Tahrir and Beyond: Ten Days That Shook My World
By Al Giordano
The thirteenth of March already seems a lifetime ago. That’s when Egyptian journalist Namees Arnous (class of 2011, Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, you can read more about her and 40 other classmates here) guided Greg Berger and I on our first visit through Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. The first thing we noticed was a group of thirty or so people gathered on the sidewalk in a heated political conversation. They had no banners or placards. It wasn’t a protest or even really a meeting. It was an impromptu debate of some kind, that made me think of Einstein’s proverbial Village Square.
“Before the revolution,” Namees explained, “it was illegal for five or more people to gather in one place. They would be arrested.”
It was exactly one month after the fall of the dictator Hosni Mubarak and in the following week we would meet and speak with dozens of participants in the historic civil resistance that brought the thirty-years-tyrant down. A month later, the resisters were coming to grips with what all successful revolutionaries have faced throughout history: that after the milestone of “the revolution,” a kind of permanent counterrevolution assembles to try to impose the old order anew. The triumph must then be defended.
Revolution is not a matter of a few tumultuous weeks of crescendo battle at the barricades, nor is it the glorious day of victory (although “the date” is to always be treasured, celebrated, remembered and never denied). The period between January 25 and February 13 of 2011 was, rather, the long and often painful labor to give birth to a new Egypt. And while the old Pharaoh has fled the castle, his lackeys and functionaries still occupy so many of its recesses. To borrow from another famous myth of those lands, the vestiges of the Pharaoh – the regime itself, or The State – now seek to kill the revolution in its infancy. This is what always happens. Truth is, authentic revolution never ends. And what we met and learned from was a critical mass of Egyptians from all walks of life, emboldened and ready to defend it with their all.
In a rooftop apartment a half block from Tahrir Square, and in other locations, the Narco News team set up shop for a week. There, we received community organizers, strategists, bloggers, journalists, unaffiliated people who slept on Tahrir Square during those tumultuous events, doctors who cared for the wounded there, video makers who filmed them (and who designed the series of viral videos that helped bring an unexpected multitude to Tahrir on January 25). On camera, we interviewed Muslims, Coptic Christians, atheists, secularists, leftists of every indole, liberals, and rank-and-file participants of diverse hue.
We asked every one of them a series of twelve questions, which began with this statement:
“We are conducting interviews with people who were involved and direct eyewitnesses to the resistance of January and February 2011 in Egypt that brought the fall of Mubarak. Our questions are about your own personal experience: what you personally saw, what you did, how you did it, the tactics, strategies and decisions you made, and how these events affected your daily life. Unlike many journalist interviews, we are not asking people to analyze ‘what other people did or saw.’ We ask you for your own lived experience, so that people in Mexico and everywhere else around the world who want to do the same things in their lands can see how it was done here. Your personal experience is important to them and to us so we can learn from it. So, please, we request that you answer the questions by telling of what you saw, heard and did during these historic events. Your story is very interesting to the world. And thank you for talking with us and our viewers in many languages!”
The questions ranged from how each individual spent the days leading up to January 25, what they did and experienced on that date, and then on other key dates of the resistance struggle. We asked about the tactical and strategic decisions that had to be made, how they were made, and why specific paths were chosen. We asked whether the January 27 shut down of the Internet hurt or helped the resistance (the answer was unanimous from each and every person, and the consensus may surprise the techno-evangelists who speak so carelessly of “Twitter Revolutions”). We also asked deeply personal questions about whether participating in “the revolution” changed how they see themselves, their life plans, and their relations with family, love, creed and State. The interviews went on and on (the shortest lasted 45 minutes) particularly because most people had so much to say.
One of our Arabic translators and collaborators, a Muslim woman, who had in recent months worked as a “fixer” (interpreter and guide) for other reporters, including from the New York Times and the Washington Post, told us: “We’ve never been asked these questions. The guys from the Times and the Post kept saying ‘we want to interview the leaders of the revolution.’ I told them, ‘We have no leaders.’ They said, ‘Try harder’!”
We were not seeking out “leaders” (those already extensively interviewed or featured by international media) although some of them sought us out when word hit the street that we were asking these kinds of questions. Typically, as one interview went overtime, the person scheduled for the next interview would appear, and it turned out, although these were by and large not “resistance celebrities” or known public figures, that almost everybody knew each other already, and greeted each other with the ecstatic hugs of soldiers who had won a war together. Most of them had met only in the last weeks on a square called Tahrir. They will never forget it, or each other, that is clear.
The collective sum of all their stories is now on video (we felt as if we were smuggling pure gold out of the country, with multiple copies on hidden back ups, hard drives, camera chips and drive sticks, knowing how certain forces of continuing State power have continued to arrest and torture resistance participants, including, recently, one foreign journalist whose throat was slashed defending her video footage appropriated from secret police vaults). The revolution had been “won” but yet it continues, as does the counterrevolution. Everyone we spoke with is painstakingly aware of that reality.
In the coming days and weeks, we have scores of hours of interviews to transcribe (most in the original Egyptian Arabic, but a few in English, too), translate, edit and produce in the form of ten- or fifteen-minute viral videos to be made available free to all on the Internet. And then, additionally, we will translate those videos into other languages, such as Spanish, where speakers are hungry for their content.
This is the closest we’ve ever come to finding something that might be akin to a manual for revolution, for civil resistance, for nonviolent action to topple a violent dictator and for continued struggle to bring the rest of the regime - and all "regime-think" on earth - down with him; a manual narrated not by scholars, academics or authors, but by the participants themselves!
It was also the time, a most special one for me in this life, that I was able to most intensely investigate what Vaneigem calls the study of “how people actually lived during the most extreme revolutionary moments,” and to do so at a moment when memories were still fresh and relatively unburdened by the sort of calcified myths that encase around historical events after they have become history.
What Berger and I and our Egyptian collaborators hope to create from this treasure is not aimed at any documentary film festival or any such nonsense or award. It will go directly to where it came from: the people, with permission, free of any charge or fee, for all to use the materials in their own struggles. Hopefully, we will have considerable parts of the videos ready for the May 2011 School of Authentic Journalism. To the extent we do not, we will press our fellow students and professors there into helping to finish them.
But wait. This incredible experience did not end at the Egyptian border...
Then, on March 19, we headed out of Cairo, taking a couple of new Egyptian friends with us to Madrid to help us lead a four-day workshop on Citizen Journalism and Civil Resistance. There, we shared journalism and media skills, tactics and strategies with 34 others, many of whom were much like us. Some were from lands currently deep in conflict – Afghanistan, Bahrain, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen – and others were from other parts of the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas. And this has led to more international collaborations already and the emboldening of the Civil Resistance Renaissance and the Authentic Journalism Renaissance. Vanegeim's "extreme revolutionary moment" has crossed international borders. What the Egyptians have accomplished is positively infectious for us all. I feel as if we now stand on the threshold of a global culture of civil resistance that no tyrant or State or multinational corporation (another kind of state power) will be able to contain for long.
As usual, I am reluctant to draw detailed conclusions so quickly as to what we heard, saw and lived during these ten or twelve extremely intense days and nights. It is still so new and fresh, and the participants properly narrate much of that anyway. It is a disease of developed world academics and journalists to too rapidly wrap a chaotic story of continuing push and shove with a tidy little bow and greeting card slogan.
Instead, I will follow our own request to the interviewees, for now, and try to speak from personal lived experience, to try and remember, write, and figure out what I saw, heard and lived, and how it might have changed me. It's the inverse of the Heisenberg Principle: it is also true that one can't study something intensely without also being changed by it. I am certain that it mutated me, in a way, to have breathed in it. I am not yet sure exactly how it did. But I am guessing that for the rest of my days I will return, whenever possible, to a Square called Tahrir, where the doors to a new and better future flung open and which now await the rest of the citizens of the world to pass through them.