As I sit writing this, I look back at the past days, and have come to a conclusion: the Egyptian revolution has made a better man of me. Every stage I spent, from sitting at home watching the news and discussing the revolution, to guarding my neighborhood then actually participating in the protests, have taught me real-life lessons in being a better man.
If you’ve been watching the news, I’m sure you know that the Egyptian people have rocked the Middle East in their effort for self-rule and democracy. As I sit typing this, the newly appointed Vice President issued a statement of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and his appointment of the Armed Forces Supreme Council to take power. It is the dawn of a new era. No delays, no lies, no half-solutions. We wanted our freedom. The temple of Corruption had to be toppled. No matter who supported it, be it the Army, thugs, the West, the East or even the planet Mars, the regime that has humiliated us and stole our rights and freedoms had to go. Period.
As I write this, the revolution has been on for eighteen days. During those eighteen days, my life has changed on a scale that I would have never imagined in my life. I am turning 24 in July, and in November 2010 I had just completed my dental internship, earning my license and Dental Union membership. Later on I opened an e-commerce business to make ends meet as I pursued higher studies. Who would have imagined that starting from the 25th of January, I would shift my activities to a neighborhood guard member, lumberjack and patrolman; then to an amateur online activist, protester, bodyguard and a small-scale speaker for the cause.
As I sit writing this, I look back at the past days, and have come to a conclusion: they have made a better man of me. Every stage I spent, from sitting at home watching the news and discussing the revolution, to guarding my neighborhood then actually participating in the protests, have taught me real-life lessons in being a better man. I seriously have felt a change in my character and perception, and this has inspired me to write this article.
Lessons from the Neighborhood Patrols
I have to admit, I was involved in the revolution quite late. In the beginning I thought it didn’t affect me, that some reforms would be introduced and the protesters would go home. But Friday the 28th came, around 300 protesters were killed by live ammunition and 5000 more injured, and prisons and detention centers were mysteriously opened as the police disappeared, flooding the streets with convicts, and Cairo and other cities were ablaze in riots. To add insult to injury, the government shut down the internet. Only one word resonated in our minds: scare tactics–submit or face chaos. We were determined to prove the government wrong. Saturday afternoon we were in the streets to protect our homes, armed with whatever we had and setting up checkpoints in the streets. We stood guard daily, only letting go when local businesses started operating at night again and the police were returning to the streets. These were my first lessons in the revolution’s school of manliness.
A man adapts. I never expected in my life to stand in a checkpoint, armed with a hatchet and a hunting knife, checking cars and the ID’s of the riders with a case of homemade molotov cocktails beside me. Now that I look back, I’m actually surprised at the change. But my willingness to accept this change, in my opinion, helped me evolve for the better.
A man values his neighbors. The only reason the neighborhood patrols succeeded was the group effort. In my shifts, we caught nine criminals. We had it easy, since our middle class neighborhood was flanked by the Nile and surrounded by two other middle class districts near the center of Cairo. Those living in suburban areas and near prisons had it much worse: They caught tens and in some areas over a hundred criminals. We kept our homes safe, and most importantly we learned to look out for each other and each others’ homes.
A man respects others. Anyone passing our checkpoints had to be checked. We knew the criminals and hired thugs had hijacked sedans, police cars, ambulances, army vehicles and forged police ID’s and stole army uniforms. There were no exceptions. However, we had to appreciate the cooperation of those we searched. We weren’t policemen, nor did we have warrants; on pen and paper we were just concerned citizens. Showing respect helped us earn respect. And it wasn’t hard: it was as simple as saying thank you.
A man doesn’t think with his emotions. Like Mubarak’s speeches, anyone we caught tried to appeal to our emotions. They made up lies as to where their fake ID’s came from, acted dumb and sometimes begged on their knees not to be handed over to the military. I have to admit, sometimes I wanted to believe them, it was easier. But I had to remember the reality, and by reality meaning what he would do if he found his way into my house or my neighbor’s house. Cold hard reality: not everyone shares your good nature; it’s sad but you’ll have to accept it to do your duty.
On the other hand, a man shows compassion. People of all ages stood with me, some as young as nine and others in their seventies and eighties. The old ones were mainly war veterans, but the young ones were in an environment they never experienced in their lives. They acted tough and tried to talk like thugs, but the fear in their eyes appeared at the first cracks of gunfire in the distance. Lesser men made jokes about their age to hide what they lacked in grit. The best men I knew were the ones who gave a pat on the back.
A man is practical, not showy. I was armed with a hatchet and hunting knife, since I had read earlier that anything that couldn’t be used as a tool was dead weight. I used the hatchet to cut firewood to keep us warm at night and the hunting knife, well, cut things. Others were armed with butcher knives, clubs, sticks and swords. Some took it too far to look bad-ass: a man tied two butcher knives together, nunchaku style and hung them round his neck to look threatening. The man just made his neck an easy target. Another point, and I know many will not like to hear this, but a man who owns a gun who knows how to use it is a better man, period. Three men in our neighborhood had guns, and whenever we were on alert, we looked to them, since their reactions determined how the rest of us would respond.
A man doesn’t talk of things he wouldn’t do. No matter how manly I portray people who took part in these patrols, no one has the right to ask others to put their lives or the lives of their loved ones in danger. It also comes to actions: If you’re not willing to use your car as a roadblock, don’t talk about others doing it instead.
A man appreciates the efforts of others. Although I respected the opinions of those who genuinely feared the outcome of the revolution being negative, it was repulsive to hear lesser men belittling the efforts of others. I know of people who make fun of the protesters who were fighting for their rights. Celebrities came on national television to claim that protesters were getting paid and received free meals from Kentucky Fried Chicken to protest against Mubarak. Others had the audacity to belittle the neighborhood patrols, not admitting that our stand in the streets helped them sleep in their beds at night. The funny thing was, the people I expected the most manly stand from were the ones who belittled us. The better men I knew, even if they didn’t participate, appreciated what others were doing for them.
Lessons from Taking Part in the Protests
The first day I participated in protests, my Father and I took a taxi to the nearby Tahrir Square where the bulk of anti-Mubarak protests were taking place. The night before, Mubarak had made a speech promising reforms and fair elections, appealing to citizens’ emotions and staging an aggressive counter-revolution. Upon reaching Tahrir Square we noticed pro-Mubarak demonstrators approaching the area, and the weirder image of horse and camel riders approaching the square. Upon going back, we were continually harassed by plainclothes policemen and supporters of Mubarak who had left their protest area at Mohandesin to disturb the anti-Mubarak protesters. When we got home, the media had launched an all-out offensive on those calling for democracy, branding them as saboteurs and traitors. The Internet was re-linked, and I found posts by people suggesting stability and going back to their ordinary lives. Since then I have alternated between joining protests and rooting for the revolution on Facebook. So started the new lessons in manliness.
A man shouldn’t be afraid of confrontation. Returning from Tahrir square on Bloody Wednesday, a plainclothes policeman harassed my father and I, calling us names and shouting threats as he followed us on foot for three blocks. If I kept quiet, I think he’d have followed us to our house. He didn’t leave us alone until I personally got in his face and made a scene calling any nearby uniformed policemen to deal with him and to show us his ID. Returning home, fuming with anger, I saw my friends posting online about how they wanted things to go back to the way they were and how those fighting for their rights were making a mess and disrupting peoples’ way of life. I called them on how a week ago they wanted change and these people they were putting down were bringing them these changes. Sometimes telling the truth meant no compromises.
A man respects the views of others and doesn’t take them personally. Of course there were those who wanted the revolution to stop simply because they were afraid. And their fear was genuine: there was a threat of chaos, economic collapse, and now foreign military intervention. It was easier of course to dismiss these fears as cowardly or stupid, but the harder thing to do, that in the end gained respect, was appreciating these fears, and helping them understand that freedom came at a high price, and how any short-term losses were worth it. Their disagreement wasn’t a personal attack, and one of the best speakers I knew made a point of letting listeners know that the disagreement wasn’t personal.
A man is presentable under all circumstances. The protests were peaceful. This was what made the revolution powerful. The world had to see that it wasn’t a peasant uprising, class conflict or even a religious takeover: those in the revolution were educated, young, loved Egypt and had realistic expectations of a representative government and civil rights. I participated in two more protests; before deciding to participate I had a haircut. Before going down to the protests I had a shower, shave, and went down dressed as if for a business presentation. In the second protest that started with a march by doctors (which my father, an ob/gyn surgeon, joined with me), I wore my best white coat and carried myself in the most professional manner possible. I was interviewed twice by American and British journalists, and in both cases I spoke with my best English accent. I was representing millions of people calling for change. Being scruffy or speaking in slang was going to misrepresent them.
A man respects the opposite sex. The protests were free of sexual harassment. Men were being searched by men and women searched by women, a lesson airport authorities in some countries can learn. When women passed by we made way for them. If people thought that the protests were a place to meet women, we told them to stay home. It wasn’t a game. The whole world was watching us, and those opposing the revolution were looking for the tiniest speck of dirt to put us down. Acting like a horny teenager was such dirt.
A man respects people who are different. While Muslim protesters were attending Friday Prayers, Christians formed a human wall to protect them. On Sunday when Christian protesters performed Mass, Muslims stood watch to protect them. There was no slurring in the protests. People who attended were of different races, religions, and social backgrounds; black and white, Muslim and Christian, rich and poor, we stood together. If people deep down inside had a certain hatred for others due to these differences, the protests helped them replace this hatred with understanding. In the end we were all the same. We were all Egyptian, and we all wanted freedom.
A man isn’t afraid of putting his life at risk. In one of the protests I was in, an important online activist was released the night before after 12 days in detention by the secret police, and was coming to Tahrir Square for a speech and a press conference. His younger brother is my colleague, and I found myself going to pick him up from the subway station. My friends and I, for the duration of the journey to the stand, made a human shield around him to keep people from slowing him down, and more importantly, to protect him. After his speech, our human phalanx fought the crowds to take him to the press conference. Most of the people meant well, but I personally considered the possibility of a counter-revolutionary with a concealed weapon harming him to shatter the morale of the revolution. Of course I’m still surprised at taking part in this endeavor, but if I were to repeat it again, I would do it happily even if it would have ended badly. I admired the man, and he was the voice for our youth and presented us well with no personal agenda, a man worth defending.
A man isn’t afraid to admit his mistakes and willingness to change. When discussing the revolution, I’ve been faced with the question of why I didn’t go down to the streets from the first day of the protests, as a way of proving me wrong or proving the point that those supporting the revolution were all talk. Of course, saying I wasn’t politically inclined and was afraid of riots was incongruous and didn’t do justice to the others of my age and similar background who were fighting for my rights. Finally when I had enough I reached for the answer inside me and told the truth: I didn’t believe in myself enough to think my voice mattered, but now that I’ve changed there’s no use talking about the past, since I can’t change it like I’m changing myself. Watching whoever was arguing with me show his respect or shut up was proof enough that an honest answer, however effacing, was worth it.
To conclude this article, I am happy to welcome you to the dawn of a new era. As I type this people are still flocking to the streets, celebrating their new age of self-rule and freedom. I will be forever proud of my nationality as an Egyptian. I promise to be good to Egypt, to use my knowledge to grow her, repaint her picture in the eyes of others. I’m sorry I insulted her when I was younger, for thinking she wasn’t pretty like the others. I’m sorry I gave up on her, for wanting to leave her, and being ignorant of her history. I promise to be a better citizen to Her, a better Egyptian, a better Man.
I just want to impart a final word before I end: I am not the best person ever, and I have my faults, but never forget the value of freedom and dignity. Our people were deprived of those virtues for at least 30 years, and no words can describe how aggressively those in power tried to put us down. They sent hired thugs and plainclothes police to attack and disturb us; it didn’t stop us. They got celebrities to insult the protesters and praise the regime. National television called the protesters saboteurs and they shut down foreign news channels; we ignored them all. They shut down the internet; we promised to shut THEM down. Nearby dictators promised to support the regime. We heard rumors that the US Navy sent the fifth or sixth fleet and the Israeli Defense Force was grouping at the border. It didn’t matter. We were fighting for our rights, and we were ready to face anyone who interfered. The people weren’t afraid of losing what they had, they are winning something greater. When people aren’t afraid of losing, they are free, and great men can only be free men who build great countries.
Yasser El Hadari is an Egyptian whose personal experiences during the Egyptian revolution helped shape this article, which first appeared in Art of Manliness.