As we watched the remarkable scenes in Egypt last week, one member of the Need to Know staff was immersed nearly 24/7 — and for good reason. Producer Mona Iskander is Egyptian-American, with some of her family still living in Cairo. She stayed in touch with them constantly and we at Need to Know were able to see the revolution unfold through her eyes:
Over the years, I’ve visited Egypt many times to see family and friends. My last trip there was only six weeks ago, just before the January 25th uprising had begun. While I was there, people voiced their usual frustrations about corruption and political repression but that was no hint of what was to come. It was just “business as usual” in Egypt.
And that’s what I saw up close back in 2007. I was reporting a story for PBS about Egyptian attitudes toward the U.S. and toward democratic reform in their own country. Open criticism of the government was definitely a risk, and filming on the street was viewed with suspicion. Political apathy seemed to seep through almost every corner of society. But there were exceptions. Young Egyptian bloggers were bravely taking a stand against a government that they believed was unjustly jailing and abusing its citizens.
I spoke to one of those bloggers, Wael Abbas, in his Cairo home. His website was getting a million hits a month when we met him. One of the reasons: videos he posted of police brutality. It’s something human rights groups said was routine in Egypt — an allegation the authorities denied.
“I’m trying to enlighten people,” Abbas said. “I’m trying to expose corruption, expose torture.”
Abbas showed me a video he posted to his website taken with a cell phone camera — disturbing footage of a bus driver allegedly being sexually assaulted by police. Wael Abbas told me his mission was to make Egyptians aware of their rights.
And thanks to brave people like Abbas, for the first time, people were seeing with their own eyes what was happening behind the façade of Hosni Mubarak’s government. So maybe it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to me when suddenly it wasn’t just a few brave bloggers but thousands of brave Egyptians who descended on Tahrir Square in a call to action.
It was an incredible sight to see. But as much as it was thrilling to watch the crowds — it also scared me when violence broke out on the streets of Cairo. I feared for the safety of family and friends, especially when my aunt told me she was double-locking her apartment door so pro-Mubarak thugs couldn’t break in. But her neighbors in the building took turns keeping watch outside, a scene repeated all over the city. And people everywhere took matters into their own hands.
For his part, Wael Abbas was out among the protesters, posting updates of what was happening on the ground on Facebook and on Twitter. And when the president resigned, he tweeted: “Mubarak has left the building!”
Abbas and other Egyptians tell me it is too early to know what the future holds and whether true democratic change will come to Egypt. But watching Egyptians bond together, clean up their city and take on a new sense of responsibility has been truly moving. Change won’t happen overnight, but it seems for the first time in decades that anything is now possible in Egypt.