Guest Blog from Cairo – where the youth teach the elders

What follows is an essay sent to me by my friend, Mohamed M. Tawfik.  Tawfik is an Egyptian writer and diplomat. His latest novel to appear in English, Murder in the Tower of Happiness, exposes the level of corruption that prevailed in Egypt in the last few years.

Victory in Tahrir Square. February 22, 2011

“I don’t want Mubarak to go,” a street kid said to a demonstrator in Tahrir – liberation – Square as the revolution peaked. “Because if he goes you guys will go too… and then I’ll be left alone in the square.”

It was by all accounts an unusual scene in Tahrir Square that the kid had in mind. The level of cohesion and tolerance that pervaded among the millions who participated in the uprising was phenomenal. Bearded Islamists had friendly chats with chicks in tight jeans about democratic reform. Moslems and Christians collaborated in preparations for each others’ religious services. Women donning the niqab chanted nationalist slogans along with hipsters in Che Guevara tee-shirts. People in downtown Cairo were once again courteous and thoughtful. At its peak, the square felt more like a carnival than a revolution. Most of these young women and men probably felt more at home at a rock concert than a rebellion. They waved flags from the tops of lamp posts, played guitars and sang sweet ballads to the revolution – somehow they had managed to install professional sound systems at every corner. There was always someone sweeping the dusty asphalt. And of course, everyone was carrying a funny placard.

After two weeks on the square, Mona Prince, a novelist and friend, demanded on her piece of cardboard that Mubarak step down because she needed a bath. Someone in a Mubarak mask carried a sign responding to the protest’s main slogan ‘The people have resolved that the president must go.’ The sign read, ‘Mubarak has resolved that the people must go.’

These youths were serious. They were ready to give up their lives – and nearly four hundred of them did. But they were not about to give up their sense of humor.

In the beginning, the police apparatus threw everything they had into the effort to suppress the uprising. Rubber bullets, tear gas, live ammunition and finally it set its thugs loose not only on the demonstrators, but on the whole country. The state propaganda network branded the protestors as traitors, agents of foreign conspiracy. For a couple of days, the government even cut off mobile phone and internet services. But in the face of the protesters’ resolve coupled with their insistence on non-violence, the Regime’s tactics were bound to fail. The army announced that the people’s demands were indeed legitimate. Finally, people felt it safe enough to bring along their children. And of course, there was the sense of history being made. Rather than the revolution losing steam, the square’s population kept swelling. Tahrir became the symbol of the revolution, but the same scene repeated itself in almost every major city.

Change had become inevitable.

Egyptian headbands of freedom. Image: AFP/GETTY

It is not true that the revolution took us by surprise. The signs were unmistakable. The writing was on the wall. We were all waiting for the tipping point to come. We just didn’t expect it so soon. And we were pleasantly surprised at the level of sophistication that our young people showed. It was not just that they were internet savvy, or that they enjoyed a high level of awareness of economic social and political matters. Just when we thought our nation had fallen behind the times, our young people proved they were in avant guard of the twenty first century. Democracy, human rights, tolerance and last but not least diversity were not just slogans. These were the building blocks of the movement. The interaction between the youths and the Egyptian and Arab diasporas was unmistakable. The lessons from Tunisia were quickly absorbed. Many of the organizers were even based outside the country. Despite the communications blackout, interaction with the rest of the world was phenomenal. This was the first truly globalized revolution.

The kids have taught us a lesson, I’m not ashamed to say. Egypt’s civilizational heritage has resurfaced in them like ancient treasure rediscovered after centuries in the sand.

All day today, young people have been cleaning up the streets in our neighborhood. They said they would and they actually did. What a refreshing thought: people actually delivering on their promises. I have never sensed so much hope. I know Egypt still has a lot of cleaning up to do. But at last we’re on the right track. One day soon that street kid in Tahrir will find his rightful place in society. Maybe he’ll take up playing the guitar.

Many thanks to my friend for letting me share this with you.


  1. Sylvia Petter on February 23, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Thank you, Mohamed, for sharing your essay here.
    I have this wonderful image of that street kid strumming.

  2. Lanham True on February 24, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Images on the news now seem so much more real, after reading this. Thank you.

  3. lucky8 on February 24, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Amazing essay!! Thanks Mohamed M. Tawfik, and Lauren B. Davis

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