Imagine: An Egyptian who's lived in Lexington, Ky.,for the last fifteen years, begins six
weeks of training for his new job in Boston, and before there is time for names and faces to solidify in his mind, revolution is about to break out in his home country. He's a young man, 33, and the frenzied chatter of Egyptian youth on Facebook builds to a crescendo he knows has been a long time coming. On Friday, they will take the streets chanting “The people want to bring down the establishment!” echoing their Tunisian neighbors, and Sherif Elshayeb will not be among them. He's spent the past seven years or so preaching of freedom and justice and real democracy in Egypt, but when it really counts, Sherif is in the midst of his very own monumental transition in the unforgiving Boston winter rather than the Cairo sun. What's a patriot to do? His family and friends—and his new boss—have opined that staying put is probably the best route. His sister has threatened never to forgive him if her boys grow up without an uncle. Out in the Boston harbor, though, the current pulls strongly toward Cairo...
Imagine this, too: Throngs of people have gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square. They sing old revolution songs. They huddle around tanks. They cordon off entrances to protect the masses from hired thugs. Somewhere within—a place Sherif now finds himself shoulder-to-shoulder with throbbing millions—Christians gather together to pray. Muslims nearby encircle them, hold hands to form a linked human barrier against the undulating current of passersby so the prayers of the faithful will ascend unmolested. When the vigil is finished, the favor is returned.
Sherif's painting of the revolution is a pretty one, bordering on idyllic, but amid the narratives of blood and chaos and abuse pouring out of the region and into the American mainstream, this story may stand as one of millions of narratives attesting to the other, far brighter, side of the human spirit. It's a story that should appeal to the best in the American spirit, too—a real, bona fide rebellion against tyranny contrasted against the long-after-the-fact and comfortable jingoism of the modern McPatriot.
Back in Boston—not too far from Paul Revere's famous (if mythical) ride—Sherif weighed his options. Management was willing to allow him leave, but he was informed if he got stuck in Egypt, the job wouldn't wait for him. Rallies and protests had been going on periodically for years, and many thought the rally on January 25th was going to be as big or bigger than “big ones” from the past. Sherif, eventually relaying these details from Egypt, said “There was something in the background. You could feel it but not describe it.” On Facebook and Twitter, messages were flying, and perhaps the “something different” Sherif sensed was the inspiration traveling the wind from Tunisia; perhaps it was Asmaa Mahfouz, an Egyptian woman who took her message to YouTube, announcing the women would take the streets and challenging the true manhood of the husbands and brothers and fathers who would not; perhaps it was the searing image of Khalid Saeed, a young man beaten to death by Egyptian police, whose postmortem, disfigured visage traveling the Internet may have pushed Egyptian rage to the point it boiled over.
“We are all Khalid Saeed” became a mantra of the revolution, phrasing reminiscent of a Parisian woman's in the immediate wake of September 11th; she looked into a news camera that day and announced, “We are all Americans.” Fast forward beyond February 11, 2011, and, as Sherif's and others' Facebook profile image would later indicate, the refrain became “We are all Libyans.”
Via the new media, via tools not well known or understood by police, calls already were going out for a “Friday of Anger.” The rallies of Tuesday the 25th led to Egyptian police forces cutting people down in the streets, just one of a series of abuses twisted, Sherif says, by a government-run media reporting it was protesters, not the police, who set cars and prisons ablaze, who released prisoners into the streets. That Friday of Anger might have been just another rally, but the final push to the streets, according to Sherif and numerous other sources, was the government's shutting down of the Internet. Without the quiet luxury of gadget-supported sideline cheer leading, the people were forced to transition their digital voices back to analog voices in the streets.
“It was nothing short of phenomenal,” Sherif said. “Millions in every street in the country. Literally every street. It lasted the entire day. For the first time in the streets of Egypt tear gas was fired this intensely. Water cannons were nonstop. Close to midnight, some military vehicles started appearing in the streets of Cairo, and the people received the armed forces like heroes. This was a clear sign the people had prevailed.”
All this, of course, Sherif learned safely in America. “Every bit of news that happened and I wasn’t a part of killed me,” he said. By the 26th, he'd made his choice. It took a week to book a flight, a week during which Sherif fielded pleading text messages and emails from friends and relatives. At the airport in Cairo, his mother, brother and niece greeted him. He dropped off his luggage at the family home and took to the streets. By Friday the 11th, Sherif found himself among the multitudes outside the presidential palace of Hosni Mubarak, whose previous weak concessions—concessions that didn't involve him relinquishing power, concessions that echoed American punditry fears of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sherif says has been a divisive and manipulative Mubarak standard for years—invited derision from a crowd that accused the regime of trying to “steal the revolution.”
“There was always fear,” said Sherif, “especially for the people around you and for those you convinced to come out with you. You never knew what might happen. All it took was someone getting provoked and with that many people anything can happen. There was also a lot of news that hired ex-cons and hired thugs were roaming the streets.”
And that at least jives with the narratives piling up in media across America: uncertainty, fear, chaos, an atmosphere heavy and nearly bursting with potential violence. That Egypt, however, is an Egypt Sherif insists is created by a police force intent on tarnishing a peaceful movement. His Egypt, populated by a people whose spirits remain high in the direst of circumstances, is more like this:
“No particular group tried to claim the revolution,” he said. “It was a nation inside a nation. I met some of the most beautiful people I've ever seen in my life. Everywhere you looked people were doing something beautiful. All over the city of Cairo, boys and girls were taking back their country, taking control of their own lives. With their bodies they formed walls around the National Museum to protect it from thugs. Neighborhood watches were organized. People came to Tahrir Square with brooms to clean up after themselves. They sang and painted fences and sidewalks. College professors collected trash. Bands played old patriotic songs set to electric guitars and drums, sang them to the poets and songwriters of generations past. People showed their revolution-inspired artwork to each other. They made makeshift hospitals and tended to the people. Fear only existed when you were preparing to go out and protest. Once you got there, there was no place for it.”
The people also felt the strong winds of change blowing throughout the region. Once Mubarak stepped down, rallies were organized in support of the Libyan people, and “dozens” of Egyptian medics were dispatched to help in person.
“How we all knew we were changing the landscape of history,” said Sherif. “How we felt that we could change the world. How we knew that what we were doing was being heard all over the Middle East and the world. How we gave the world a recipe for how to protest peacefully against the most oppressive regimes and win. That made it that much easier to control our fear.”
Back in Kentucky, Sherif returns to building a new life as a new dawn breaks over Cairo. He's still got his job. His nephews still have an uncle. Still humble, he cautions against overselling his role in it. He notes the people who lost their lives, the people who are still there trying to recreate a nation as he returns to his somewhat luxurious responsibilities Stateside. “I want to honor the people,” he said, “because it’s not the last wave that breaks the dam. Every wave breaks the dam.”