A Middle-Class Revolutionary of Tahrir Square

In the United States, a Facebook group is more often than not a limited-liability convergence of weak, casual social ties. In Egypt, and elsewhere in the volatile world, a Facebook group may be a conspiracy so large as to warrant being called a pact.

Khaled Genena, with a thick mustache and mirthful eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, is the business manager of a unit at the American University of Cairo. He is definitely not one of the ?shabab al-Facebook,? the Facebook youth credited with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. He is forty-seven, ?an old guy, a fat guy,? as he puts it several times in the course of a conversation at the university café.

A few months ago, at the behest of an old, trusted friend, Genena joined the ?We Are All Khaled Said? Facebook group set up by a Google executive to honor the young Alexandria businessman who last June had been beaten to death by the police. Not because Genena had the habit of protest. I ask about his earlier experience. He shrugs. At twenty, as a college student, he demonstrated once?for some narrow cause he has now forgotten.

When he heard there was to be a demonstration against Hosni Mubarak?s rule in Tahrir Square, on January 25, he and his friends stopped on the way downtown to buy flowers for the police. Making nice to the police?this is a tactic some of my American friends practiced in 1968. Quite independently, Khaled Genena and his friends already knew, somehow, that such stratagems could be useful.

Khaled is a religious man. He prays. He is not one of those who have developed a prayer scar on his forehead?not uncommon in Cairo?but he prays. One Friday a month, he is in the habit of praying at al-Azhar, Egypt?s oldest and most influential mosque, dedicated in 972 CE. Three days after his first demonstration in Tahrir Square, on January 28, he went to al-Azhar not only to pray but to find out about more demonstrations. Normally the ceremonial sermon goes forty-five minutes or so. On this occasion, it went only fifteen minutes, and the subject was absurdly insipid?the importance of ?safety.? ?I was angry,? he says. ?Others were angry.? He left. Five minutes later, the tear gas and rubber bullets started flying. He took refuge in a shop, then made his way home to watch al-Jazeera. ?Egyptian news was lies and nonsense,? he said. The official channel displayed a picture-perfect shot of the Nile.

The next day, he sent his wife and two daughters to stay with his mother-in-law?they thought Mubarak deserved to stay in power?and went back to Tahrir Square with his camera-phone. On ascent from the metro he saw a police car burning, tanks, a helicopter flapping low overhead. There were sixty or eighty thousand people in the square. Cars and buildings were on fire, an ATM smashed?all shocking to him. He took pictures, posted them later (of course) on Facebook.

From then on, he went back to Tahrir Square every day. He was not one of those who stayed overnight. He is overweight, after all, unable to run. He takes medicines to keep his blood pressure down. But early every afternoon he went back to the square. He would stop to speak to people who said things like, ?This revolution won?t do anything for us. We want stability, safety. Those people should go back to work.? He would say, ?Everything has a price. This is the price of our freedom. We have to be free.? He comes from the middle class, he explains. ?I have a good house, a good car. I was fine. I did not go to Tahrir Square for money. I did not join the revolution for myself.?

On February 2, the demonstration started out peacefully, but an old bus came along, the kind used to transport workers to and from factories, and the next thing Khaled knew, the horses and camels galloped in?Mubarak?s thugs. (Al-Jazeera uploaded a photo showing Khaled, wearing a vest, standing to the right of the thug with the yellow shirt.) Some demonstrators ripped stones from the sidewalks. His friends tried to get them to put down their stones. Some pro-Mubarak demonstrators stood on the tanks of the army to attack them, although the army was neutral. That was the day his wife and daughters decided Mubarak should go.

?I thank the Muslim Brotherhood,? he says. ?If they did not defend the square, the revolution was finished. They divided up in groups. They had groups breaking up stones, carrying stones, carrying water, carrying the wounded away.? Up to that day, he had no particular attitude toward the Brotherhood. ?They are Egyptian like me, that?s all.? So were the Christians, who surrounded praying Muslims to defend them on subsequent days. I asked how he knew they were Christian. He makes the sign of the cross on the back of his hand. ?They made the mark.?

The next day, he was depressed. He and his friends were being called traitors. So he skipped the square. A friend called, said he was going back on Friday, February 4. He went too. At this point, the police having been taken off the streets, people had formed protective groups to protect their neighborhoods. He walked up to groups, urging them to go to Tahrir Square. Did he convince anyone? I asked. Yes. ?I said, ?What?s better, to watch television or to have a woman in your arms in bed? Go see the real thing!??

He made friends in the square. He was there when Mubarak refused to resign?whereupon Khaled ripped out his earpiece and started singing a sardonic song. He was there the day Mubarak did resign. ?I gained seventy friends on Facebook?all through the revolution. From 150, I went to 220. We keep seeing each other. My Facebook is now open [switched on] more than the television.? After talking to me, he says, he is heading downtown with some of them to a meeting he learned about at a previous meeting. The novelist-journalist Alaa al-Aswany (The Yacoubian Building) would speak. ?He has criticized Mubarak for years.? The books of his criticism, Khaled thinks, are more important than his novels. The next day, April 1, Khaled plans to demonstrate again in Tahrir Square, the ?Day of Cleansing,? to ask, why is justice so slow? Why no trials announced yet for Mubarak and his family and henchmen?

?Now I am giving time to the political,? he says matter-of-factly. ?Before, I gave my time to football. I went to the games. Now I attend meetings and seminars. I have no time for games. This is not only my feeling.?

His view of the Brotherhood? ?They will be strong to a certain degree.? He doesn?t like the polarization of Muslim against Christian and vice versa. Why, he asks, should Muslims panic? ?Muslims number 70 million, Christians 13 million.? The implication is that the Salafist momentum featured in the press of recent days is a product of stoked panic. This religious man says, ?I don?t like religion mixed up with politics.?

After February 11, his daughters went to Tahrir Square with her friends?to clean. Not only the downtown areas were cleaned, he insists. ?They were cleaning the streets all over. ?Now it?s our Egypt. Before it wasn?t.? I see that the streets are filthy again, I say. He laughs. ?Yes, it?s normal!?

The deepest polarization in Egypt today may be between those who want to restore normality?to get back to work, to coax tourists back?and those who want to pursue the revolution, whatever that means to them. Meanwhile, political parties?many of them small enough to fit around a café table?will mobilize. At least some of the revolutionaries, including the shabab al-Facebook, will persist. Khaled Genena and his Facebook friends old and new have, right now, no particular interest in political parties. They are nobody?s cadres.

They may, in the end, be disappointed. Liberal values tremble in the balance. There has been at least one amply publicized brutal army attack on women, now under investigation, and harassment of Copts and others during the March 19 referendum vote.

But any faction contending for power?in particular, any that aims to fuse the state with Islam?will have to contend with people like the grassroots revolutionary Khaled Genena. He and his friends knew to buy flowers for the police. They knew to keep going back to Tahrir Square. They tried to get people to put down their stones. They were civic-minded enough to be offended and depressed about being called traitors. They had, and have, the homegrown stuff of citizens and the knack of a popular movement. It is not impossible that they might, eventually, be defeated. It is also a fact that they exist.

Cross-posted from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Image: Khaled Genena