderfully written. Thanks for sharing your experience. Do consider that some of the Brotherhood supporters are scared. Also, consider that there is a value for structural analysis even when it seems reductive and mindlessly positivist when direct accounts, especially is short emotional spurts, are rife with performative righteousness and self serving, rational ignorance. Keep your eyes open and you might see this enthusiasm in a very different light in two weeks ; eradication, violence, scapegoating and militarism can be very popular indeed.

  • July 24, 2013 at 2:57 am

    very proud , you are the product of TRUE hard working MUSLIM, AMERICAN , EGYPTIAN people


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