Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous speaks with the acclaimed Egyptian writer and political commentator Ahdaf Soueif. “They told us we were divided. They told us we’re extreme. They told us we’re ignorant,” says Soueif, surrounded by demonstrators. “But here we are, and we’re great.”
AHDAF SOUEIF: I’m Ahdaf Soueif, and I’m a writer. And I’m in Tahrir Square in the middle of the Egyptian revolution. And you can see how amazing it is and what a wonderful atmosphere we have here. We have hundreds of thousands of people. This has now been going on for more than 10 days. The government wagers that it will lose momentum. It is very clearly not losing momentum.
I think what has happened here is that people have — they’ve found their voice, and they’ve found their personality. In other words, there is a definite sense that this regime had been not only robbing people of their country, but had been alienating people from their own personalities. And now they have found it. And you see people saying, “They told us we were divided. They told us we’re extreme. They told us we’re ignorant. But here we are, and we’re great.” And this is why this is just not going to go away.
This is a civil space which has become a completely — I don’t know — a completely open, democratic forum. Every idea, every shade of political opinion, everybody’s here. And the very important thing, particularly for Democracy Now! to know, is that this is not just about the people in Tahrir, this is about the people of Egypt, because in Alexandria, Alexandria has had proportionally more people out on the streets than Cairo. In Alexandria, the chant two days ago was [in Arabic]. It means “Legitimacy will come from Tahrir.” They’ve sent delegations. Suez is here. Aswan is here. Many, many cities and towns of Egypt are here saying, “Decisions will be made in Tahrir.” In other words, this is true representation on the ground.
And I think that here in Egypt today, we are engaged in an experiment, which is benign, which is civil, which is modern, which is young, which is optimistic, which is inclusive, and which will — which will be a wonderful model for the world. And I think we are doing something that is good for the entire world, not just for us Egyptians.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: A lot of barriers seem to have been broken down here: gender barriers, religious barriers, class barriers. It seems like a different Egypt in here than on the other streets of Cairo.
AHDAF SOUEIF: You know, this is intense, but this is how Egypt used to be before the 30 or even 40 years of this kind of divisive regime. Egypt has always been inclusive. And I won’t even say tolerant, because tolerance assumes there’s something to be tolerated. No, Egypt is naturally diverse and celebrates its diversity. And this is what we have here today. This morning, a Christian mass was said, Muslim prayers were prayed. Prayers for the dead for both Christians and Muslims were said, and the whole square was here. We are here — women, men, young people, old people, kids, every shade of political opinion, every age, and people from every location and professions. There are people here who would personally not gain, you know, by having a revolution, but they’re here because it’s good for the country. And we want to live in an Egypt which is inclusive and which is democratic and which is real and which is creative and which is run for the benefit of its citizens and where everybody has a chance and everybody can be as good as they want to be.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And behind me there’s a crowd of women and girls chanting. What has been the role of women in this movement?
AHDAF SOUEIF: This movement does not see gender as an issue. Women are citizens, just like men are. And a lot of girls, a lot of young women will tell you that, for the first time in years, they feel that they are not objectified as sexual objects in this space. This is the first time in a very long time that young women have been in the streets without any danger of harassment.
And what is happening is that our young men, who have a certain amount of machismo — and of course young men have to have machismo — their machismo is now channeled in the right direction: they are here to regain their country, and they’re here to protect anybody who is weaker. And you see them. You see them sweeping the streets. You see them handing out food and water. You see them forming human chains to block the militias of thugs that our government is turning loose on us. And so, the young men have found a way to express their manhood, which is benign, and we are safe here.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: It’s been 12 days now. Hosni Mubarak still does not look like he’s leaving office. He hasn’t left office. Do you think he’s getting the message?
AHDAF SOUEIF: I think that the people around him and I think that the world is getting the message. He will have to go. It’s a question of time. Now, obviously, he and his regime — because it’s not just him, it’s the whole regime surrounding him — they’ve made it clear that they would rather burn up this country than leave. I mean, the things that they have thrown at us here — I mean, not just sending the militias to beat, but removing security from the streets, opening the prisons and turning loose all the violent criminals, you know, maligning us to the media of the world. You know, just anything and everything, they will destroy it rather than leave. But I think that with the right message from the world and with the determination of the people here and in the other cities of Egypt, they will have no choice: they have to go.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what is your assessment of the role of the United States in all of this?
AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, I think the United States doesn’t quite know what it’s doing. They’ve said one thing, then they’ve said another. I think that the United States should really put its money where its mouth is. If this were Iran, there would be no doubt what would happen. But because this regime has been friendly to them, because this regime has been doing the dirty work for the American administration vis-à-vis Israel, vis-à-vis the war on terror, vis-à-vis rendition — you know, bringing people to be tortured here in our country — this regime has done this dirty work.
I think that really it is time for America to say, “OK, hands off. We will let the Egyptian people run their country the way they want. And then we will see how we can establish a friendly relationship on a new basis.” And that would be not only the decent, but it would be the realpolitik wise thing to do, really. Even if what the United States administration is primarily concerned about is Israel, it is still in their interests to let this movement run its course and to let Egypt be governed by the Egyptian people for the Egyptian people. And we will be able to make friends on a reasonable basis with people around us.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And there seems to be more creative expressions of protest. Every day I come here, more creative forms of protest. There’s some street theater, street arts. What do you think of that?
AHDAF SOUEIF: I’m telling you, people have found themselves. They’ve found their personality. They’ve found their voice. They’ve found their creativity. And it is bursting forth. The chants are amazing, the street theater. People are dressing up. People are creating art on the streets. It is incredibly creative and just bursting, and it’s wonderful.