As Egypt prepares for a referendum on Constitutional amendments — one that was scheduled for Saturday but may be delayed in the face of significant opposition from young organizers among others — the author, an expert on Egyptian women and development, reflects on the youthful leaders of the revolution.
In my days in Tahrir Square trying to be of service, I found a wealth and richness of leaders, very few of them belonging to formal groups or associated with NGOs. They were natural born leaders who managed while we were sleeping to create a revolution. I also saw many mature leaders from our women’s NGOs acting as any decent Egypt-loving person would do, proud of what these young people have done. They have given us voice and pride after decades of silence and acceptance.
I write about three women I met during my short visits to the square from February 1 to 11. I use their first names because I did not ask about their second names. Their stories reflect a myriad of different women and their reasons for being in the square.
Young, slim and rather grim, Randa –a 35-year-old journalist and art producer — had a negative view of all those in power and all businessmen. Confident of her leadership skills, she had no qualms about bossing me around, despite our age difference. She was determined not to leave the square without reaching her objectives.
“We do not want only to get rid of the head of the snake but of the snake body as well. We do not want to be fooled to believe that the problem is with Mubarak or his family alone. The problem is with everyone who was associated with them in one way or another.”
She came from a family of fighters. Her mother, who was turning 70, “went to the streets” during her university years in Suez and “raised us so that we could demand our rights or else deserve what happens to us.
“I am a lawyer by training but the educational system is a farce and frankly I believe there is a lot that we do not know. That is why we are now collecting the names of resource people [to find] those who have no blemish on their background. We want someone that we can trust. You yourself are demonstrating loyalty to the revolution and we need every hand. But later we will review all the angles to your story and decide whether or not to work with you after we succeed.
“We have a subcommittee to address rumors that the regime has been spreading in order to weaken our resolve. Your job with us is to type any document we have and to make thousands of copies. You should for once listen to us — not you as a person but your whole generation.
“This is a secular revolution. I am not veiled as you see, and the accusation that our revolution belongs to the Islamists or the Muslim brotherhood is an excuse by Mubarak’s regime to scare his biggest allies, the Americans. We will not scare easily, women or men.”
During the Friday prayers, February 11, I took shelter at one of the small islands where people built tents and women stayed to prepare food. An older lady invited me to share a cup of hot tea. I was surrounded by a number of women and young ladies, all veiled or covering their hair and all from the rural governorates surrounding Cairo. When I asked whether they or their families belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, they laughed and told me that every non-covered woman and foreign journalist asked this question in one way or the other but that I was the most direct in my questioning. And then Iman, a dark and shy young woman, looked me in the eye and said, “Why do you people always want to label us and put us in boxes? Why when you are calling for freedom of expression and get angry when the religious groups want to undermine you, do you turn around and try to undermine others? Islam is a great religion and the most tolerant of religions.
“I came here after a big fight with my mother. I am 25, the eldest of five girls, and our father left us many years ago searching for a son with another woman. But my mother worked hard for us to have a decent life. Last year the factory where she worked was sold to one of the men of the Mubarak mafia and they kicked them all out — treated them like trash after years of working hard. With the little money they gave her she bought a sewing machine to start sewing for neighbors and of course it did not work out. A neighbor who is married to a governing party official stole her idea of making school uniforms. It broke her heart. My sisters and I have all decided to help our mother. Three of us have graduated with education degrees, but we have no money to get married and nothing that we own.
“I do not mind if I die here. We are fighting for our right to live like human beings. I will not be back to my mother except with our dignity and our pride with me”
I met um Mohamed on a very crowded Friday in the square, with barely any space to stand. I was approached by a veiled woman. “It is great that such beautiful and important women like you come here and join us in our stand against injustice and oppression” she said.
“I am um Mohamed from Mansoura. I came here because I want these young kids to bring me back my son. I saw you on TV and I want you to help me get my son. I never left Mansoura before, even when they took my son four years ago. They said he was a terrorist, but all what he did was to go the mosque and be a good Muslim. They say the security might have tortured and killed him. But in my heart I feel he is alive and I came here to stand on that corner with all the women who have missing children taken by that Kafir (non-believer), the man who does not know god. We are 25 women from Mansoura alone. We need to see our sons; we need to know what happened to them. I will stay here until I find out or until that man, the Kafir Mubarak, and his people are arrested and face the same fate as my son and the sons of our village.”
These women and others stayed in the liberation square until they managed to topple Mubarak, frankly an achievement I never thought possible. I do not know if um Mohamed and the other mothers found their sons. I have heard that many detainees were released from the national security secret prisons and that others were reported dead. I do not know whether Iman went back to her mother and sisters, who will no longer need to fear the party representative’s wife. I only know that they, like Randa, stood shoulder to shoulder with the men and that they deserve to share in making the future of our country. These are my heroines, the women of Egypt.