I had the privilege of being in Tahrir Square during much of the popular uprising that toppled Mubarak’s regime. I witnessed the crowds of protestors grow larger and stronger, and more diverse each day as the people refused to give up and go home.
For me, it was incredibly moving to be there and to experience the nonviolent strength, courage and determination of the Egyptian people.
I was surprised to later read what many of the western pundits were writing at the time: that the protests were meant to challenge a lack of basic amenities, from affordable food to a decent standard of living. Indeed these are definitely pressing issues facing Egypt, but not a single person I spoke with in Tahrir Square mentioned these issues when I asked them why they were demonstrating.
The uprising was not about food or the cost of living. It is a much bigger issue. It is about pride, dignity and empowerment. Every person I spoke with — young, old, men and women — resonated with the same message. It is about political freedom and pride in who you are and your country.
“We are important but Mubarak makes us feel small,” explained Mahmoud Fakhr, a university student who was camping-out at Tahrir Square. “No one respects us because we must live in fear and can’t show our opinions. We want our freedom. We want democracy.”
The theme of pride was not just rhetoric. Their pride in their nation and their patriotism was demonstrated in their every action. The protestors had garbage collection teams who made sure the square was kept clean. Young men who hauled around large bags collecting garbage told me that it was their country, their future, and they must care for it.
When the Egyptian museum was broken into, the protestors formed a human chain around it to ensure nothing more could be stolen. “It’s our culture,” they told me with as much passion as they told me “Mubarak must leave”.
Nada, a 21-year-old wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt and protesting alongside her father told me, “I am proud to be an Egyptian today. For the first time in my life, I am excited for the future.”
Today, as the Egyptian people — and indeed the world — look ahead at the long and complicated road to democracy, I remain optimistic and inspired by the pride, unity and patriotism I witnessed in Tahrir Square and the future possibilities.