Wednesday, February 09, 2011


At a an intersection near Tahrir square, a man selling Egyptian flags sang out “Shaga3 masr! Shaga3 masr!” (Support Egypt!) The cab driver I was with cracked a joke about whether we were going to a football stadium, and I started thinking about symbols.

In the weeks that have passed, the flag and the national anthem have been held up by both the agents of Mubarak's government, be they laughable state media channels or baltageyya, and the millions of people demanding change.

I have a problem with nationalism and its symbols. National identity, like religion, can be a force for cooperation and positivity; it can also be an easy justification for violence and intolerance and a tool for manipulating the masses for the benefit of the few.

Rarely have I felt as ashamed of people around me as when thousands of Egyptians obeyed orders or took money to attack peaceful protesters with fists, rocks, glass, and fire. Or when people started harassing and attacking foreigners and accusing them of being spies or agents, so easily abandoning human decency, and in some cases neighbourly ties, in favor of xenophobic state-sponsored lies. Or when people began questioning each others Egyptian-ness based on political views, accents, hairstyles, or clothing.

But rarely have humans moved and surprised me as much, nor have I seen such a condensed current of that unnamable, uplifting spark that has been one of the few sources of hope I've clung to while treading through Cairo for the last years. (Amnesiac does a great job of describing this.) When I saw thunderous waves of thousands of people descending upon Tahrir time and time again, after violence and lies and intimidation. When I stood on the corniche and watched, with my mouth literally agape, as protesters used sheer determination to push security forces back across Kasr el Nil Bridge on that Friday that everything changed, picking up tear gas canisters and throwing them into the Nile, leaving clouds of toxic smoke sitting on the water like it was unsure where to go. When I heard people had formed a human shield to protect the Egyptian Museum from looting. When I saw people protecting each other on the streets, sharing their homes and their food and their cars. When I heard hope and enthusiasm in the voices of relatives and friends, talking about Egypt with marvel.

And so it seems to me that is more than a fight over a throne or a parliament, a flag or a word. It's a fight over the spirit of a population which has always had the courage, wit and endurance so many foreign correspondents are commenting on as they walk around Tahrir these days. It's a fight to shake off a power structure which has done nothing but steal, suffocate and humiliate. It's a fight between the bad, and the potential and the hope for good.

As a dear relative said, “Whatever happens with politics, things will never go back to how they were. Finally there is hope, finally people know that there can be something different, that they have to demand it, never to let go of the truth that they deserve it.”

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