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Egypt's Conflicting Narratives

By Michael Winship
February 11, 2011

Editor’s Note: The Egyptian protesters have gained their principal demand, that longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak step down, but the final chapters of this remarkable story are yet to be written.

In this guest essay, Michael Winship examines two conflicting narratives:

"The culture of democracy is still far away."

That's what Egypt's Vice President Omar Suleiman told a group of the country's newspaper editors on Tuesday. It was just two days before President Hosni Mubarak reconfirmed that he had no intention of resigning until September. But on Friday, Mubarak was gone.

Suleiman had said the continued demonstrations in Cairo and across the nation were "disrespectful" of Mubarak and warned of "the dark bats of the night emerging to terrorize the people," a threat that sounds more Transylvanian than Egyptian.

But the blood of the more than 300 demonstrators who have died in Egypt was all too real.

Mubarak, Suleiman and other holdouts of Egypt's ancien regime believed that the popular uprising could be held at arm's length, that the freedom movement was simply anger over the price of wheat.

They should have listened to the words of a middle-aged Egyptian woman named Olfa G. Tantawi. Perhaps they would have realized sooner that the culture of democracy was not far away at all but right at their very doorstep, insistently knocking.

A few years ago, Tantawi, a mother of two, was a student of my friend Craig Duff when he taught as a Knight International Journalism Fellow at the American University in Cairo. Recently, she wrote him this letter, variations on which have appeared on a few websites.

I offered to keep her identity secret but she told Craig, "Please use it all and use my name; really the seal of fear is broken... Please use it and thank you for circulating, I am really concerned that some parts of the picture are not seen nor felt."

She wrote: "The Tahrir Square story is unbelievable. Today, already thousands of people are there and more and more are flooding the streets, all my friends and relatives are either in the square or on the way to go.

“These are people whose relation to politics and activism used to be to read the story in the newspaper and discuss it over lunch or dinner. Everybody is there right now including my 70-year-old aunt...

"I spent the day there, late at night I went back home. Behind the safe doors of my house, suddenly it was a vacuum of fear. We had to watch the Egyptian media's false propaganda. They told Egyptians that the protesters in the Tahrir Square are causing serious damage to the economy and endangering the safety of the country.

“In other, allegedly more independent Egyptian media channels, some of the most influential writers and analysts were trying to sell to the people the idea that it is time to go home, you made it people, just give the current government enough time to make it right again...

"Angry and worried I shifted to the news flowing from other international media channels. As usual, their intense focus is on the fights, the bloodshed and the terror, they ask questions about who is leading, what about the Muslim Brotherhood, and the other opposition leaders?

“They speak to irrelevant people, who [are not] part of the event...

"Then again today back to the square to find that the number of those who support the uprising is increasing tremendously. The charm of the Tahrir Square is attracting more and more people; some flew all the way from the United States, Canada, Germany, London and even South Africa to be there in the square at this very moment of ultimate hope.

“Others are coming from different Egyptian governorates, simple people who came a long way because they believe that this is a true revolution fighting for their rights and they were determined to give it all their support.

"One very simple lady from the rural Fayoum governorate told me, 'I am here to support the youth,' and added, 'When Mubarak's grandson died we all felt for him, we dressed in black and cried for the innocent child, why on earth is he now doing this to our sons? How many mothers are now crying for a child who is dead or lost?'

"Many analysts in the media speak of Egypt's economy, they say that the economic growth did not trickle down to the poor and this is why this is happening. This is too simplistic.

“This revolution is not about poverty or need. The people in the streets from all walks of life, rich and poor are there because they want freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom...

"In the media they speak of an international community afraid of a power vacuum, they speak of a fear from Islamic radicalism. Others speak of the absence of the building blocks of democracy. This is exactly because they do not understand the nature of this revolution.

“The people, literally for the first time in history, are taking the lead and deciding for themselves. The government will continue to make its concessions and offers, and the street is the judge. It is a different process where the voting is a continuous process, as the street reacts to the government announcements and measures.

"The absence of a person or a group of persons as a recognizable leadership group or figures is intentional.

“The intellectual young people who started all this are actually leading by spreading awareness among the people in the square rather than by giving orders, and this is making the pressure of the street crowds even more forceful, simply because it is the people rather than this or that specific name who [are] reacting and deciding...

"The people need a guarantee that whoever rules will at the end of the day, month, year go back to his home knowing that his initial identity is [as] an Egyptian citizen and not an everlasting ruler. Up till now the Egyptian government failed the transparency exam, trying hard to hide what is happening in the square from the eyes of the world...

"The story of the Tahrir Square is not about who is with Mubarak and who is against; it is about a truly civilized, very peaceful people who decided to regain control of their destiny...They will forever be responsible and work to rebuild the whole country."

Now that the rule of Egypt has been turned over to the military, the next days and weeks will reveal whether Olfa Tantawi's vision of a new Egypt will approach reality or simply stand as a poignant and painful reminder of a dream smashed to bits by armed might and repression.

"Insha'Allah, in a year's time you should come for a visit," she closed her letter to Craig. "I believe and hope you will find a very, very different Egypt.

"See you then."

Michael Winship, former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.

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