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September 22, 2013

From Egypt's Tahrir Square

Prof. Tyseer Aboulnasr

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As I stood in Tahrir square, packed up again with people everywhere you turn, I looked around me. There was one man pushing his own wheelchair, an older woman being pushed in her wheelchair, a woman carrying a baby, women with and without hijab, kids (yes, women are very present), men, young and old, and last but not least, Christian men and women visibly wearing the cross.

Just like I, with my hair cover, used to feel safe in human rights demonstrations in Ottawa with justice oriented Canadians around me, they felt safe to show their cross enough within millions of fellow Muslim Egyptians demanding their equal rights in a country where “bread, freedom, human dignity and social justice” are guaranteed. 

You know Tahrir is packed when you lose the Internet connection because the load on the network is excessive. Surely, twitter was down. We stayed close to a motorcycle that had turned its radio on so we could hear the announcement from the Armed Forces.  Before we could, my brother managed to fall and hurt his knee and we rushed him to the hospital.  We listened to the announcement there and the celebration screams started as soon as it ended. Cars were honking, women doing their “Zaghrouta”, fireworks popping, loudspeakers playing national songs and an incredible festive mood.

Driving my brother back to his home and then driving myself home was an incredible experience.  Imagine all of Canada gathering in downtown Toronto to celebrate a Stanley cup win after over 30 years of waiting.  For a very brief period, Egypt had a smile on its face; a smile that no one had seen for years. There was happiness. There was excitement. There was desperately needed hope.

Some of the so called preachers of the religious right groups called for the death of “liberal and secular” opposition leaders by name on public television.  This time, they followed up on their threats and instead of the celebrations, we are now watching as fifty or so people have been killed by Morsi supporters,  people thrown off of the top of buildings, shot at or their throats cut and of 50 Morsi supporters killed as they attempted to storm army installations to free Morsi. 

We went to Tahrir somewhat early and it was not yet full.  Quickly, masses started pouring.  I stood on the chair to try to see how full it was.  An old lady next to me asked me anxiously “Is it full yet?” I said “yes, ma’am it is”.  She quietly said “Alhamdulillah” or Thank you God.  She sat next to me by herself and every time the air force planes flew above, she would quietly say “May God save you so you can protect us. God please save them so they can save us”.

In the middle of all this, the western media continued talking about whether it is a coup or not.  Initially Egyptians did now understand what this fuss was all about.  They thought the issue was about people exercising their will.  They thought they did what the west has been telling them to do, refuse dictatorship.  They had waited before for 30 years.  They saw how hast the country was going down and realized they cannot afford to wait another 3 years.  Their position is very simple.  Indeed, it is a coup.  It is a people’s coup.  It is democracy at its best. 

The President “spoke to the nation” in a hall packed by cheering crowds of his supporters.  As the millions demonstrated against him outside, he acknowledged imperfection then joked and ridiculed his opponents declaring them all to be either thugs or Mubarak supporters.  A week earlier, he sat in a soccer stadium gathering of extreme Islamists calling for Jihad in Syria and praying, in his presence, for God’s curse to fall on his opponents and for them to be wiped out.  As he listened, he said nothing. 

It was clear that he and his brotherhood are simply unable to hear the screams that have been loud and clear since November when he passed a constitutional declaration putting his decisions above the law, followed by passing a highly controversial quickly cooked constitution, by unending feuds with the courts and justice systems describing court decisions as matter of opinion that government would implement only if it finds it agreeable. Then came the battles with the art community, with the media and with the tourism industry putting in a governor of the “tourism province” who comes from the violent Islamist group convicted of killing tourists in the 90’s. 

Of course, young activists, women, Christians, Sunnis differing from the Islamists and Shia were already set aside as “others” unworthy of serious discussion and in the case of Shias as “dirty & impure”.  Coupled with massive economic failures, foreign policy disasters regarding Egypt’s vital share of the Nile water and strategy for economic development based on begging for aid, the country was boiling.  The President was widely perceived as awaiting instructions from the Brotherhood leadership who in turn was pulling him down with complete incompetence and focus on distributing the power pie amongst its members.  June 30th was the date to declare enough is enough.

Unlike British Columbia and California where there are laws specifying how to recall an elected official before the end of their term, Egypt’s budding democracy has no such system.  Still, it had its people’s will, squares big enough to hold its people’s general assembly and young people who believe they have to deliver what their buddies died to achieve. 

California recall law requires that 10% of the electorate sign a petition if there are more than 100,000 registered in the riding of the official to be removed.  By Google’s count, over 30 million Egyptians of a total of around 50 million voters were out on the streets demanding early elections; far above the 10% required by California law. The people on the streets were calling for the Armed Forces to take action once they knew that there is no other way for their petition to be taken seriously. The Armed Forces of Egypt then stepped in and enforced the decision of Egyptians transferring the power to the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court and then stepped aside again.

Was it a coup? Indeed it was! A coup of the people by the people for the people.  It is a government recall par excellence.  A general assembly of the people taking steps to make its voice heard through signatures followed by action with people going out on the streets en masse in a preset date.  There were spontaneous calls from the masses for the Armed Forces to execute the will of the people, nothing less and nothing more. 

We know you it’s new to you, Mr Obama, but it is how we in Egypt exercise democracy.

Direct Democracy, Egyptian style.

Egyptian Canadian Prof. Tyseer Aboulnasr lives now in Cairo. She was the first woman to hold the post of the Dean of Engineering at two of Canada’s top universities. She was named a 2004 recipient of the Order of Ontario.

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