CAIRO – I came home to shout Kifaya.
Ever since December when a small group of demonstrators began using the word at a protest in Cairo that was unprecedented for its focus on internal issues, I have feverishly followed news from Egypt from my New York flat.
What they lacked in the numbers of Beirut’s demonstrations in the aftermath of Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination, the Egyptian demonstrations made up in significance. Egypt is considered the country with the most political clout in the Arab world – talk about ripple effect.
My father would tell me in phone calls home how bold opposition newspapers had become and daily I visited Egyptian blogs – run mainly by young men and women – to read first hand accounts of the protests.
And so I came home to see things for myself and on Wednesday I finally got a chance to say Kifaya when I joined about 300 Egyptians at a demonstration in the poor neighbourhood of Shubra.
In returning to Cairo to march with my compatriots who weekly violate Emergency Laws that bar demonstrations I was merely walking in the steps of my grandfather who was arrested for protesting against the British occupation of Egypt more than 70 years ago.
In Shubra, at first everyone stood on a street corner, chanting slogans in support of reform and change in Egypt.
Riot police that had confined previous demonstrations to one spot were nowhere to be seen. Emboldened, protestors pushed ahead and for the first time since the protests began in December, took their message to the street.
About a hundred government supporters marched in parallel to us. Only a thin line of traffic police dressed in their white summer uniforms separated them from us. The police’s only battle was to help buses full of stunned passengers snake their way through our march. I have never seen anything like it in Cairo before.
It reminded me of a photograph of a demonstration in London that has earned a place in our family album. My parents took it when they first arrived in London for their post-graduate studies. They had never seen police lining the streets to open roads for protestors before.
“You might have a point about Rice’s speech,” Alaa Abdel Fattah, 23, an activist told me, grinning and taking pictures of us in Shubra. Just two days before our demonstration, Condoleezza Rice was in Egypt on her first trip as secretary of state. In a speech on reform in the Arab world, Rice said peaceful democracy supporters should be free from violence.
Just hours before the demonstration, I had asked Alaa over lunch if he thought U.S. pressure would help Egypt’s reformers. He said he was more concerned with changing Egypt’s political system from the bottom up. Only Egyptians could do that, he said.
It was clear from the march through Shubra that a diverse group of Egyptians shared his concern. There was a grandfather and two of his grandchildren who alternated holding a sign that read “Freedom Now” while other men and women at the march cut across Egypt’s political and class spectrum
It was a thrill to finally join my fellow Egyptians in expressing our desire to usher a renaissance of the vibrant and energetic political culture that Egypt enjoyed last century. It is a desire borne out of love for Egypt. Government supporters hurled taunts of “traitors” at us but our chanting drowned out their tired argument that we were any less Egyptian for calling for reform.
My meeting with Alaa and his wife Manal, who together publish “Manal and Alaa’s Bit Bucket” a blog that covers reform news in Egypt, as well as several other young people at the demonstration clearly highlighted the growing number of young Egyptians who are politically active today. Alaa and Manal grew up in political families and so politics runs in their blood. But many other young people have only recently become politicized.
As the march in Shubra wound down, Shubra resident Mostafa, 28, asked Alaa where the next one would be. He had been waiting for a friend at a coffee shop when he heard a traffic policeman talk about a demonstration and decided to join us.
“I’ve been waiting for something like this for years. We’ve had enough. There isn’t a family in Egypt that hasn’t suffered unemployment. Everyone’s under so much stress it makes them sick. People are fed up. Kifaya,” Mostafa said.
Soumayya, 25, recently joined a woman’s group that focuses on encouraging women to be politically active. “I used to be like all other Egyptians. I was silent about poverty, silent about oppression, silent when we couldn’t afford to get married but when I saw what they did on May 25, I realized that they wouldn”t even leave the clothes on our bodies alone. I had to do something and become involved."
On May 25 Egyptians voted on a referendum on whether multiple candidates should run in presidential elections slated for later this year. On that day, government supporters beat pro-reform demonstrators, groped, and molested women.
Taghreed, 20, a computer science-engineering student from Shubra said our demonstration through her neighborhood was a “great victory” because we managed to march through the street. She is a founder of the youth wing of the reform movement. She became politicized when she saw her mother die in hospital after a nurse”s mistake. She said seeing patients lying on the floor because there weren”t enough beds pushed her into politics.
Taghreed said she knows she”ll be unemployed when she graduates and that even if she finds a job, an engineer on her first job makes 117 Egyptian pounds – hardly enough to live on.
"I protest because I want social justice. I want to live like a human being,” Taghreed said.
It was my honour to say kifaya with Taghreed, Soumayya, Mostafa, Alaa and Manal.