Sunday, 6 March 2011

Football with the Revolutionaries

(This note is from 5 March, The blog gives 6 March as title because I posted it after midnight)

My first day back in Cairo was devoted to a walk in downtown, meeting friends in Giza and Dokki, and a post-Shafiq football match with a group of friends with whom I used to play football every Saturday in the past years. It is a day marked by a mixture of pride and hope, anxiety and worry, and a new crucial step in the revolution. I start with the football.

As I entered the sports grounds of Gezira youth centre I met R., a musician, and asked him how things are going. “Better”, he said but continued, “but a lot of people have been injured by the psychological war of the days before 11 February, when there was a lot of fear, and many pro-Mubarak songs were made, and that has left many of us with a strong sense of paranoia. That’s why we didn’t manage to play football until today. There were many times when we thought that we should play again, but there was too much anxiety. And there were tensions among the people on Tahrir: Should we do this, should we do that, should we stay, should we go. Only now that [the former prime minister] Ahmad Shafiq is gone, it seems like this is a good moment to relax and play football again.” I ask him if there are any other news in his life. R.: “There is nothing else than the revolution now.” R. put in words what I had sensed with others, too: being committed to a revolution includes a lot of anxiety. There is a continuous tension, a continuous fear of what the system will do, whether the demonstrators will hold together, whether there is enough popular support, on whose side exactly the army is, whether one can still be arrested... A sense of fear and anxiety has kept the revolution running, it has kept people alert and active. But it has also worn them down and created a sense of paranoia.

Gezira youth centre is a little oasis of sport utilities for the general public (entrance fee 5 LE, no membership required) in the middle of otherwise very exclusive social clubs for Egypt’s elites. The football fields are rather bumpy, but it is a pleasure to play there, in a green oasis the middle of the city, and with a marvelous view of the burned down headquarters of the National Democratic Party on the other side of the Nile. It was a good match in the afternoon sun, although the team I played in lost 5 to 4. The people in this football group are mostly left wing, many artists and musicians, but until the revolution most of them were not politically active. For the past month most of them have been busy with the revolution almost full time. This was their first match after the revolution began, and while there was a sense that things were now clearly going the right way and that one could afford to relax, the revolution was still on everybody’s minds. The small talk was all about where they had been on which important days of the revolution, especially during the first days when the police was still attacking the demonstrators. Even comments on the match always took joking reference to the revolution. A counter immediately prompted jokes about counterrevolution.

For my friends, the football was a welcome moment to relax from the tension of the revolution. And taking a break from the revolution is not easy - it comes with problems of its own. J’s girlfriend tells me that many of the people involved in the revolution are now suffering from depression, after the moment of intensive activism for the revolution is over, and they return to everyday life. Many of them have lost their job, others don’t have a job to return to in the first place, and many relationships and marriages have broken during the past weeks. I ask my friend M. what he thinks about this and he says: “Yes, it’s true. After you have been participating in the revolution, ordinary life seems so dull and meaningless. You go to work and do your job, but you don’t feel anything about it.” To participate in a revolution is a very fulfilling experience. It takes over one’s entire life, even one’s dreams. There may be a lot of fear, anxiety and disagreement, but there is a strong sense of purpose: Everything one does matters. When this moment is over, the mundane course of everyday life can be a depressing experience. (I wonder if those who continue the sit-in in Tahrir Square do it partly because it has become so difficult for them to return to the banality of daily life.)

After the match R., the only one with a car, gave us a ride, and political debate continued in the car, this time about the yet unclear voting procedure in the referendum about constitutional amendments in 19 March, and about the upcoming presidential elections. The main potential candidates at the moment are Amr Musa, secretary-general of the Arab League and former minister of foreign affairs, Muhammad ElBaradei, former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Husam El Bashtawishi, a judge committed to the cause of independent judiciary during the bast years. None of these candidates represent clearly any particular political direction, and my football friends couldn’t really agree on any one of them yet. R. found that ElBaradei was the only one who had so far presented anything logical and rational, and who had spoked credibly about freedom of opinion and democracy from the beginning. Another one of the people disagreed and said that there were things ElBaradei had said which he didn’t agree on, but in any case, he wants to see the programmes of the candidates before he can make up his mind.

Making up one’s mind is one thing Egyptians are called for these days, and there is an enormous amount of discussion again, although not all discussions circle around the revolution anymore like they did in early February. In the metro and on the streets, more mundane topics dominate. But on Tahrir Square, it is all about the revolution.

On Tahrir square where a significant group of people continued today their sit-in to press for the remaining demands of abolition of State Security, release of all political prisoners, and an official end of the state of emergency. At the same time, Tahrir square was today also the site of an ongoing stream of proud and curious people who came to look at the site of the revolution and to buy revolution souvenirs - flags, posters, t-shirts, and “JAN 25" number plates. Many of them did not support the ongoing sit-in, however, and intense discussions and debates about whether the sit-in should continue or not were going on all around the square.

I stood quite a while on Tahrir square listening to the discussions, and at times debating with the people, too. Everybody had their own point of view, but three tendencies were most clearly present. One were people fully supportive of the ongoing demonstrations until the entire old system is abolished. Another were people who came up with arguments typical of the supporters of Mubarak in early February, claiming that the demonstrators were paid and didn’t even know why they were demonstrating. A third group were people who were supportive of the revolution, and partly had also participated in it, but felt that the continuation of the sit-in in Tahrir now that most of the demands have been realised, prevented the people from returning to work and getting the economy running again. I was especially intrigued about this point of view and asked the people who expressed it: How exactly do thousand people (the remaining sit-in is quite small) keep an entire nation from going back to work? Their answer was that the ongoing pressure on the political system that emanates from Tahrir Square keeps everybody busy in their minds, anxious and waiting for the next major turn of events. As long as the demonstration continues, even with small numbers, they argues, there is no peace of mind to get back to work. A man selling cars for work said that this was not because he wouldn’t go back to work, but because nobody will buy a car as long as there is a revolution going on. Another man said: “If the new government doesn’t fulfill its promises, I come to demonstrate here again. But now we first need to give them a chance.”

But these were not the only voices - in fact, the crowd along the edges of Tahrir square as quite evenly split in people who wanted the sit-in to continue and who wanted it to end, and all of them had something to say to each others. It was quite an impressive scene of a collective debate. The debates were heated, but never aggressive - in fact, with all the disagreement, worry and anxiety that there was, many of those debating were at the same time proudly pointing out to me the very fact that they could now debate and make up their mind freely and without fear.

The debate about the sit-in is not new - the same discussions, I heard, were already taking place on 12 February after Mubarak resigned. But the problem is evident. The sit-in in Tahrir exerts powerful pressure The tricky question that the activists of the revolution face now is how to safeguard the legitimacy of an ongoing revolutionary struggle in the eyes of people who first of all want to get the economy running again and to solve the problem of increased criminality. Different people have different answers, and while some found this a good day to play football, others found it necessary to continue to sit-in, and yet others found it necessary to go and debate with those continuing the sit-in.

The problem of crime and lawlessness causes perhaps the greatest tension at the moment. Partly it is serious crime like armed robberies, but partly it is also petty disorder, and I have been told a lot about chaotic traffic - but I must say that today I found the traffic not more chaotic than it has always been in Cairo. J.says that among the demonstrators there is the fear that this sense can turn into a popular counter-uprising against them. Getting the police back on the streets alone won’t do the job of restoring law and order because people don’t have any respect for them anymore - they have to earn this respect first, and it will be a difficult job. And the citizens’ checkpoint cannot be a long-term solution because the people will need to get to work and sleep again. This will be probably the most urgent task for Essam Sharaf’s transitional government.

With all this anxiety, at the same time there is an amazing sense of pride among the people, no matter what their specific judgement is. A group of young men in Champollion street had painted a sign at the entrance of a one-way street reminding motorists not to drive wrong way. They were guarding the spot and checking that people obliged. They were excessively proud when I took a picture of the sign. A taxi driver who took me to the football field said that Tahrir Square was “a problem”, and in the next sentence he asked me for my opinion whether Egypt will manage to rise to a better future like the countries in Asia, and about how to get back all the money stolen by Mubarak and his clique. Another Taxi driver giving a ride to me, M. and a friend of ours later same evening, was very proud of what the Egyptian people had accomplished, and very optimistic, yet he did not expect things to change quickly: “We can make our country just as good as any country in Europe, we can do that. But it will take time. Maybe things won’t get better for this generation, but the generation of our children and grandchildren will. The problem now is that there are 50% of people who understand the responsibility, but we have also a lot of people who don’t understand it yet.” During the same taxi ride, the discussion again turned to the question of the future president. Should it be an old man so that he cannot stick to his office because he won’t live that long, or should it be a young and dynamic person. It doesn’t make a difference, the taxi driver argued, because whoever the next president will be, he will have to listen to the people, “because they know the way to Tahrir Square now, and everybody can use Facebook now and get organised.” Men at a fast food restaurant where I bought liver sandwiches were outspokenly proud about the fall of Mubarak, although they didn’t think that former prime minister Ahmad Shafiq was so bad. I told them that demonstrators in Wisconsin in the US have taken Egypt and Tunisia as their examples, and they sure were happy to hear that.

I have saved the best news for the end. (Although I’m not sure whether those who just want to get the economy running again would entirely agree ) Since yesterday, there are demonstrations all over Egypt trying to occupy the offices of State Security, Egypt’s feared and hated secret police. Abolition of the State Security is one of the remaining key demands of the demonstrators, and on Friday the ministry of interior declared that the State Security would be suspended and restructured. This did not satisfy many protesters, however, especially after news spread about files being shredded and burned on large scale in State Security headquarters around the country. It all started yesterday in Alexandria, where there was especially much anger after reports had spread telling that former Minister of Interior Habib Al-Adli had ordered the terrorist attack against the Church of Martyrs in Alexandria on New Year’s eve. Yesterday there was also a demonstration at the State Sequrity in Giza, but it was sent back - not by the police, but by people’s checkpoints in there area who were more concerned with the safety of their area, wanting to prevent clashes where cars could burn and property be damaged.

Tonight, the breaking news came on Al-Jazeera as I was having a glass of tea with M. and our friend: “Demonstrators occupy the central headquarters of State Security in Nasr City (a suburb of Cairo).” Similar news come from 6th of October City, where demonstrators surrounded the State Security all day. Documents have been secured, and people held imprisoned have been released. One of them, released in Nasr City today, had been held there for 14 years. In other cities, attempts to occupy State Security offices have been unsuccessful, in yet others, the army has taken them over. In Nasr City and 6th of October City, demonstrators were able to secure files and computers, and video footage from Alexandria shows torture instruments and soundproof doors in the torture chambers. The evidence that is being secured at the moment will cause scandals in Europe, too. Computers secured in Nasr City reportedly contain a German software called Gamma to hack emails and Skype accounts. One video shows a former prisoner showing how a torture instrument was used. It contains elements made in Germany (it is stated at 0:30): More news about the secured files are being published online as I am writing this. Some can be found here:

Today, the most wicked and brutal part of the Mubarak regime is falling. And as it falls, a lot of people in Egypt and abroad may fall with it.

Good night from the Egyptian revolution!



  1. P.S.
    Thanks to H. for a little correction: There was already one football match with the group on 14 February, shortly after Mubarak resigned. After victories, there should always be an afternoon free for football.

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