Lessons From Tahrir: An Interview with Nadim Fateh and Ali Mikkawa
23 year old filmmaking student NADIM FATEH was born in Cairo, Egypt and moved to Toronto in his early life. After making it onto the Toronto Police’s “top 40 wanted list” for his alleged role in the fiery G20 protests, he spent the last spring and summer in Cairo, Athens, and Madrid, participating and documenting the revolutionary movements there before becoming a part of Occupy Toronto.
34 year old architect ALI MIKKAWA was an active participant in the Egyptian uprising. He helped organize demonstrations and to establish the initial sit-in in Tahrir square.
Both Nadim and Ali spoke with Linchpin separately.
What were the first protests or meetings that got you involved with events in Egypt?
Ali: I got involved with the Kefaya protests that started seven years ago. This movement was the first to take to the streets to protest for the long rule of Mubarak and it stands for “Enough”. The movement started to gain momentum slowly but surely... and I really got engaged later when [former IAEA head] Mohammed El Baradei returned to Egypt. From that point onwards I was more active campaigning for his One Million Signature campaign to change the constitution.
The Kefaya movement used to announce their protests in opposition newspapers and through word of mouth. Their protests were small in number and [the participants] were usually beaten up and some jailed. It was very difficult to communicate using phones, and the advent of Facebook was yet to come. There were several dissident bloggers and activists that were active on the Internet and promoted the movement – though they didn't organize anything online, as this would have been easily intercepted and quelled.
Facebook was instrumental for the Khaled Said Movement and the 6th of April, who started to take to the streets in organized and peaceful fashion... devising ways of protest that were legal and difficult to stop. For example, they used to stand five meters apart wearing black and turning their backs to the streets in a sign of protest. The police would know the place of the event... but since it was silent and organized in such an unconventional manner, they would do little to intervene. Then, of course, [came] the call for Jan 25 and the revolution inspired by Tunisia.
Nadim: I went back [in] May of 2011... so everything had pretty much died down there. It wasn't really focused much on the actual revolution, but the things that not many people were focusing on – which is the post-revolution, that liquid state, that liquid area we don't usually talk about.
What was the class background of the participants? Were a lot of people poor, or was it mixed?
Nadim: From what I've heard, and this is the most beautiful aspect of it all... everyone had lost their dignity in Egypt – period. Whether you were rich or poor you always had to bribe your way into anything, like public schools, private schools... anything. So people were starting to lose that dignity and the police were taking advantage of absolutely everything... and people had just had enough. So at that point, what happened was generally the middle class youth started it off on January 25 – and that's what people say the beginning of the revolution was. But from January 25 to about January 28 it was just growing in numbers... until January 28, when people realized, "okay, whether you're poverty-stricken [and] wearing a potato sack for clothes or rich as fuck – it doesn't matter. We're all in the same boat. We're all collectively indignant."
During the occupation of Tahrir Square, were there meetings between different working groups – such as security – or how were things decided?
Ali: Not really. Order seemed to emerge out of this diverse and spontaneous group of people. We did have some meetings. Groups formed and communicated and tried to get in touch with each other... but to have an overarching control of the whole camp was impossible, and we really never tried to achieve this. You have to remember that there was no top-down leadership of this movement. That was the beauty of it and... I am sad to say, is also a great setback to the Egyptian Revolution over all.
Nadim: The major difference was that at Occupy we went out to create these committees. What happened in Egypt was there was a more fluid kind of way these committees would break out. For example... the camels. When they came in during the Camel Battle, [the protesters] created... actually, throughout the revolution, they created a small hospital where volunteer doctors and nurses would be working – and it was just spur of the moment. They'd say "okay, we need a place away from the battle... we need to do it over here." The vendors all around, who would sell food and stuff like that... they just came in thinking there'd be money. Like “there's a ton of money right there”, which is smart... like two Egyptian pounds and you'd get this thing of kusheri. You'd feed these people and you'd be there and we'd have these revolutionary sentiments and stuff, it was just so sporadic – yet it seemed to work. And these marshals that would come up – they were just people that wanted to volunteer... to make sure they were on the front lines. And the people that would fight against the cops and the camels were also people that were just there ready to go... so it was a very fluid kind of thing.
How did you deal with the police and baltagiya ('thugs')?
Ali: We used to arrest the thugs, after much fighting and stone throwing, bind them, check their ID and detain them in a location inside the square [the metro underground entrances]. In most cases we handed over the thugs to the army. The police were non-existent in the streets since January 28.
Nadim: That's the thing... most of the protests weren't really backed by the military or by the police, so what happened was various revolutionary groups would actually create their own perimeters during large protests – which would generally be every Friday – just to keep the momentum of the revolution going. We'd actually have a couple of different checkpoints throughout it all. So as you're walking into Tahrir there'd be a check[point] – just to, like, check your passport, or whatever ID you had. And at the next one you get patted down. And then once you get within the actual square and you want to get through to that “green” area – and if they were occupying at the time – then you'd also need your ID and most likely someone to say that you are okay... that you're not a cop or baltagiya. And that's the only way you could actually get through to the occupation site.
What was the most amazing thing you witnessed during your time in Tahrir?
Ali: The day of the Camel Battle, as it has come to be known. That day you saw a real battle... with many casualties. Men, women... and in some cases children... [they] were all so organized! They created pipelines of stones that were first dismantled from the pavement, broken down and carried into the battlefield [even] as people were being carried out injured, and in many cases dead. The field hospitals did a brave job tending to the thousand or so injured that night. It was amazing how the people stood their ground in the face of guns, snipers and thugs with molotov cocktails and swords! I saw people paying the price of freedom that night... and I won't ever forget it!
Nadim: There was this one moment where the police, who had been pretty much away the entire time, they had pulled a cab driver over, arrested him, beat him on the street, took him to the police station, tortured and killed him. I was around the corner at a conference, videotaping people talking about the Arab Spring... pretty much people from Spain and England – just making contacts – and I heard about this. So what to I do? I instantly go around the corner and this entire thing was up in flames and there's tear gas being thrown, rocks being thrown ...
Like... a building?
Nadim: Yeah... it was the police station, they just destroyed it! How unbelievable is that? When you can have no more fear whatsoever... to be like, "fuck it, let's destroy this police station." I still remember this one moment, I was kind of nervous... this is my first like real battle y'know? I'm walking up and there's this one guy who just looked at me in awe, confused as hell, he's just like "why are you scared? We just went through a revolution. You should not be scared anymore." So he helped me with my tripod and took me over to the (laughing) ... it was unbelievable! The power that the people had in them. And you could see it in their eyes.
What do you think are the main tasks of the Egyptian revolution at this point?
Ali: To keep [up] the pressure in the streets and keep the revolution alive. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, better known as SCAF, have all but killed popular support over the past ten months. They are arresting activists [over 12,000 Egyptians are detained under military tribunals] and have been involved in killing thousands since they came to power, using internationally-banned gas against protesters... and using live munition and bird shots. They have detained and beaten many journalists and stopped many shows that are critical of them on private TV. They have proven to the revolutionary forces in Egypt that Mubarak is still in power, though vicariously through them. We are preparing for January 25 2012. We are having street presentations of the SCAF lies and crimes against Egyptians broadcast in every street in Egypt. The show is on in London, UK, too. We call it Kazeboun [“Liars”] and we show the footage of all the shootings, fire-starting, etc.
Nadim: I don't want to by any means belittle Egypt's revolution. It was an unbelievable feat and they risked their lives and they still risk their lives. They are going out there – you know how we put the legal number on us? They would put their name, their phone number, their address, their family name... in case they died and had to be recognized. That's a huge thing, that's unbelievable. That took courage. But at the same time their dictatorship was clear. Their oppressor... they could point their finger at a face and say "you are the problem" and they also had a solution for it: western style democracy. Over here what are we doing? We are pointing our finger at a system? At corporations? At the market? We can't blame just Harper, we can't blame just Ford – it's the entire system. So how do we bring that all together? What we're asking for has never been done before. We're asking for what... real democracy? When have we ever seen real democracy before? So while we're fighting for it, we're also creating it which is making this... I don't know... this 'cycle'... of where we're going. We really don't know until we continue moving and fighting for it, right?
What advice do you have for the Occupy movement? What lessons does the Egyptian Revolution offer folks in North America?
Ali: I believe that the Occupy movement needs to get the people informed and educated on the issues they are protesting against. Our movement grew when the general public, who are otherwise apathetic, joined us. To do this you need to work hard to make your case as relevant and widespread as possible.... easier said than done. But I guess the [lesson to] take away here is [the importance of] hard work, dedication and being creative in spreading your message.
Nadim: I think at this point we can't take any more lessons. Each country has kind of made their own way. They started off with the occupation, then went on... and I think that's what we need to see with the evolution of Occupy Toronto, or Occupy Canada. It was necessary, absolutely necessary. Like... I never would have met you beforehand, and a lot of people wouldn't have met each other. They were all either in different groups, or fighting different battles... but once we got there we realized that the system is the problem. Or people might have known that beforehand, but finally got to meet people who feel the same way. So... not only did that happen in Toronto, but it happened all over the world, and we're now connected with all these people. So we have just created a united front against a failing system – some people would say [a system that is] destined to fail. But since the eviction occurred I think we really need to figure out what Canada's movement will be. Now... in my opinion, I'm watching the European crisis very closely, because I know as soon as that first domino falls, that's it – we're waiting six months until depression. So once we see that happening, I think we really need to ensure that we're organized enough to focus the anger of the people... rather than rioting in the streets like we saw in the 30's with the Great Depression – to focus it in a productive way. I think that's what happened in London. Those riots, although very socially and politically inclined... there was no focusing of that energy. And if they had been able to focus it, there would have been a full-blown revolution. I fully believe it. The cops couldn't stop it for what... like three days? That's unheard of. So I think the main thing is to ensure that our organization is out there, that people know about us... that we're still working. We're still going, but I think occupying again might be going backwards. We need to really push it further – and I think it can only happen fluidly.