I have never gone through an efficient checkpoint in Egypt; rather, they tend to be jokes where a security guard will glance at your bag and ignore the metal detector that goes off. Not at Tahrir on July 8th. Average civilians had formed committees at every entrance to the square, splitting attendees into male and female lines. Egyptians were protecting the revolution, refusing to let anyone in to corrupt their day of expression. No bultagiya (government/army-hired thugs) here!
The atmosphere inside the square was a mixture of apprehension and eagerness, no one knowing quite what they were waiting for, everyone expecting something momentous nonetheless. Graceful and poignant Arabic script billowed across the square on banners raised high, the wind moving the heavy heat and pollution across the faces of the banner bearers. Children decorated with Egyptian flag paraphernalia posed for patriotic pictures, and young men leaned against one another chain-smoking incessantly. A series of stages encircled the main square, reeling people in with Allahu Akbar and chants of freedom. Back toward the Egyptian Museum, the road crawled and swarmed with the masses, bulging toward the square with the force of the River Nile. Here it came, they were coming, it was happening, I was there.
After the noon prayer, the energy surged and people lurched forward demanding the fall of Field Marshall Tantawi, the “purification” of the putrid system still festering in Egypt’s new political order, and the transparent hurrying of the trials to punish the former regime’s old bullies. I was merely standing witness. It was hard to comprehend all the nuanced political and social interactions taking place on the ground. First of all, my guard is always up as a foreign woman in a potentially tense environment, and that necessity sometimes prevents me from fully appreciating or experiencing something. Second are the mere logistical barriers of language and physical space. It is a testament to the power of the internet that I get more information by sitting at home on my laptop. But the persistent spirit of the revolution does not get transferred through wires across miles; the aura reigning in the square was unique only to the cloisters of people circulating that political and patriotic energy, only to the activists’ tents standing guard, “sitting in”, only to the relentless sun blaring over Tahrir.
I was most struck by the importance of this process to the Egyptian people. No, not everyone supports these protests. Yes, over 100 parties had come with no unified request. Yes, it must ultimately be about the result - social justice, bread, dignity, and a few ginea to pocket - but it is just as much about this rich undertaking they call democracy, this up and down, step by step chaos that has people in the throes of debate and argument at all times. It may not be perfect, and it may not ever reach an ideal anywhere, but I truly believe it is what we must all keep stumbling toward as a global society. It can only be better than the alternative, the oppressive laziness that Egypt suffered under for so long. You cannot sleep without dreaming; you must dream so vivaciously and fiercely that it becomes your waking life.
I am living and breathing this revolution. I wake up and wonder how the activists in Tahrir slept in their tents. My classes revolve, even ever so tenuously, around the revolution; they even take place based on what happens in Tahrir Square. Every single Egyptian measures time in “before, or after” the revolution. My social outings consist of at least stopping by the square to witness the happenings, or more likely, to wonder around for hours talking to people, to catch whatever I can understand of the political sloganeering. Down time is spent obsessively and somewhat guiltily gobbling up whatever news I can gather from my various blogs and newspapers. Before I shut my eyes at night, my thoughts wonder to the next step, the next incident, my next run-in with this machine they call the Egyptian Revolution.
I claim to not want to participate, but a growing chunk of my heart yearns to feel the pride and emotion Egyptians are feeling for their homeland. A muffled part of my voice wants to cry out in unison against the system like I did so long ago in the streets of DC and New York against the Bush administration. I am so eager to sink myself into this inspiring dilemma that it is beginning to consume me.
Tonight was overwhelming, and never have I felt so tossed and turned by the mélange of politics and emotion around me. It started as many afternoons and evenings have in Tahrir, with my foreign friends and I being approached by Egyptians every so often, curious as to what we could possibly think of their revolution. There have been people conducting a sit-in in Tahrir for some time now, certainly since July 8th. Dusk grew thicker, and so did the crowd around us, more and more men drawn to the cluster against the backdrop of the somewhat empty square. Once they saw a tall white man and gold locks (my friends), they were tantalized enough to stay and find out what these people speaking Arabic in strange accents had to say. Trendy young Egyptian men hovered around me, grandfathers shoved their way to my side. I grew frustrated with the same questions haranguing us: why did America support Israel, how did she feel now that she had lost her longtime ally Hosni Mubarak? I was expected to not only speak for the American government’s foreign policy, but for the entire assumedly homogenous and unified American public. I bit my tongue, struggling not to sarcastically comment that if they waited a moment, I would call Obama and ask why American did this or didn't do that. I tried to speak as only one American, a Puerto Rican, an activist, a liberal interested in their language, culture, revolution. But the constant bombardment was not sustainable. That is not to say I felt in danger - most of the Egyptians around me were engaging in productive conversation and protecting me from the few that harassed or criticized - but I was not comfortable. We extracted ourselves from the crowd around us that had swelled to perhaps 40-50. We thanked Tahrir for an exhilarating evening, and with a couple Egyptian friends accompanying us, we left the revolution in the square for the evening.
I must find balance, as in every facet of life. This is not my revolution, and I must take solace in being a mere witness to history. Even if I want to spend my free time buried in newspapers and political conversations trying to decipher the latest, I must make time for the other things that brought me here, including my language studies, my search for my ambition, and the exploration of the world. I must make space in my lungs for the wind that doesn’t blow only through Tahrir. It’s all about balance.