The date of 25th January will be remembered as the day when the apparently immoveable bastion that was the Egyptian government began to crumble, starting a movement in the Arab world that could be as significant as the fall of communism.
The world watched as events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square unfolded, and in Lerwick Egyptian Adel Mohammed virtually held his breath during the 18 days of anti-government protests.
Adel, 31, has been living in Shetland for four years with his wife, Shetlander Helen Graham, and young daughter Noura. But he has four brothers still in Egypt, two of whom were in Tahrir Square and two who were manning road blocks to protect the community.
Whoever controls Tahrir Square, described by Adel as “the heart of Egypt”, controls the country, he said, and the people were determined to hold it. His brothers witnessed police charges on horseback, sniper fire, rubber bullets and tear gas, but in spite of the intimidation the crowds remained cheerful. “Everyone was very friendly, giving each other food. They stuck newspapers on the walls for everyone to read.”
The other brothers had to man road blocks using knives and sticks, Adel said, as early on in the protests 35,000 prisoners had been released from jails – the guards, on government orders, simply let them out to scare the public – and looting and lawlessness ensued. “It’s your country, do what you want,” they had been told by their desperate leaders.
Adel feels guilty, he said, being in Shetland, an “amazing place, so peaceful”, while his compatriots are experiencing the trauma of regime change in Egypt, a regime he has known all his life. It is history in the making, he said, a “huge big thing”. People have died to bring about reform – eight people setting themselves on fire, inspired by events in Tunisia, started the protests. Hundreds more have been injured in their time on the street, often being attacked by plain clothes police and government supporters.
Makeshift medical centres were set up, manned by volunteers.
But treatment was difficult as medical supplies were short, everything was shut down and internet and mobile phones connections were cut for five days as the government struggled to keep control.
Now that former president Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, Adel is hopeful for the future, he said, but worried that “someone will take change away from us – when we get what we ask for we won’t be worried”.
Democracy on the British model would be the answer for Egypt, Adel said, and now, after the 18 days which almost miraculously started to change the country, he said he could envisage it happening within 10 years. He used to think it would take 100, but the well-educated citizens, many of whom had to emigrate to find work, know all about the democratic model. “We need to bring them home.”
Because everything will be changed, he said. The government will change “from the roots”. Hospitals and schools that bear the name of Mubarak will get new titles. The emergency laws which gave the police so much power to intrude into people’s lives will be changed, all the government will be sacked and a new one elected, and specialists in the law will be brought in to re-write the laws. “Democracy is the best way to say things.”
Life under Mubarak was almost impossible, said Adel. The police could stop you in the street and demand your ID. If they liked you they would let you go, if they did not you could spend a night in the cells and have your money taken from you as well. Emergency laws could see you imprisoned for speaking out against the government, a secret police member could hear you anywhere – in a coffee shop or restaurant, for instance.
Prices rocketed, food went up 40 per cent in a year, and there were frequent power cuts, which meant people roasted in summer when the air conditioners could not work.
Possibly the worst thing was not being able to get a job after completing education – it all hinged on knowing the right person, said Adel, who now works at Peterson SBS oil installation at the Greenhead Base, fuelling all types of boats and road tankers.
He originally trained as an architect in Egypt, did national service and then could not find work. In an attempt to improve matters he learned English and Russian and worked in the tourist trade, thereby meeting his wife who was on holiday in the country.
And Mubarak allegedly stole billions of the country’s wealth. “We could make use of the money,” said Adel. “It’s time to improve the economy. We don’t need to spend money on the army, we’ve had no war for 30 years. We don’t need a military leader, we’ve always had a leader from a military background. We want a civilian leader.”
Now freedom from oppression could be close – Adel’s brother said he could for the first time “stand on his balcony and breathe”.
Adel is keen to see the situation for himself and will go to Egypt with his wife and daughter in October.