I’m late. Five minutes, as always. When I finally reach the meeting point, everybody’s already there. The atmosphere is a little heavy this morning. My journalist friends Marion and Pauline have somehow lost their spirited mood. Our Egypto-Libyan mate Nizar looks grim. He’s worried. He’ll be taking part in a demonstration for the first time in his life and it doesn’t looks like it’s gonna be an easy one. As for me, I’m like, already depressed. Brave pro-democracy demonstrators will take a beating from the riot police. It’s been the same old story since 2004. And to what end? The crowd seems a bit bigger this time though.
For the last two weeks, Egyptian political scientists, journalists and people in general have been telling us that a revolution in Egypt is simply impossible. Despite ever-present economic and political frustrations, despite anger at police and at corruption, “the educated middle-class is not large enough to lead a revolution as the Tunisian one did,” they tell us. In simpler terms, the Egyptians are too poor to revolt and claim their rights as citizens. The analysis seems pretty solid and I’ve ended up believing it.
For some weeks Pauline, the photographer, has been following a group of young activists preparing to demonstrate against police violence, corruption, unemployment and poverty on January 25, “Police Day,” which has been renamed “Anger Day”. We are to meet some girls from this group at the Giza metro stop at 11 a.m. When we arrive there’s no-one there. We wait. Then the girls start arriving, one after the other at 11.40 a.m. There is Solefa, so quiet; Hind, lively and self-assured… “Come on, you’re even late for the revolution!” someone quips. We’re having a good laugh.
The girls take us with them on a minibus. “So, where are we going?” “We can’t tell now. You’ll see…” Meeting places for demonstrations are like classified information. But when we get to our destination, the poor neighbourhood of Bulaq al-Dakrour, the cops are already there. Two busloads of riot police face the main street. This does not seem to bother our friends in the least. “We’re starving. Wanna eat kochari?” they ask, as if it was lunch break at uni. Sure, why not! So here we are, sitting in a greasy spoon in Bulaq, eating kochari and waiting for a revolution that does not come. Quite logically, we start chatting. The oldest of them must be 25. “Even if it’s not the revolution, I think a lot of people will take to the streets today, yes. People are scared, it’s true, but at the same time they can’t take this regime anymore. They are fed up with their paltry wages; with having to give a bribe each time they need to deal with red tape; with being humiliated by the police and unable to respond; with having to pay through the nose for their kids’ private tuition… They want another life for their children!” Solefa tells us. I admire her bold faith in change. But I also tell myself that she’s perhaps too optimistic — not to say naïve.
An hour later and we’re out of the kochari place. Between 200 and 300 activists are gathering. One of them gives a signal: They take out their signs and banners, and start to march, shouting slogans against Mubarak’s regime under the incredulous gaze of the locals. They walk fast and hand out leaflets. The size of the march is growing. It passes the two riot police vehicles. The cops just watch, unconcerned. It’s actually quite surprising to see a “walking” demonstration when meetings in Egypt are almost invariably cordoned off by police who keep demonstrators from moving.
Now they have started walking over a bridge crossing the railway line that separates the poor area of Bulaq from the posh one of Mohandessin. All of a sudden, as we reach the highest point on the bridge, we can see Mohandessin’s main drag, Arab League Street. It’s crowded as never before. At least 2,000 people are waiting for the arrival of the Bulaq march before they head to Tahrir Square. We can’t believe our eyes. The activists come up to Pauline. “We made it! Did you see? We made it!” It’s at this moment that I understand something is happening…
Pictures: Paulines Beugnies, French to English translation and editing: Gregory Dziedzic and Helen Southcott.