When I first heard about the protests sweeping across Egypt, it all seemed surreal. I received the news from the TV set and from my family in Egypt, who are what I call “armchair revolutionaries,” watching the uprising from the safety of their living rooms.
I arrived to an Egypt in turmoil, just days before the ouster of Mubarak. Through friends in the media, who run the production company Birthmark Films, I was introduced to Heba Afify, a pioneering young journalist. I was moved by Heba’s complete commitment to her work and her courage. Here is someone so very young, putting her own life at risk, facing tear gas and police batons, to report the news.
Generations of Egyptians had lived under the repressive rule of Hosni Mubarak. His highly secretive police force, known as State Security, would use brutality and threats to effectively crush the formation of any opposing or alternative political party. The Western world stood by the leader almost to the end, despite the fact that the despot had held his country in a menacingly tight grip for some 30 years.
18 days after the first protestors had gathered in the Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Mubarak, the “father of Egypt” resigned from office. It was the capstone of what became known as the Arab Spring, inspiring demonstrators in Libya, Syria and elsewhere and captivating the world’s attention.
Amid the euphoria of Mubarak’s departure, Egyptian people started to wonder, what would democracy look like in Egypt? Everyone seemed to have a vision of a democracy but there was no roadmap for the difficult transition. Moreover, who would lead? The protestors? They were mostly young, with little or no prior experience in civic engagement, governance and activism, yet they risked all to fight for dignity and human rights, and toppled a dictator. The Army? The Army had a long history of being respected and revered by the Egyptian public. During the protests the Army had showed their solidarity and support of the Revolution. Everyone was shocked that in the weeks that followed, the Army did a complete about-face. Instead of clearing a path toward democratic government, they started to implement the same draconic rule that Mubarak had employed in order to silence critics and opposition. There were even rumors that the former military chiefs would install a new figurehead and a permanent ruling junta.
In the paternalistic culture of Egypt, “the father” Mubarak was synonymous with the government. For generations, he was an authority figure to be feared and obeyed. The Egyptians, unaccustomed to being “leaderless,” were unsure how to carry on and what would happen next. No one expected change to take so long. Heba explains, “There’s fear, anxiety and hope. Just the enormity of not knowing where this Revolution is going to lead to.”
But in the midst of all this turmoil and confusion, I witnessed a change in the country’s psyche. The discussion was no longer about the ruler and the ruled — two distinct and oppositional forces. The spirit moving the country, and propelling it forward, was the idea of individual, participatory democracy. In Tahrir Square, I was hearing chants like “Raise you head up high, you’re Egyptian” and "I won't cheat, I won't lie, I won't double park in the New Egypt." These words were striking in that they are a personal pledge of action. To make this distinction, to create a role for themselves that went beyond the idea of “the ruled,” was bold thinking.
Like other Egyptian youth, Heba started to think about authority in a radically different way and made her own personal pledges of change. Her traditional mother, while proud of her daughter’s career as a journalist, doesn’t want Heba to stay out late or put herself in harm’s way. But for Heba, during the Revolution, all the rules were broken. “My mother needs to understand that the rules that were broken during the Revolution will remain broken” she claims. Whether it is a cultural clash with her family, or a news article that expresses the courage of her convictions, Heba asserts herself as a modern Egyptian woman who will help her fellow country-men and –women define their own democracy.
Egyptians will lead the change and therefore, they will lead. I came to understand that change requires an ongoing commitment and a kind of vigilance. Always asking oneself, how can I take responsibility for my country? What can I contribute personally? How do I get politically involved? How do I get others to get out of their armchair? I filmed as Egyptians were lining up to cast their ballot in Egypt’s very first free vote. And yes, even my aunts and uncle got out of their armchairs to cast to their vote.
The Revolution opened a new world of activity, imagination and possibility in Egypt. And despite the cultural, linguistic and societal differences and miles that separate Egypt and the United States, there is at least one truth in organizing: people know when there is no struggle, there is no progress. So, whether the rallying cry is, "Out with Mubarak" or "We are the 99 percent," people don't need to read headlines or stare at bar graphs to know that the first step in making the country better for themselves, is to “lead themselves.” And this is the story that Heba and her colleagues will continue writing.