By Kelly Jean Cogswell
By the end of it, they were all in Tahrir Square - young kids hoisted onto the shoulders of their parents, old men arguing in groups, women and girls screaming at the top of their lungs. Even early on, soccer rowdies paired with the Muslim Brotherhood youth to beat back the cops, and at prayer, Muslims were ringed by Christians protecting them vigilantly from Mubarak’s thugs. Bean-eaters and steak-eaters sponged the blood from each other’s broken heads. We were there, too, lesbians, gay men, the transgendered, indistinguishably playing our part.
I got choked up watching, and if I were the believing kind, I’d get down on my knees and pray for this moment of grace to endure long past the first free election, and for Egyptians to figure out how to sustain that good will through the tough times of building a democratic state.
Even women passed through the crowd unmolested, scarves or not, because for a moment, the people in the crowd were all sisters and brothers united by a common desire not just for jobs, and bread, but freedom. You can’t write this stuff. You’d have to be pretty creative even to dream it. For too long Egyptians seemed resigned to a humiliating image as a nation full of long-suffering sheep that could be moved only by religious extremism. Now, they are courageous individuals, activists, artists, the new face of democracy itself.
I still can’t grasp the enormity of it. A thirty year dictatorship gone in a couple of weeks. And not by a military coup, or a group of revolutionaries (as we used to understand them) laboring for years in dark cellars, and dreaming of the moment they would rescue their longsuffering land, and as repositories of wisdom, claim the head of it.
No, the informal network of young Egyptians that seem to have sparked things off, sharing ideas and techniques, were led only by disgust at the tyranny and corruption, a desire for real freedom, and a willingness to learn from other nonviolent youth movements like that in Tunisia. If you were compiling dossiers on names that repeatedly came up among organizers, you’d have thick folders on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi more often than other Egyptian activists. Power holds little attraction for actual movement figures like Google executive Wael Ghonim who is content to yield to politicians now that Mubarak is gone.
Which doesn't mean he won't be involved. As somebody in the crowd at Tahrir Square noted wryly, “Now, we know our way here.” Translated, it means, “We’ll be back if the army refuses to relinquish power. If they refuse to lift the perpetual state of emergency. If the cops continue to torture. If they try to shut our mouths. If politicians steal, lie, abuse, or separate us, we’ll be back.”
The revolution must give queers confidence, too. It’s been ten years since the Mubarak regime launched an antigay campaign with the Queen’s Boat crackdown that landed fifty-two men in jail. They were subjected not only to police abuse and torture, but a media circus of a trial geared to distract Egyptians from grinding poverty, and establish the regime as defenders of Islamic morality instead of the Muslim Brotherhood. Twenty-three of the defendants were eventually sentenced to prison with hard labor, while the others were acquitted. Periodic crackdowns followed.
The reformed, secular state that protesters demanded would mean police will have less occasion to arrest LGBT people for offending public morality, the primary charge leveled against us in Egypt, a country without any specifically antigay laws. And with freedom of speech and of assembly, and a truly independent press, Egyptian queers will have the tools to fight homophobia openly. It will also be easier in the new Egyptian society where young people favor more tolerance for everyone.
Even if some old timer politician makes an effort to scapegoat queers as a distraction for their incompetence, and they probably will, it’s less likely the ruse will continue to work on a crowd that’s developed a taste for real change. And that gay man, or dyke, or transgendered person can always retort, “I was there, too, in Tahrir Square. I’m an Egyptian just like you. Are we equal or not?”
Reinventing the idea of citizenship is one of the huge accomplishments of the youth organizers. “This is your country; a government official is your employee who gets his salary from your tax money, and you have your rights.” That entitlement is why people took to the streets, and stayed to clean up Tahrir Square after each day of protests.
Egypt belongs to them, now. They hold it in trust and guard their new democracy like a child. You can see pride and hope shimmering from faces in photos, from the TV screen, on YouTube. It is possible to change the world. The clean stones bear witness.