Cairo: Water Cannons and Wikileaks

My Egyptian dad called, late one night from our home in Alabama, with an urgent question: “What is Twitter?” It was all over the breaking news: the mass protests that may end Mubarak’s 30-year rule, organized largely on Facebook and Twitter.

At 72, my dad’s never used a social-networking site. But he’s excited about the “Twitter Revolution” he’s been hearing about on the news. “I’m with the people,” he told me on the phone. He saw the people, on CNN, crossing a Nile bridge and withstanding water cannons launched by Egyptian riot police last week.

It reminds my dad of the news photos he saw from the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, ten years before he moved there for his dream job. He’d snuck out the back door of the Nasser regime, on a tourist visa to Lebanon, then immigrated to the US.

My dad remembers being excited about Nasser’s revolution as a child. At school, he and his friends would chant “down with the king!” Farouk I, the last king of Egypt, who was ousted by an army coup lead by Nasser in 1952.

That was the last of my dad’s political activism. After leaving Alexandria in the sixties, he’s watched Egyptian politics from abroad: Nasser’s death; Sadat’s assassination; today’s “million man march” on Mubarak’s presidential palace.

From the American vantage, my dad is rooting for Mohamed ElBaradei: the secular diplomat who has become a spokesperson for the anti-Mubarak protesters and offered to lead a transitional government until democratic elections can take place. But my dad’s Egyptian friends—mostly Coptic Christians—aren’t so eager to have Mubarak ousted. “The devil you know,” some say, “is better than the devil you don’t know.” They’re afraid democratic elections in Egypt would lead to Islamist rule.

Pope Shenouda, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, has advised Christians not to participate in the anti-government demonstrations. But many Coptic youth have taken to the streets, with thousands of other twenty-somethings exasperated with socio-economic problems in Egypt.

My Coptic cousins in Cairo have stayed home. Sara’s worried that the France Telecom office where she works will close down. Heidi’s been studying hard for medical school exams. When I talked to them on Sunday, they told me about all the looters on the streets—prisoners who’ve broken out in the chaos of last week’s protests. They told me about the civilian men guarding their building, with knives, or whatever else they can use to protect their families. They’re relieved that the army has gotten involved.

But it’s unclear what the Egyptian army’s role will be in the demonstrations to come, as the media-coined “Twitter Revolution” marches on.

Though the Egyptian government blocked the internet and disabled text messaging, activists are getting the word out, thanks to a Google service that lets you tweet by voicemail. Here are a few recent tweets, rallying for today’s “million man march” on Cairo:

“Tomorrow we meet 9am in Tahrir. We will march on Mubarak’s presidential palace in Heliopolis. Down with the dictator.”

“we know that our coward president is in SharmElSheikh, but we r marching tomorrow to the pres.palace”

“Tahrir Square is breathing revolution. More than 250 thousand people are said to be there now, at 1.30am local time”

“I pray God Sends mercy upon the Millions tomorrow, and guides their footsteps and chants to freedom.”

And here are a few chants to freedom from Louis Farrakhan’s speech at the Million Man March on Washington—the largest demonstration ever in the U.S. capitol, in 1995:

“Here’s the carcass, the remains of a once-mighty people, dry bones in the valley, a people slain from the foundation of the world. But God hath sent the winds to blow on the bones. One of those winds is named Gingrich, and the companion wind is named Dole. And the other is called Supreme Court decisions. The other is fratricidal conflict, drugs and dope and violence and crime. But we’ve had enough now. This is why you’re in Washington today.”

“Well, some of us are here because it’s history-making. Some of us are here because it’s a march through which we can express anger and rage with America for what she has and is doing to us. So we’re here for many reasons. But the basic reason that this was called was for atonement and reconciliation.”

“And if God were to answer us today, He would say to black people, ‘Yes, I allowed this to happen, and I know you suffered.’ But Martin King, my servant, said undeserved suffering is redemptive.”

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.