Fabulous February of Freedom

by Dalia Basiouny

February 2011 was the busiest month of my life. I participated in a revolution that toppled a corrupt regime after 30 years of dictatorship.

I have always been proud to be Egyptian, but nowadays this sense of pride is reinforced by other strong feelings of dignity, respect and admiration for the Egyptian people. They created a powerful revolution that forced the president to leave. They celebrated that success, and they continue to work to uproot corruption from their society.

The early days in Tahrir square were full of uncertainty and anticipation. Demonstrators knew that their demands were just, but they were dealing with a regime that does not hesitate to use any form of violence against its people, including rubber bullets, armed thugs, horses and camels, and even snipers.

In the face of this brutality people had two weapons: persistence and humor. Patriotic public dissent took many creative forms. The most noticeable was the chants and the slogans of the demonstrators. In addition to the main demand “The People Want the President Out.. The People Want Removal of the Regime.” There were rhyming couplets and riffs on popular songs, full of wit, humor, and political satire. The chants were updated daily to reflect the ongoing changes. When some news sources published that Mubarak’s wealth exceeds 70 Billion Dollars, next morning the crowds were shouting “Hosny Mubarak Ya Tayyar, 3ayzeen el 70 milliar” (Hosny Mubarak, the pilot. We want our 70 Billion.)

The signs were also regularly updated. In addition to the ones listing demands or expressing grievances demonstrators got very creative with their posters of dissent. One read “Mum, see what Facebook Youth can do”, another “Leave already--my hand is hurting” (from carrying the sign).  A woman with big curly hair attached a sign to her back addressing the president “Leave--I want to get my hair done.”

There were many artists in the square. The center pavement was the unofficial headquarters for film and theatre artists. They were the most vocal and the most filmed, because there was a number of known actors and movie stars among them. On the opposite side of the square “The Guild of Revolution’s Artist” was formed. Most of them were cartoonists who drew satirical images of the leading figures of the falling regime, and hung them on the walls of surrounding buildings.

On one of the marches I was pleasantly surprised to see a young man doing graffiti on the wall of the main governmental administrative building in the heart of Tahrir Square. This artistic expression has been banned in Egypt, and the revolution spirit is changing that.

Many artists performed on the stages that continued to be erected around the square. There were poets and singers and some street theatre performers. But anti-government chants were the most popular form of dissent.

After February 11, television channels started showing new songs that support the revolution. These increase in number daily. Some of the artists who appeared on TV or called in during the revolution to say “This has to stop” or “the demonstrators are ruining the economy”, changed camp and started making songs to honor those who died and express joy about new Egypt!

The most significant activity after February 11 has been “meetings.” Organizations, institutions, centers, guilds, syndicates, universities, political parties, wanna-be political parties, cultural centers, urban planners, human rights groups and many individuals called for meetings. People are full of hope for the new country that they want to create, and are meeting to discuss ways of revolutionizing their respective fields. Some of these meetings, especially the large ones, witnessed a lot of tension between people or groups of different views.

In the arts scene, one of the main demands that appeared in these meetings is to get rid of the censorship office. In Egypt, censorship is not just a concept. There is a physical office with an appointed “censor” and a large staff who read every work of art before they approve it for public presentation. This is no longer acceptable and many artists are signing petitions to limit the work of this office to rating films according to age.

Independent artists are voicing their deep concern about the union’s way of controlling who gets to work and who doesn’t. The actors’ union had passed a law that non-union members who work without union approval could be fined, in addition to spending up to 6 months in jail. A union that has the power to imprison non-union members is a bit hard to believe, but that was the case here. We found a court ruling from 1997 condemning this practice and declaring that the constitution guarantees freedom of expression (including artistic expression) to all Egyptians, and limiting the union’s authority. Now we are starting a campaign to raise awareness of this court ruling, and to ensure that the artistic unions adhere to it.

As the first 18 days of revolution came to an end with Mubarak descending from his throne, many workers in many locations started their own demonstrations to change their own organizations. Meanwhile a plethora of artistic reactions appeared in the media. In addition to all the new songs on all radio and TV channels, film makers are working on film projects about the revolution, TV writers are writing new material that includes the revolution, authors are preparing books about the revolution. And I am guilty, too.

As if the revolution toppled the fear, laziness and inhibitions inside of me, Dalia, the very private person, started a “public” blog to share her experiences at Tahrir square!! I attended many meetings attempting to figure out the next steps politically, artistically, academically, in awareness raising, to support the economy, and to educate others. I helped organize a series of events in Hanager Art Center in celebration of the revolution. I directed a performance “Tahrir Stories” documenting some of the activities of the demonstrators and honoring the names of the martyrs.

I was invited to participate in a monodrama festival in Sulaymanyah in Iraq. The piece I was planning to present, “Solitaire,” talked about an Egyptian American’s participation in the demonstration in New York after 9/11. It was now no longer possible to talk about demonstrations without mentioning the millions of Egyptian protesters who changed the history of their country. So I worked on re-writing the text of my play to include the Egyptian revolution. The play had won an award from The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, but I don’t think they would mind the changes in the text. I started rehearsals during the revolution days, and currently I am working on the visual material that is to be projected.

I feel I am infused with energy to fulfill all my roles--politically active citizen, demonstrator, artist, teacher, blogger, photographer, documenter, director, writer, gardener and performer! Some of these are brand new roles in New Egypt. All these activities in just one month! Truly the busiest February I have ever experienced.

And the revolution is not over. The government that was chosen by the ex-president is still in power. Many of the political players behind the scenes are still doing their ugly tricks to manipulate the people. The real change has not even started. And Egyptians realize that. The last two Fridays have seen huge gatherings in Tahrir Squares; millions attended them. Organizers are calling for an even bigger demonstration this coming Friday, demanding that the Prime Minister and his government resign. The new chants are ready: “Mahmoud Wagdy Oul El Haa’..darbtu el Ozzal walla laa’” (Mahmound Wagdy (new Minister of Interior) say the truth.. Did you attack the unarmed or not?)

Maybe March will witness yet another big shift in power, as the will of the people again steers the wheel of change.

Dr. Dalia Basiouny is an Egyptian writer, theatre artist, and academic. Her theatre work includes directing 14 plays performed in Egypt, England, USA and Morocco . Her last US production of Elmaz Abi Nader’s “Country of Origin” was presented in Kennedy Center’s Arabesque in 2009. In response to the Egyptian revolution Basiouny, started to blog about her experiences in Tahrir square. You can read more here.