Meet 10 protesters in Tahrir Square. They come from all walks of life, but they have one common goal: Freedom
Mohammad Riskallah’s unofficial trademark is his white-rimmed Ray-Bans. Over 6 feet tall, the rugby player is called Fox-man and he smokes about a pack a day. Mohammad seems to know just about everybody in Tahrir Square. When he’s not spending his time protesting in downtown Cairo, he teaches math and physics to fifth- and tenth-grade students. “Public education in Egypt is a joke,” Mohammad, 24, said. “It’s disgusting. This is one of the major problems the country faces.”
Mohammad was born in the United Arab Emirates and moved to Egypt when he was 12 years old. He teaches at the International School of Choueifat, where he coaches boys’ varsity and girls’ JV football. He said that when he’s out protesting, he’s doing it not only for himself, but for his students as well. “I want them to know they can be anything they want to be even though they live in a society that will never elevate them unless they have the money or connections,” Mohammad said.
When Mohammad wears a T-shirt his left bicep reveals a large tattoo. It spells out “Masr,” the Arabic word for Egypt. In addition to being a teacher, Mohammad, himself, is a student. He attends evening classes for research and education at the American University in Cairo.
On the eastern side of Tahrir Square, Mohammad ran into a fellow teacher on Tuesday. He embraced the 75-year-old man for several seconds. The men held Mohammad’s face, looked at him, and said, “Thank you.”
“It’s people like him,” his teacher said, “who started this revolution.” On Friday, Jan. 28, Mohammad was arrested. Police confiscated his phone, but he was left uninjured.
Thirty-three-year-old Karim Sabet bought rehydration packets and surgical masks before hitting the streets to protest last Friday. He expected police to fire tear gas at the thousands of demonstrators expected to gather that day. But he was going to protest anyway.
Karim is a Cairo-based businessman and the son of Egypt’s former ambassador to Tokyo. For the last 10 years his father worked for the League of Arab States. Some of Karim’s friends don’t care about the protests because they are wealthy. Why affront a regime that outfits you in Burberry and Rolex? And if Mubarak falls — so the conventional wisdom goes — what would happen to their status? Last week Karim received a BlackBerry message mocking Egypt’s elite. It was written for the nation’s 20- and 30-somethings who drive BMWs, eat sushi on the Nile, and reference episodes of “Entourage.”
“People were saying, ‘It’s not your fight. Don’t go in. It’s not for you. The people who really want this are the ones who are hungry,’” Karim recounted. “Well, they were wrong. Everyone wants it. And that’s the beauty of this and it’s still a little difficult to take in.”
Like many upper-class Egyptians, Karim has spent about 50 percent of his life abroad. Karim took a deep breath and looked down when asked why it was important for him to fight for change — to stand in the face of tear gas, police and rubber bullets all day while some of his friends wait out “revolution weekend” in the elite resort town of Gouna. “We’re showing people we’re not as weak as they think we are. We used to supply the whole region with intellectuals, scientists and supplies,” he said. “And now we’re the laughin stock of the region. They call us the ‘hungry bunch.’ And that hurts.”
Karim fiddles with the memory card on his BlackBerry — the SD card holding several minutes of footage of Jan. 25 that he wants to one day show his grandchildren. “Everyone wants change — this is a basic, human revolution,” he explained. “It’s coming from the heart.”
Jasmine Nassef, 23, stood at the top of her building’s roof in Imbaba, a poor neighborhood on Cairo’s west bank. That’s where she goes when she “can’t take so much noise,” and when she wants to see an elevated view of Cairo. Rising above the crowd is a difficult thing to do when you’re a young adult from a poor family with no money or wasta, which means “connections” in Arabic.
Jasmine keeps a notebook on her at all times, the lines filled with new English words that she writes every day. Each word is written at least three times in succession. A Cairo University graduate, she plans to work in law and currently interns at the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance. She deems herself an activist, but really, she says, she’s “just an Egyptian with a vision.”
Jasmine has a penchant for Turkish soap operas and spends her Fridays with Risella, a community service organization in Cairo. Mubarak’s Egypt, she says, has divided the nation into stark camps of rich and poor.
“The government has killed the will inside our hearts,” she said. “Time has come for the people to launch a huge revolution and walk and talk from their hearts, whether they are poor or not, educated or not, professors, farmers, workers, everyone … they need to stand up and say, ‘I want to change Egypt.’”
Jasmine went out on Jan. 25 to El Nour Mosque in Abasaya to do just that. In the following days, however, she stayed home crying in her room. “They used violence against us like this wasn’t even our own country,” she said. She returned to the streets on Feb. 3 to show them that she wasn’t scared anymore. “How much longer will he keep us in this prison? I have things I want to accomplish,” she said. “I have a voice and insha’allah, Egypt will be saved.”
Farid Ismail Abdel Halim
Farid Ismail Abdel Halim, 53, is a pharmacist, father of six, and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the 83-year-old Islamist opposition group banned by the Mubarak regime. He served in parliament 2005-2010, but lost November’s parliamentary elections. He is a fervent reader of political news (Al Jazeera is his go-to). And save the foreign journalists, he might be one of the only men who has donned a suit all week in Tahrir Square.
He’s been in the square talking to people, especially the youth — “the future of Egypt and the face of change,” as he called them. Farid, like most Egyptians, is fighting to realize his dreams for social equality. “The government has gone further in its persecution and tyranny of the youth,” he said. “He’s belittling the Egyptian people, trying to systemically create chaos and spread fear.”
He said the National Democratic Party has consistently used the “Muslim Brotherhood inciting Islamist-based violence card” with Westerners to thwart democratic change in Egypt. “We are at the forefront of protecting the demonstrators,” he said. “I want youth to transcend to a higher degree on all levels. I want us all to realize our dreams in their full totality.”
Farid has been with the Muslim Brotherhood for 30 years. “Our goals haven’t changed,” he said. “We want America to stand for democracy and stop supporting an invalid dictator.”
Abdel Rahman Ayad
Abdel Rahman Ayad’s feet started bleeding when he walked home to Heliopolis from downtown Cairo on Tuesday. When he doesn’t have his car, he makes the six-mile trek on foot to go check on his mother every evening after sunset. He’s been demonstrating on the streets for the last 10 days. “I just want to be able to have the right to choose our president and that’s it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s bad or good, just as long as we get to choose him.”
Ayad, 24, calls his friends “matey” — slang he picked up while working for a German-based shipping company that has taken him around the world. He studied at the Maritime Academy in Alexandria and spends an average of eight months a year on a ship. Ayad was supposed to set sail on Jan. 10, but he decided not to go. “I am fighting oppression and tyranny,” he said. “We just want to get over that and live our lives normally.” He expected something to happen in Egypt and he wanted to be a part of it. Like others, he wants Egyptians to be able to afford to feed their families. He hates walking in the streets and being stopped by police. He hates seeing people who can’t afford to eat. And he hates living under Mubarak’s regime. “We need to feel free in our country,” he said. “We are not free people. We are in a spacious, open prison.”
While looking across the Nile at the National Democratic Party building going up in flames, Ayad smiled. “This is the first time Egyptians have gotten together to do something since building the pyramids,” he said. “It’s time we get together and do something else.”
Imam Shabe, 30, wore a knit sweater that had all the colors of a dozen Easter eggs. She apologized for checking people coming into Tahrir Square. “Sorry, must check,” she said as women filed into the area on Thursday morning. One after the other, she patted them down and looked in their bags for anything that might cause harm to the gathering crowd.
Imam has volunteered for the past eight days with others protesting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “Where is the freedom now? Where is the freedom now?” she asked, pleading to President Barack Obama to urge her leader and his regime to step down. “There is no education. No culture. No freedom. No medicine. No food. No work,” Imam said. “Everything is ‘No’ in Egypt.”
Before Imam signed up as volunteer security, she was a director at a national television station. Her husband worked there as well. He was a director of photography. But now, she said, she will never work at the station again. They both quit eight days ago. “No work with Egyptian television for a long time,” she said. “Egyptian television is very bad. I will work with any station but Egypt station.”
Imam and her husband Nasr have two children — 13-year-old Ahmed and 17-year-old Abdou. She is nervous about not being able to support them, but said that God will provide. “We have little money until now,” she said, her face slightly shaking. “The world has to know Mr. Mubarak kills Egyptian people. Mr. Mubarak has to go,” she said.
Hussein Afifi, 64, sat at the center of Tahrir Square with a cigarette in one hand and a newspaper in the other. His eyes are classically kind: small and almond-brown, shaped in thin, gray frames. He’s been a glasses technician for 30 years, and owns glasses shops in two cities. He says his profile is like anyone else who has “smelled the breath of freedom and can’t give it away.”
“I now feel like a human being,” he said. “And it makes me extremely happy.” He’s come to the square every day since last week, leaving his home at 6 a.m. from Cairo’s suburbs. As the day nears sunset, he heads home to his ill wife. “This is about being ecstatic for the youth and what they’re doing,” Afifi said. “For the past 30 years we’ve been oppressed and asphyxiated. I’m here because everyone needs to feel like a free human being.”
When he talks about his two children, his eyes light up. “I brought them up with the concept of loving life.”
Aliaa Ashraf, 23, is obsessed with the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. His best-selling book “The Alchemist” is one of her favorites. “The main character sold everything and went out to find a treasure in the pyramids,” Aliaa said. “He says it’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” The book’s premise has hit home with Aliaa. “Egypt hasn’t changed in 30 years. We are suffocating and trapped. We want to just be able to live,” she said.
Aliaa came to the demonstrations for the first time on Wednesday. She was upset by Mubarak’s “resolution speech” and wanted to show her support for the demonstrators. “I was sitting at home with my cat, scared to go on the streets,” she said. “But after I saw people getting hurt, I had to do something.”
Aliaa graduated two years ago from Ain Shams University with a degree in Arabic Language Education. Although she’s interested in the world around her, she’s never been out of the country, and has been to only one other city outside Cairo. She longs to travel the world and experience new tastes and sounds. But for now, she has to navigate a system where she thinks the odds are stacked against her. Self-taught in English and Spanish, she’s trying to procure funding for a master’s degree. She said the American University in Cairo, renowned for its graduate programs in teaching Arabic as a foreign language, is simply too expensive. And so, she’s applying for fellowships to travel abroad.
Aliaa was scheduled to take the TOEFL on Saturday in Tahrir Square, but was met with barricades and tanks instead. “If my country really needs me, I might delay any thoughts of going abroad,” she said. “But if Mubarak’s staying, I won’t stay in Egypt for one more day if I don’t have to.”
“But no matter what happens, things will never be like before. There’s no fear anymore,” she said, pointing to her Facebook profile picture. It’s an aerial shot of Tahrir Square, filled with thousands of people.
Dalia Adel had no idea she’d be protesting amid clashes when she started reading “Say You’re One of Them.” The book, written by Uwem Akpan, is set in war-torn Africa.
“I’m fighting for my country, for freedom,” said 37-year-old Dalia, a project manager at Egypt’s British Council. “We need to get rid of the gang. This is the best word to describe them. It’s not a government and a president. It’s a gang. We want to get corruption out of the country.”
One area of Dalia’s living room has been transformed into a meditation corner where she reads almost anything she can get her hands on. Dalia graduated from Ain Shams University with a degree in English. “I have a job. I am secure. I have a home. I have an education,” Dalia said. “So maybe the protests aren’t about me. But I believe that it’s very selfish to think that as long as I don’t have issues and I have a job, then I should stay at home. There are people that are far, far below the lines of poverty. They have no jobs. They have no money. They have no education.”
On Thursday morning, she fought with her family to let her out of the house. Standing in the center of Tahrir Square, she said if the late Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz were here, he’d probably be among the protesters.
“Even if we look at it from a selfish point of view, imagine a kid that has no roof and no education and no way of living. They will grow up in the future and be a source for us all,” she said.
The picture on Osama’s government employee ID shows a photo of him in a tie. He’s wearing a navy blue suit and his hair is brushed back, long enough to hang down to his shoulders. But the 30-year-old sitting on a curb in Tahrir Square on Thursday could hardly be recognized as the same man. Dried circles of blood covered his chest where he’d been hit by metal pellets. Under his corduroy jacket they left visible wounds and his skin was still yellow where he’d been beaten.
“I just want my constitutional rights and for the government to be fair,” he said, burying his head in his hands from exhaustion. Osama works at Cairo University from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day. He then goes to his second job until 1 every morning to bring in a total of $260 a month. It’s barely enough to feed his wife and his 1-year-old daughter, he said, asking that his last name not be published so as not to put his job at risk. “I’m seeking my freedom and that’s what I’m fighting for,” Osama said. “I’m against corruption and I want human rights.”
In addition to working two jobs, Osama is enrolled in Cairo University where he is studying politics, economics and law. He takes two to three classes every semester but can only attend on Fridays. “I want to be a constitutional lawyer because I want to defend my country and my people,” he said.
He speaks to his wife as often as he can. But the connection comes and goes. “She supports me,” he said. “But she has to stay home to be with the baby.” He hasn’t seen his wife in eight days. And he doesn’t know when he’ll see her next.