Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Celebrating an Unfinished Revolution



Today was the first anniversary of the uprisings that took Hosni Mubarak from rule and began twelve months of big questions, sharp turns, and long waits. Fifty-five revolutionary groups had organized marches from over a dozen meeting points throughout the city, while many thousands of others simply came out to celebrate the first of a new holiday. The question of whether to celebrate or whether to demand loomed large.

After a few falafel sandwiches, I took a long walk, following one of the masses of more politically charged protesters as they trickled across the bridge to Tahrir and entered the square to find thousands already there, many of whom had camped out since late last night.

I saw mothers, fathers, and children waving flags and enjoying the warm weather in the shadow of chanting crowds holding empty coffins for the victims of clashes in October, November, and December. I saw couples on dates by the Nile, and heard playful popular music waft from small docked boats mixing with the foreboding taps of a military beat. Rows of ambulances stood at attention in case the day turned violent. Men with neatly trimmed, Brotherhood-style beards guarded entrances to the square, while their counterparts from the night before snatched sleep in the midst of surging crowds. 

I saw the tangled remains of two stages that had collapsed earlier in the day, making headlines in the absence of more exciting news. I saw a television screen mounted on metal scaffolding, covered with a tarp, playing saccharine soap opera music as pictures of young men who had died over the year scrolled by, followed by slow motion footage of an Egyptian flag waving in the wind. I saw a massive puddle broken by stones on which kids played hopscotch, receiving applause when they made it across still dry.

I saw lots of demands, broad and pointed, written and shouted: “The people want the fall of the Field Marshal” and “Down, Down with Military Rule” and “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice!” and “Leave! Leave!” A large number of banners simply read “The Revolution Continues.” Tucked behind several buildings, a dozen religiously dressed men sat outside the American Embassy demanding the release of the "Blind Sheikh," Omar Abdu Rahman, who is 73 years old and being held for connections to the World Trade Center bombing in the early nineties. Their banners read "SMS to Obama!"

I saw graffiti of a starker, bleaker variety, usually black stencils of shouting faces or lonely figures with arms outstretched. I saw posters for obscure political parties (like the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party, which won a single seat out of 508), vendors hawking Socialist newspapers, candidate flyers for upcoming elections, and dozens of homemade signs.

The single image I saw the most, though, was of young boys and girls having their picture taken, wearing an Egyptian flag headband or flowers in their hair, the number “25” written on their cheek or the word “Freedom” written on their forehead. Some waved a flag or spread their fingers into a peace sign, as if to have for posterity their own version of the iconic image of the youth protester that covers billboards, newspapers, and even coffee mugs across the city.

As dusk set in and the day’s final call to prayer puffed from speakers perched on minarets, several men set up a stage on the back of a blue pick-up truck, hoisting onto plywood several speakers, microphones, and a power generator. A group called Eskanderella climbed on top with traditional Arabic instruments and played a set of revolutionary folk songs under the glow of neon hotel signs and fluorescent shoe stores. “Raise your head high, you’re Egyptian!” they sang. Hundreds gathered and joined into the singing, their cell phones looking like fireflies as they captured the dimly lit truck. Fireworks pocked the sky as the crowd clapped along, a few cried, and most sang in unison “You’re Egyptian, You’re Egyptian.”

The song slowed to a close, and an older man with a tattered green coat and disheveled gray hair climbed up onto the truck bed. The singer handed him a microphone. “We are here to say that the revolution continues,” he shouted. “The revolution demands bread, freedom, and social justice. You are the revolution. You are Egypt.” The concertgoers were now a mass of chanting voices. “Down, down with military rule,” they shouted, waving flags and fists in the air. I turned off to a side street, joining a handful of families tugging along their yawning children. It had been a long day of celebration, in addition to a feeling that the cause for celebration remains a work unfinished. 

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