LETTER FROM CAIRO, AUGUST 2013

The Tamarod (‘Rebel’) campaign began quietly in April, when a group of young Egyptians decided to gather signatures on a petition calling for early presidential elections to replace the Muslim Brotherhood- backed President Mohammed Morsi, who had done little to advance Egypt’s transition towards democracy. My friend Mostafa, a 70-year old tailor, was a Tamarod volunteer. Before visiting his family in the Nile Delta on weekends, Mostafa stopped by the Tamarod office to pick up a stack of petitions to distribute in his hometown. And there were thousands like him, tradesmen and shop owners, using their access to the public to solicit signatures.

Mostafa supported the January 2011 uprising because like most Egyptians, he was tired of the Mubarak regime’s power-mongering and contempt for the people. Now he’s convinced that the only difference between the Islamists’ and Mubarak’s regime is that the latter ‘knew what it was doing’. I saw Mostafa in late June, shortly after the horrific lynching of four Shi’aa Muslims in a Cairo slum, allegedly instigated by fanatical (Sunni) Salafists. A faithful Muslim, Mostafa despises the Islamists’ divisive ‘holier than thou’ rhetoric and like many Cairenes was deeply upset.

Mostafa said that satellite TV stations were running public service announcements calling for unity, featuring the slogan, ‘don’t ask me my religion – I’m Egyptian.’ Mostafa has been complaining about the government for years, usually laughing in disbelief at its misguided arrogance, but this time the words stuck in his throat. His eyes filled with tears when he said ‘I’m Egyptian’, because however stolid an observer and critic, this is his country, he loves it and wants it back. I squeezed his hand and soon he was joking again but we both knew how he felt: tired and angry, afraid, yet not without hope.

Egypt is tough for young people still waiting for the revolution to deliver the civil rights that so many died or were gravely injured fighting for, and which have been utterly ignored by the ruling party. To them, the Muslim Brother’s political arm, the so-called Freedom and Justice party has made a mockery of those words. But Egypt is even tougher on older people, who remember the country in safer, more tolerant and prosperous times, and today can barely recognise it. Especially in battle- scarred Cairo, with its broken sidewalks, its walled-in streets, water and gas shortages, the heat, pollution and power cuts, every day is a wearisome trial of their will to survive.

Yet on 30 June , the one-year anniversary of Mr. Morsi’s inauguration, the day Tamarod had called for nationwide demonstrations, elderly men and women were on hand in their thousands, some with walking sticks or in wheelchairs, holding each other’s arms, sometimes with their children and grandchildren. The total nationwide showing was estimated in the tens of millions. A new, more focused struggle had begun, with the aim of establishing a civilian transitional government and a new constitution that protects the rights of all Egyptians.

Tents have been pitched again with protestors vowing not to budge until their roadmap is adopted. The army and police are on high alert and everyone expects protracted confrontation. Whatever the outcome, the awareness is dawning that no president, government or army can save Egypt. Long accustomed to relinquishing their fate to God or government and dealing with the consequences as best they can, Egyptians are realising that the decisions that shape their lives are now, for better or worse, in their own hands.

Maria Golia