Telling the Story of the Protests in Cairo
Anna Day interviewed by Roxanne Krystalli
Anna Day lives in Beersheba, Israel where she is studying towards her Masters in Politics of Conflict at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In the spring of 2009, Anna studied abroad at the American University in Cairo. With the news of the current protests in Cairo, she decided that she had to go back.
A passionate advocate for human rights and social justice causes, Anna shares her account of the Cairo protests with a true sense of the responsibility she carries as a witness to the changes taking place in Egypt.
Roxanne Krystalli: How did you decide to head from Beersheba, Israel to Cairo to attend these protests?
Anna Day: After watching the Tunisian revolution, I was very disappointed that I was not in Tunisia. I had been reading online activist blogs announcing that there were going to be protests at some point between January 20th and 25th in Egypt. After living in Egypt in 2009, I realized that this would be a major departure from what seemed to be the apathy and complete disenfranchisement of many of the Egyptian people.
I had to get there because my heart is with the Egyptian people. So, I flew down there on Monday, January 24th.
RK: You first experienced Cairo in a different context: As an American woman studying abroad – as a foreigner. Did you see a shift in the ways you were perceived and treated now?
AD: As a study-abroad student, I was very removed from Egyptian society. The semester that I began studying at the American University in Cairo, they moved the campus to an area about an hour outside of downtown Cairo. It is a gentrified area with subdivisions and suburban homes for very wealthy Egyptians. The Egyptians that I had met were the Egyptian elite. I did not feel that I really got in touch with Egyptian people.
This time I was able to meet Egyptians from all different classes and backgrounds. Everyone wanted to tell me exactly why they were out. That is what I was really interested in: why they were out, what they cared about, and how politics was affecting their lives.
RK: What was the most common grievance these Egyptians raised? Was there a motif in the stories you were hearing?
AD: The big concepts that they brought up were corruption, unemployment and police brutality. But, I think the most interesting thing that kept coming up was that no one could afford to get married! Men were saying, “I cannot even afford to get my own flat – I cannot afford to get married and start a family.” Women were saying, “my family cannot afford to get me married” or “no man can afford me.”
RK: Speaking of women, many analysts have felt it is important to highlight the role of women. Some have said they do not want this to be remembered as a “men’s revolution.” What were your thoughts on the gender element in the protest?
AD: In a lot of ways, to a Western eye, it would have not looked like women were highly represented at the protest. However, living in Egypt and understanding it is a closed society in which women are in the domestic sphere, the number of women I saw at the protest was unexpected.
In a lot of social movements, they talk about how the role of women in the movements reflects their role in society. I did see that to some degree—there were women who were playing supporting roles: They were bringing Pepsi to curb the effects of tear gas and helping people to safety. Women were not the ones throwing stones in the front lines.
But there were also moments I thought were amazing. I saw women leading the chants and men responding to them. I had never seen anything like that in Egyptian society.
There were also moments where I saw a woman walk with the Egyptian flag in front of the line, right towards the police. Everyone thought they wouldn’t shoot at her—even though they actually did end up shooting at her. I know there were circumstances where women were going to the front because they thought the police wouldn’t be as brutal towards women.
RK: Bearing witness to momentous events comes with a responsibility to tell their story. That is what you are doing and it is a huge service. Of all the stories that you observed and heard, is there one that “bubbles over” and you feel needs to be told? Or an image that you would identify as particularly iconic out of your experience?
AD: One thing I would like to mention is that I met with many members of the Wafd party. I noticed they were the only political party that was present from the beginning of the protest. Their flag is a green flag that has a crescent and a cross and reads “Religion is for God, nation is for all people.” It is a national unity party that is very historical, dating back to 1919 when Egypt was trying to push the British out.
I learned that there were orders from this party to attend the protests on Anger Friday and serve as a calming force. These men were out with their party cards, proud to be representing a national unity party that is secular, and they were going up to men telling them to calm down when they were throwing out stones and breaking out sidewalks.
RK: Protecting the message.
AD: Exactly – protecting the message. This man kept on saying that he wanted us to know this is a non-violent protest of the people. What was more interesting was that young men, who were dealing with crazy situations (police brutality, tear gas being shot in their faces), were listening to the Wafd party members when they said “Please, do this for the people of Egypt. You need to be calm, you need to be non-violent.” These young men, who had all this energy, were responding to that message with “Good point” and then would put down the rocks. It was exciting to see a historical party play such an important role.
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