Mona Seif in Tahrir Square on 12 February (Matthew Cassel)
11 February 2011 will forever be an historic day for Egypt. It was then that weeks of protests around the country finally forced Hosni Mubarak, the US-backed president of the country for the past 30 years, to leave office. The protests first began on 25 January when activists in Cairo took to the streets and first occupied central Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square.
On 12 February, The Electronic Intifada’s Matthew Cassel spoke with 24-year-old blogger and activist Mona Seif (@monasosh on Twitter) about the revolution, how it began, and what it means for Egypt’s future.
MC: This is the first day in your life that you’ve woken up in Egypt without Hosni Mubarak as president of the country. How does that feel?
MS: Before all of this the first thing a girl would think of what is she going to wear, because, any girl I know at least, there is always this fear of facing the crowds in the streets because of sexual harassment and feeling alienated. And this is the first time that I woke up jumping out of bed rushing to the streets just wanting to see people and how they look after yesterday, and see everyone heading to Tahrir Square. I’ve been smiling to complete strangers and saying “hi.” This is something I never did before because I wouldn’t want to risk if they would reply in a friendly way or abusive way. I have been in love with everyone in the streets since yesterday. I’ve had complete strangers coming up to me and shaking my hand and telling me “this is the smile of Egypt,” and smiling with me.
This is the first time that I get the meaning of the terms that I would’ve thought cliche, as in people walking with pride … today, people are proud to be Egyptians and they are saying it out loud and they are happy to share it with everyone. It’s wonderful.
MC: If I told you last month that you would soon overthrow Hosni Mubarak would you have believed me?
MS: A month ago no, a week ago yes. Right after January 28th, and [especially] after the bloody Wednesday, the 2nd of February, I was absolutely sure we are taking it to the end and that he is going to step down sooner or later. I didn’t know it would be that soon, but I was sure it was going to happen. Really, a month ago, or anytime before, I would’ve never expected this to happen.
MC: So how did this all happen?
MS: With a Facebook call. Basically, the Facebook page for [infamous victim of police brutality] Khaled Said, “We are all Khaled Said,” was the first to send out the call publicly on the Internet. It said the 25th of January, which is supposed to be Police Day — Mubarak decided two years ago that date should be when we celebrate all the great achievements of the police for Egytpians. And since we all know that all the great achievements of the police for us are long lists of torture cases and brutality, the call was to turn this day into anger day where we express our anger at the corruption of the state and particularly address economic issues.
There was a call not just for one protest, but for different protests all over Egypt, and in each governorate there was a call for several protests. In Cairo alone, there were five announced different locations, and one discreetly arranged — this is the one I was in on 25th of January. They were all at one point planning to march and join together and move toward Tahrir Square.
So this is how it all started, and the call was [at first related to] the minimum wage, jobs for jobless, and the end of emergency law. Usually, until this moment, people would refrain from chanting against Mubarak or chanting against the whole regime. But suddenly we were 20,000 moving towards Tahrir Square [chanting against the regime] and we took over Tahrir Square, and I think this is the moment everyone realized this could be a lot bigger.
MC: So the chants transformed during the protest?
MS: Exactly, from just being for small demands to it’s all about the regime, let’s topple the regime and start afresh.
MC: Was there any leadership that decided this?
MS: No, not at all. It just happened spontaneously, and when we took over Tahrir Square and decided to stage a sit in there on the 25th, lots of people gathered to try and write a statement that represents the people in Tahrir. The statement had three demands: the first was for Mubarak for to step down, the second was for the cabinet to be dissolved and [the third was] for the parliament to [also] be dissolved. These were the only three demands in the statement, And the end of the statement was [signed], “long live the Egyptian revolution.” And we said it out on the microphone and absolutely everyone in Tahrir Square that night agreed on it.
And I remember that we had no communication back then — they shut down all the telephone calls and internet, so I had to run out of Tahrir Square and go out where I have access to the internet to send this to our friends and my brother so they could send it out. Everyone who was out of Tahrir Square called this madness, and I understand this. You had to be inside Tahrir among those people to realize how, at this moment, everyone thought this was possible, that we could actually ask for Mubarak to step down and escalate things to that extent.
But when I sent it out to my brother and friends outside they thought we were mad. My brother was telling me, “I tried to find a way to translate this into English and sending it out without letting people think this is over-ambitious.”
MC: Without sounding crazy?
MS: Exactly. But you had to be there to understand that it wasn’t crazy, it was really natural for these demands to come out of these people.
MC: So, that day was the first time you realized that demanding Mubarak’s ouster was actually a possibility?
MS: Yes, and this is a personal perception because I know that a lot of people — it wasn’t just [the] Khaled Said [Facebook group], the call for the protest was actually organized by all the groups working on the ground - I’m sure a lot of them really believed it could be a revolution. But for others like me who usually participate in any protest in the street, we thought it was just another protest but with bigger numbers. But when we arrived at Tahrir, we realized that this could be a lot bigger.
MC: Who was Khaled Said?
MS: Khaled Said was a young man in Alexandria, where last year he was brutally beaten to death by two plainclothes policemen in public. And his case in particular, I’ve known a lot about torture cases and of people who died in [interrogations], but his case in particular transformed the political scene and especially the involvement of the young generation in protest.
MS: First of all, there was visual evidence as in photos in which his face was completely bashed. And all of the other stories had either political activists behind them, or even criminals behind them who were tortured which is also not acceptable. But his story was really talking to the humane side in everyone. He had nothing, he was not involved in any activity, he was at an Internet cafe and was asked for his ID. So, I think it made people realize that this could happen really to anyone. People saying you should avoid getting into political scenes or events to avoid getting harassed by the police, this is not true. You can be walking in the streets and you end up dying for no reason whatsoever.
And it just changed the whole political scene. I have seen so many people who would never go out in the protest join into the Khaled Said movement, especially since the administrator of the Khaled Said Facebook page was not politically motivated … he was always looking for ways of expressing like anger and grief and opposing what’s happening, but not in our usual way.
MC: Are you talking about Google executive Wael Ghonim?
MS: Yes, it turned out to be Wael Ghonim, but until then he was anonymous. Basically, he would call out for mourning [vigils] all along the nile and the sea; silent protests. He changed the scene of protests and political demonstrations that enabled a lot of people who were originally afraid of this to join.
MC: Can he be seen as a leader? Or, does this revolution still not have any individual leaders?
MS: Personally, I don’t think this revolution has any leaders. And I think this is one of its big strengths. It started on Facebook and Twitter, but really after January 25th it was a street revolution. They [the government] could’ve shut down any communication, which they did, and it would’ve still continued. At one point when the regime was struggling to stop [the uprising] and they went down and cracked down on all of the people who usually help mobilize such movements. They cracked down on journalists and bloggers and human rights defenders, and still the movement went on. There was no leader, you could shut us all down and it would still go on. This is one of its strong points.
When Wael Ghonim appeared [on Egyptian television on 7 February after being detained for 12 days in prison without anyone knowing of his whereabouts] and he talked, he was a perfect — maybe not a leader but a spokesman for the people, because first of all you could see how genuine he is, and he wasn’t spoiled by politics at all. He spoke to the heart of everyone sitting at home condemning people at Tahrir Square, he spoke to everyone who lost someone at Tahrir Square, so he was a perfect representative of what this revolution is about.
MC: Could you tell me about some moments over the past few weeks that really affected you most?
MS: One moment was bloody Wednesday, the 2nd of February, one day after speech after the speech of Mubarak when a lot of the public opinion turned against us because he came out and he promised that he’s not going to run for elections again. And I had a lot of calls, sympathetic ones, that said you got us here you got him to make all these concessions, it’s enough, leave. And this night I found myself in Tahrir Square with people calling to tell us leave, while at the same time there was a battle going on. It was a war zone.
MC: Can you describe that battle?
MS: Mubarak and his people released thugs on demonstrators in Tahrir pretending to be pro-Mubarak, but when we caught a lot of them they were either plainclothes police and we had their IDs, or they were jobless people who were promised — and we have interviews with them — that were promised either money or jobs. And basically they came at us with everything, with rocks, glass, molotov cocktails, and this was scary, but we could handle it until near dawn when they came at us with rifles, live ammunition.
It wasn’t scary as in I was scared for myself, because I was actually really safe. We had a lot of people at the frontline next to the Egyptian museum facing the thugs. But it was an extremely intense moment where it made me fully determined to stick it till the end here in Tahrir Square because these are the kinds of people you want to be with. They were there, they were young men and old men, and they were rushing in the hundreds against guns. They had nothing, no weapons, because they truly believed it was for the right cause. And I remember people calling me from outside telling me to leave and I was screaming at the phone telling them I’m seeing kids dying in front of me right now. So, this was a turning point for me because it made me really more determined and that I’m on the right side of the battle. Whenever people told me after it’s not going to work, I told them it will work because I’ve seen how far people are willing to go to get Mubarak and the regime down.
What also impressed me that day is that when they caught one of the thugs despite them seeing their own people falling, they still insisted on it being peaceful. And I couldn’t believe that, I would’ve killed that guy if I caught him from my anger; I couldn’t believe the self-restraint these people had to keep it peaceful to the end.
MC: Do you call recent events and this movement for change in Egypt a revolution?
MS: It’s absolutely the Egyptian revolution. And it’s not over. There is still a long way to go to actually work on the ground and for different political parties to start working and having candidates and for proper elections. The [demands] that people died for and the thing that people stayed out in the street for for 18 days have been met. So it is a revolution and we won … now is the time for political parties and the opposition to really work and do their job during this transition period.
MC: Tahrir and the society that existed in that space was very diverse and democratic in many ways. I was surprised by how everyone was supporting each other. Do you think that whatever system of government comes next in Egypt could reflect the one that existed at Tahrir Square?
MS: I think that it could, but it needs work. Because at the end of the day you didn’t have everyone at Tahrir, and not everyone experienced this solidarity and this sense of belonging that was there. But I think that what Tahrir managed to do is provide a solid ground for people to actually work on spreading this spirit all over Egypt.Â And it’s not just Tahrir, I’ve talked to friends from Alexandria, and they’ve all sensed the same. …Â
It’s a solid [base], but people need to work on it. And from what I’m seeing so far, people are going to work on it. People are cleaning Tahrir Square right now and they’re doing it with passion. Yesterday, on the underground [subway] I found a random guy telling people, “this is our turn, now we shouldn’t accept any bribery.” We should not be silent and talk loudly if someone is trying to do anything corrupt or asking for bribery or taking our rights. People are recognizing that this is just the beginning and each one in his own spot has to work on making the values developed in Tahrir a standard for all of Egypt.Â
Matthew Cassel is based in Beirut, Lebanon and is Assistant Editor of The Electronic Intifada. His website is justimage.org.