When Tunisia exploded in early January, I hoped the revolution underway there would repeat itself in Egypt, but it felt like a faint hope and I dismissed it.
I knew change was in the air on both cultural and political levels in the country of my birth, and I was excited and inspired by the prospect. There were positive signs. Endemic sexual harassment which women of all ages experience was being challenged by feminists as well as by young men. Together, they were making headway using social media, discussion groups and peer-to-peer education.
I’d spoken to human rights activists who were passionately committed to eliminating the injustices against Copts in Egypt. These workers were bridging the divide between Muslims and Christians which had caused so many Egyptians to flee, including many Egyptian Australians.
And I’d watched interviews with democracy activists and bloggers who described their arrest and torture but who never gave up the hope that one day, there would be a free, democratic Egypt.
Yet for all this, Egypt had never known democracy and I felt that it would take several generations of struggle for things to change.
Then the events of 25 January 2011 took place and all these signs of change suddenly accelerated as the world watched the optimistic and bold liberation of a country whose people had had enough of despotism.
"It’s a great time we are witnessing," a fellow Australian Egyptian friend, Mohamed Youssef wrote on Facebook. "It’s about time people rise and revolt against injustice and tyranny. Inshallah, all these dictators fall one by one."
Sydneysider Gehan Sawires told me on the phone yesterday she was "elated about how people have stood their ground". In regular contact with a friend in Cairo at the protests, she’d asked her on Saturday if the protests would stop. The answer was a defiant "we don’t stop until he’s [President Mubarak] out!"
The events in Egypt have inspired solidarity actions in Australia and there have been several protests held in Sydney and Melbourne including one yesterday outside the Egyptian consulate in Sydney.
I wondered, though, about the key issues underpinning the response of the Egyptian community in Australia.
A Coptic Church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year’s Eve by a suicide bomber. It left 21 people dead. The Coptic community took to the streets in Sydney and Melbourne to express their anger.
Copts make up the largest group of the Australian Egyptian community. My friends asked searching questions on Facebook and family members shared their sorrow and anger online too. One cousin told me "the blood of the people still stains the church steeple". It’s a harrowing reminder of a terrifying and unjust time. They came out in large numbers in street marches this month to express their anger about the killings. How would they engage with the latest protests? The protests in support of the uprising haven’t been large.
Victor Boulos, an Australian Egyptian who’s been here for over 40 years, knows only too well the difficulty of mobilising the community as a whole. So do the divisions among Egyptians contribute to a low turnout here in Australia, I ask him.
There’s a thoughtful pause and then he says, "I think people are very reluctant to get out on the street. I’m not quite sure where people are and why they haven’t actually come out. In fact I expected to have not only Egyptians out on the street, but others of the Middle east … this is a Middle East or pan Arab phenomenon rather than an Egyptian, Tunisian or Yemeni one. But having said that, I have very little doubt that people are feeling very,very strongly. I’ve seen people crying with emotion and hope as they watch events unfold on the streets of Cairo or as is happening now in the Sudan, Yemen or Algeria."
Speaking by phone from the protest outside the Egyptian Consulate in Sydney yesterday, Omar Mustapha from the Australian Egyptian Friendship Association tells me the uprising has had a positive impact on relationships between Christians and Muslims. He points to Friday prayers in Cairo last week when Muslim worshippers prayed in front of the reviled security forces. "Christians," he said, "were covering their back so the security doesn’t beat them up. I know many stories about Christians who went to hide in mosques because that was a safe place for them."
As for the Australian Egyptian community, he believes it’s united in what it wants for Egypt: "You get a lot of opinions, but [we’re] unified as in wanting him [Mubarak] to go, to step down. I didn’t hear a single person say otherwise. I think we all have the same feelings and emotions. "
It’s a view that’s echoed by Gehan Sawires who is delighted to see Egyptians getting together, even if it is on a small scale. "It’s that positive energy you’re sending out, telling the world that this is how we all feel."
So how do Australian Egyptians see the uprising ending?
Amr Fahmy, another organiser of the protests in Sydney believes "the Army is going to get rid of Mubarak."
But he paints a disturbing picture of the departure of the Egyptian President. "I think he’s going be like Ben Ali [ousted Tunisian President]and will run away. But first, he’s going make sure a lot of people were killed. Our country was burned and damaged because he doesn’t love the country."
With this disturbing prediction in mind, I asked Amr about the looting. Was it the people or as the demonstrators have been saying, the Secret Police who were doing the looting?
He tells me those who were caught were from the Secret Police. They had IDs and weapons on them. "Mubarak sent them to do that. People will get scared [and will]spend their time on guarding their homes and … families and forget about the political work."
"He’s letting everything go to riot just to wear people out", agrees Gehan. But she’s optimistic about Mohamed El Baraday’s involvement "because [the]movement is led by young people and led by the people themselves. There’s a strong chance that we can have a government representative of what the people want. I’m really hopeful that’s going to happen!"
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