by: Jessica Winegar
(originally published on Jadaliyya.com)
In the mainstream Western and Arab media, Egypt’s revolution is often presented as a revolution of the youth. While it is true that young activists planned the January 25th demonstrations and organized and raised support throughout much of the process leading up to that day, this uprising would not have succeeded in ousting the President and Cabinet, and would not be continuing, were it not for older generations of Egyptians. Many of us living in Egypt during the first massive demonstrations kept saying, “We never thought this would happen.” But in retrospect, it was as clear as day. For the past few years, workers had launched thousands of strikes protesting the effects of what was a fierce application of neoliberal economic policy in what might soon be called the Gamal Mubarak shadow presidency. These workers laid necessary groundwork for the uprising by creating (anew) bonds of solidarity as well as by raising awareness of the widespread nature of the deplorable working and living conditions of average Egyptians. In many cases, the majority of these striking workers were in their 40s and 50s. Pensioners also demonstrated and fought against the privatization of health insurance and the theft of billions of pension funds. From the beginning, this has been a multi-generational revolution. As the slogans go, “The People Want to Overthrow the Regime, the Government, etc.” Recognizing this fact is extremely important at this juncture, because transitional government figures have started referring to the uprising as a “youth” uprising and the demands of the people as demands of the “youth” in a familiar paternalistic way that diminishes not only the importance of what has happened, but also the demands that the vast majority of Egyptians, no matter their age, have of the post-Mubarak government.
[Image by Aida Khalil]
I spent much of the period from January 25th, when the mass demonstrations began, until February 11, when the President left office, in the company of upper middle class men and women in their 50s and 60s who had been leftist student activists in the 1970s. During the Mubarak regime, they had watched their youthful dreams of creating a just society crumble before their eyes, as neoliberal capitalism, authoritarianism, and corruption took vicious root in Egypt. They themselves sought greater stability in their lives and so, with marriage and children, they hunkered down in decent apartments and built comfortable lives for themselves and their families. But their struggle, and their disappointment, was marked on their bodies. Most were former political prisoners, one also a victim of torture, and they now suffer from different combinations of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems, depression and anxiety, and cigarette addiction. The Mubarak era – with the stresses it caused and its failing health system — had left its imprint on them and others in their families, even though they are relatively privileged compared to other Egyptians. Meanwhile, their passionate 1970s activism had, in the Mubarak years, been limited to signing intellectuals’ petitions or going to the occasional demonstration and being cordoned off by the security police. Those who are doctors continued treating people in government hospitals, for salaries that did not remotely keep pace with the cost of living, in a way one described as a “social band-aid.” All tried to teach their children what social justice means. One man, a doctor, had continued the fight for affordable and quality health care with policymakers on the national stage.
But when the uprising started, their passion blossomed again, taking on new energy. Those who were healthy enough to go to the demonstrations went, coming back with hoarse voices and exciting stories of protest. Others donated money and medical supplies to the makeshift hospitals and clinics in Tahrir. Some of the men went down and served, alongside the young and less economically well-off, in the neighborhood watch, formed to protect us from the criminals released en masse from prisons by the government at the same time it called the police off the streets. Some of the women made food and drinks for the neighborhood watch teams. All of them encouraged their children, nieces, and nephews now in their teens and twenties, to go to the demonstrations. They gave them rides and sometimes money to purchase supplies of food and drink to sustain the large groups of the protestors. They were glued to al-Jazeera when they were not doing anything else, completely amazed that what they always hoped to accomplish was actually taking place. Whenever a piece of good news was announced, they jumped up and cheered, called friends, discussed the possibilities. Whenever a piece of bad news came on the air, and especially when Tahrir became a frightening battleground, they chain-smoked, cried, hugged, swore at the regime, and called whatever friends and family had been going to Tahrir to make sure they were safe. They also argued with friends, store-owners, cab drivers, and anyone else they came into contact with who did not support the revolution, trying to convince them of its merits.
[Image by Aida Khalil]
But it was not just these former student activists in their late middle age who helped, in many ways behind the scenes, to execute this uprising and who are working to see the revolution through to its end. In every major gathering in Tahrir and elsewhere around the country, one can find large numbers of Egyptians in their 40s, 50s, and 60s participating in the demonstrations, raising their fists and voices side-by-side with the youth of the country. During the sit-in of Tahrir, many of them were also spending the nights in the square in tents, giving up the comforts of home for the cold, hard city streets to fight for a better life for the younger generation and for whatever remained of their own lives. With the health problems and in many cases poverty evident on their bodies, the time they had left was disturbingly unclear. These Egyptians are the ones who can create signs and chants that express what it was like to live through all of Mubarak’s 30-year rule as an adult, to have the horizons of one’s entire adult life limited, and in many cases to have that life and the lives of their loved ones stolen from them as a result of the political system. The simultaneous solidarity demonstrations of various professional syndicates in the early days of the uprising, and the continued strikes and sit-ins all over the country, are also heavily participated in and often mounted by people of older generations. Since February 11, every day in nearly every government setting, older workers join their younger comrades to try to address the inequalities of their work environment in other ways as well, such as coordinating petitions, writing accounts of the corruption they have witnessed for sympathetic supervisors and the press, or making small but significant changes in their work environment that no one can protest without appearing to be against the revolution (an unpopular position to take right now). Recently at a government cultural institution, for example, older employees were able to contribute a longer thread of stories of corruption for a grievance report they were compiling simply because they had been there longer.
[Image by Jessica Winegar]
Also in Tahrir, Alexandria, Damanhour, Suez, and other cities, one can find pro-democracy demonstrators in their late 60s and 70s. These men and women had been raised on Nasser’s revolutionary language; their childhood, teens, or twenties had been filled with the promise of a just and prosperous society. But their potential was curtailed by the steep decline in quality of life from the later Nasser years through Sadat and Mubarak. They still agitate for a better conclusion to their own lives. One friend, whose respiratory problems from the massive increase in pollution in the Mubarak era only permitted her to go to Tahrir for a short time in the mornings (she reasoned that it was good to have people present during these “down times” as well), took a picture on February 2, 2011 of one tired looking older man sitting on the curb. He had a handmade sign that protested both how the government took billions out of the pension fund and never returned it, and how he couldn’t get a needed loan from the bank because without the pension he did not have enough collateral. More recently, during the demonstrations on February 18, 2011 calling for the overthrow of the transitional cabinet, a man held a sign that said, “I lived the October victory (1973 war with Israel) as a fighter, I lived the January 25th victory as a participant. [My life’s journey] has to end right so I can die with satisfaction.”
On the night of Mubarak’s departure, I rushed to Tahrir as did thousands of Cairenes. My subway car was filled with young people who had spontaneously invented chants that expressed their joy. One of these was, “They said we were the youth of Kentucky (Fried Chicken), but we were the ones who protected you (Egypt).” (It rhymes in Arabic.) Another: “We are the youth of the internet, not those only concerned with dating.” I sat across from one man in his late 70s who sat with a smile on his face, staring at the teen and twenty-something men in amazement and admiration, with tears of joy in his eyes. He kept saying to me in English, “Revolution. Revolution.” He was going to Tahrir too, and when I got there, amidst the massive celebrating crowds, I saw countless older men and women, some quite old and in wheelchairs or with canes. They walked with their spouses, and/or children and in many cases grandchildren. Some of the mothers and grandmothers ululated. Fathers and grandfathers participated in the moving cheer, “Lift your head up, you are Egyptian!” It seemed that they had once been able to lift their heads up in pride as Egyptians, and although now many were stooped from the effects of living under an oppressive dictatorship, they were clearly so thrilled that their offspring could now lift their heads proudly and that they were among the fortunate ones to live to see this day.
It is true that this uprising was started by the “youth of the Internet,” but the participation of Egyptians of all ages is giving it its true force.
Jessica Winegar is the author of Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt, 2006.