Sunday, 6 February 2011

Small acts of heroism

Do read Mohammed Bamyeh's essay on the Egyptian uprising, which stitches together many of the themes evident in the protest movement, particularly the way that participation in such a movement makes people more confident, more generous, more courteous, more aware of their compatriots. It's been evident in a hundred little ways - people walking through the crowds hanging out sweets and dates to people they've never met, people standing in line and reprimanding those who try to cut in, people going around Tahrir Square and voluntarily picking up litter, people discussing the future of their country with people to whom they would not previously have given the time of day. One little incident that impressed me was at an army checkpoint after curfew time on the Nile Corniche last night when the soldier asked a middle-aged man in front of me where he was coming from. The man hesitated for just a second, then looked the soldier straight in the eye, puffed out his chest and said "I was in the square." It was a tiny gesture of defiance, not particularly brave, but I suspect that two weeks ago he would given some evasive answer, for the sake of an easy life. Then in Tahrir Square today I met one of the many minor heroes of the uprising, a middle-class architect from the prosperous suburb of Maadi, who gave me his detailed account of his adventures on January 28, the day that protesters overwhelmed the dreaded Central Security riot police and established a foothold in the square. His name was Shadi Attia, 31, and I trust he will not object if I publicise his story. Shadi told me that before January 28 he had never taken part in any political activities, but when he saw on the Internet what had happened on January 25 (the first day of protests) he felt embarrassed that the people of Maadi had made no contribution. He went to the mosque for Friday prayers without the slightest idea what would happen, if anything, and he did not know anyone there who intended to march. At the end of prayers, one man stood up in the crowd and said: "Come to me." About 200 gathered around him and the group set off. "At first it was all men, but as we went though Maadi the demographics began to change and women began to join." The first clash with the riot police took place near the Maadi Club and the officer was shocked by the size of the crowd that had coalesced. As they marched northwards towards the city centre, others joined. By the time of the afternoon prayer, the protesters prayed on al-Malek al-Saleh bridge, about four km south of Tahrir Square. They faced the toughest resistance on Kasr el-Aini, the main street running south from the square, and it was here that a U.S. embassy vehicle (he noted the registration number 185/73) drove through the crowd at high speed, killing several of the protesters (the embassy says it thinks the vehicle was stolen). Shadi saw the victims lying mangled on the roadway, and he told me in all honesty that he was of a squeamish disposition, not inclined to acts of bravery, and his first instinct was to run away. "But one of them reached out his hand and grapped me by my ankle." Shadi couldn't refuse his appeal so he picked him up and carried him on his shoulder to the nearby Kasr el-Aini hospital, where the emergency room was overwhelmed with the wounded. He then continued on his way up the street and made it into Tahrir Square after an odyssey which lasted some five or six hours and which changed Shadi for ever. On Sunday morning Shadi was helping organise deliveries of food to those who have been camping out in the square. There are thousands of similar stories out there, all of them heroic in their little ways.         

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