Today brought the first step toward sweeping reforms in the government and policies of Egypt with the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who ruled for 30 years under emergency law. Participation of young, smart, internet-savvy people galvanized this movement. They have been dubbed the Facebook generation, and while the values of social networking media have often been debated, their clever call through such media to fellow youth and other followers resulted in the initial victory of this movement. As people fill Tahrir Square tonight for the first time in the last two and a half weeks in celebration instead of protest, we reflect on the power of the people to demand change and shift regimes, and consider what this all means for the region and our work at Karama.
The last month has been largely unprecedented and unpredictable for the region. Tensions that have been brewing for years between standing governments and their oppositions in the Middle East and North Africa have come to fruition in the form of popular protests. The people who have assembled have demanded sweeping reforms that address high unemployment, rising prices, and further economic, social, and legal consequences of restrictive rule, often times by parties accused of corruption and power-hoarding. Many pinpoint the start of this cross-regional uprising to the situation in Tunisia, where a sudden wave of street protests dubbed the Jasmine Protests ousted the authoritarian president in January after 23 years of rule. The president left the country on January 14, but protests against the old ruling party continued until, at the end of the month, the interim government dismissed nearly all of its cabinet ministers.
This wave of protests against Tunisia’s repressive regime ignited similar situations in Yemen, where tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets during the opposition-led “Day of Rage,” a day after the President Ali Abdullah Saleh offered to step down in 2013; in Jordan, where protests have continued for three weeks and resulted in the King’s dismissal of the cabinet and appointment of a new Prime Minister; and finally, in Egypt, where protests demanding President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation grew larger and larger and last week, even turned deadly.
Today, Egypt followed in the footsteps of Tunisia in celebrating a groundbreaking victory. After 30 years of rule, Hosni Mubarak has stepped down from his post as president and handed power over to the army. We remain unsure of what this means, but have seen the army and people come together over the past two and a half weeks in a manner that shows that the army understands its role to be with the people. We hope that in this period of transition, this attitude remains. Elections may be expedited, which will hopefully yield a new, democratically elected leader who can begin to effect the policy and legal reforms that the people in the square and those who support and understand their pleas are desperate to see.
As we are a regional organization, we are watching each country closely. The will of the people is strong, but there are many complexities at work, years of decisions that have led up to the development of a now vocal and determined opposition. The regional landscape continues to change each day, and it is anyone’s guess exactly how these events will unfold.
Over the past 18 days, Karama and its staff in Egypt have been particularly affected by the situation in Cairo, where our organization is registered and headquartered. While everyone is safe at home, watching closely on the news the events of each passing day and waiting anxiously for a clear sign of what is to come, it has been a very tense and unpredictable period. Cairo has always been a safe and peaceful city, and more than anything, the violence, looting, and arson that has occurred amidst the protests, were shocking. But the end of this week has restored the faith in peaceful protest and civility as core tools that can be used to gain strength and progress toward victory.
Starting Friday, January 28, Karama closed its office and staff remained at home. This was the first major day of protests, when many of us heard and witnessed thousands of protesters push past police transports, throw back tear gas and stun grenades, and march toward Tahrir Square downtown. This was also the first day we lost access to primary communications media, including Internet and mobile phone service. The home environment quickly became claustrophobic in the absence of these ties to each other and to contacts around the globe, and the television quickly became our primary outlet for news.
By night, a makeshift “neighborhood watch,” composed of men armed with whatever implements they could find formed in many areas around Cairo to prevent the passage of looters or other criminals. By Sunday, fighter jets began to pass over us in cycles across the sky. Curfews were set on the first day and remain up to this point. The crowds have grown larger each day, and reports from the Square shared moments of unity and equality between men and women, an image of which we are proud.
Last week, a pro-Mubarak group came into the Square and the situation quickly turned violent. Hundreds were injured in the resulting melees and media retreated after threats of violence. Over the last few days, the situation has been much calmer, with no further reports of violence. By the middle of last week, we also regained full access to the Internet and mobile phone service, and were able to connect again to international friends, family, and colleagues.
Early this week, protesters in the square met with Google executive Wael Ghonim who spoke to the crowd one day after he was released from government detention, which he said left him blindfolded and imprisoned for 12 days. Ghonim is one of a handful of people who were reported missing over the course of the last three weeks and was instrumental in bringing together Egyptians on January 25. Back in Tahrir, he encouraged people to continue demanding real change, including the resignation of the President, who finally, early this evening, decided to stand down. Omar Suleiman relayed this message, reportedly after Mubarak had already left Cairo.
The next few weeks will tell a new story and began the transitional phase for Egypt. We hope to open the office again this week and imagine many of our partners will do the same. There were several programs planned to take place in Cairo during the first half of February that we will of course reschedule as soon as some stability and clarity as to Egypt’s future is shared.
Along with our pride in the power of the people, we also wish to commend the ongoing work of our partners and staff in Jordan, who successfully launched a new joint initiative in Amman during the first weekend of protests. Filling in the void caused by missing staff and partners from Egypt, Jordanian staff and partners, including the National Council for Family Affairs and the Swedish Institute of Alexandria, successfully launched the Think Tank for Arab Women, which will work to influence national policies related to women’s empowerment and gender equality in the Arab region primarily through research and resource development. Over three days, 33 female academics and leaders of non-governmental women’s organizations from 14 countries shared up-to-the-minute presentations on the situation for women in countries affected by armed conflict, including Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. The impact of war on women will be a multi-year project that aims to develop evidence as to the consequences of conflict on women’s education, economic situation, health, social and cultural life, political participation, and legal rights.
During the last three weeks, Karama Founder Hibaaq Osman relied on an alternative communications outlet to continue reflecting not just on the news aspect of the situation in Egypt, but also offering the gender angle. Her most recent blog post comments on the role of women in times of revolution and the images of equality that have characterized the protests. Please find this and other posts at her blog at:
As the situation for our partners across the region and our staff and partners in Egypt becomes clearer, we hope to update you on our plans. Until then, we encourage you to be in touch through the website, blog, and Twitter feed.
Thank you for your continued support,
The Karama Team
Image courtesy of Flickr user sierragoddess under a Creative Commons license.