Democracy in Action

The Guardian publishes Ahdaf Soueif’s dairy from Cairo. “What we have here,” she writes, “is the opposite of a vacuum; we have democracy in action on the ground in Tahrir Square. We are full of hope and ideas, and our gallant young people are guarding our periphery.”

As you start reading this, you will know something I don’t: you will know how this day – Friday 4 February – has turned out for us. I’m writing this at 7am. I slept in my brother’s house last night, so now I’m hearing different patterns of birdsong and muffled conversation from the street. The renewed pro-democracy protests are set to start soon and we shall all make our way to Tahrir Square. We shall be families – with the young people in the lead. We’ve called friends who’ve spent the night in the square. They say everything’s quiet.

On Thursday the new vice-president said the protests had to end. And the new prime minister stated he had no idea how violence came to happen on Wednesday in Tahrir, but that it would be investigated and, meanwhile, he was apologising to the people. And meanwhile, also, the government’s battalions of violent-crime-record personnel and plainclothes security forces were being moved around the city, yelling and brandishing banners and weapons and confronting protesters.

But let’s do this in sequence. These are short extracts from my diaries of these days …

Friday 28 January

The protests have been going for three days – but I’ve just come to Cairo from Jaipur and this is my first. I walked through the streets of Imbaba with a small group of activists clapping and chanting.

As people look down from balconies they wave at them: “Come down from the heights / come and get your rights.” People wave back. For two hours we walk the neighbourhood chanting against corruption, unemployment, sectarian division, fear. “We’re your kids, we’re part of you / What we’re doing is for you.” By the time we head to Tahrir Square, the focus of the protests, we are five thousand.

As the protests from every quarter approach Tahrir the Central Security Forces start using teargas, rubber bullets, shotguns and live ammunition. They turn the march into a battle. Much of the ammunition is marked ‘made in the USA’. This is not a surprise but is noted and commented on by everybody.

The internet and all mobile communications have been cut off.


I am so amazed and touched by the field hospital at the back of Tahrir Square. The young doctors, male and female, are professional, dedicated and sympathetic. The injured are polite and so brave. Volunteer private cars ferry critical cases and bring in supplies.

The government has removed police and all security from the streets and neighbourhoods are policing themselves. Young people have formed neighbourhood watches and are guarding their areas. They’re having fun, inventing barricades and passwords, checking IDs and ushering you through with a theatrical flourish.

Everyone – particularly women – are talking about how much safer they feel with the police off the streets.


One of my sons has been trying to get back from DC and today succeeds – after a last minute panic when the plane was turned back to Athens. It takes three and a half hours to make the half-hour journey from the airport as the army have blocked the tunnel bypassing President Mubarak’s home, where he doesn’t live.

In the evening we go to the square. No police in sight and the army and young volunteers guarding the entrances. There’s music and food and water and camp fires and debates and universal courtesy.

The government has closed down the banks, schools, offices. They’re bringing the country to a halt and pretending the protests are somehow doing it.

Tuesday 1 February

Today is the “million person protest” and the atmosphere in the square is brilliant. We look like people who’ve woken up from a spell, a nightmare. How many are we? In the square there are hundreds of thousands. Across Egypt, the military estimate 4 million out on the streets. And the watchword everywhere is “silmiyyah” (peaceable). We say to each other, how did they divide us? How did they make us think badly of our youth, of each other? We revel in the inclusiveness, the generosity, the humour that comes so easily to us. People offer each other food and drink, people chat, people pick up litter. Streetsweepers, businessmen, waiters, academics, farmers, we are all here together. There is no going back.


I’ve woken up with a cold and sore throat. Spend the day doing radio interviews in my pyjamas.

My son calls from Tahrir to say that something’s different. There are no civilians on the checkpoints and the military are not checking people any more. No bags are searched. Truck-loads of government thugs are being delivered to the entrances to the square.

I write and talk to the media. My voice is practically gone. My doctor aunt gives me lozenges with cortisone.

My son calls and says government thugs are attacking. He describes battles at the entrances to the square. Young men and women forming defence lines to fight off the thugs. Trucks supplying the thugs with weapons and lasers shone at the protesters. A clinic set up and running. Thugs caught and handed unharmed to the army – that stands by doing nothing.

I’m supposed to speak to Channel 4 News. I ask if they’ll send me a car but they say the situation is too dangerous for them to take the responsibility of transporting me. So I transport myself. And when we’re finished Jon Snow walks me back to my car. The Battle for Tahrir is taking place not a hundred metres from where I’m parked. Somewhere in there my nieces are manning communications with the outside world, my son is filming the fighting, and various friends are variously deployed. How many ways can this government disgrace itself? The area between the Egyptian Museum and the Rameses Hilton has become a badlands. They’ll tear up the country rather than depart?


I’ve woken up much better and the net’s working although it’s slow. Our mobiles work but without messages. We all phone to check up on each other. The grocer calls to ask if we need anything and we ask for bread, milk, tea, eggs and so on. The laundry delivers ironed curtains I’d taken down and washed in a fit of euphoric physical activity on Monday. I hang them. For those of us not spending 24-hour days on the square it seems to be necessary to maintain a level of normalcy: our revolution likes fresh curtains.

Heading for the square today the mood is grim; we feel we should move in groups. Several of us arrange to park and meet by the Opera House; from there it’s a short walk across Qasr el-Nil Bridge to the square. The street is lined with parked cars.

Everyone walking to Tahrir is carrying something: blankets, cartons of water, medical supplies. Lots of us are taking mobile charge cards. As we get to the middle of the bridge we’re approached by three men and we know from their body language they’re not friends. We automatically form into a tight phalanx. They’re trying to grab the blankets and first aid bags and shouting that we have to be searched, that these things have to be delivered to an “official station”. We shout louder. In fact we scream: “Get away from us! Get away from us!”

This is the first time I’ve screamed in the streets. I think it’s the first time I’ve even said these words. We’re holding on to our supplies and on to each other and we keep moving. My sister (a professor of maths at Cairo University) hits the man who’s trying to grab her bag.

We’ve just had news that her husband, Ahmad Seif, and several of his lawyer/activist colleagues have been grabbed from the Hisham Mubarak Legal Centre where they provide support for political detainees and a hub for other humanitarian organisations. We don’t know where they’ve been taken. My sister says Ahmad had told her that if this happened we should not spend time looking for them but should concentrate on holding Tahrir and making the protests work.

Activists run forward from the square to help us and we reach the young people’s checkpoint and are thoroughly and politely searched: men by men, women by women. Two army soldiers stand by. A young activist asks us to give them blankets; he says they’ve been there for two days with no cover. They demur but take the blankets.

In the square the mood is sober, determined, indignant. The disinformation, the smears being spread by the government are hurting – perhaps more than the wounds and bruises so many people are carrying. Now I properly understand why revolutions need to seize radio and TV stations – you need to stop the other side lying about you. That this regime should dare to say that the protesters are agents of Israel, Iran and Hamas(!) beggars belief. This is what people are talking about. This, and that there’s no turning back.

I’m meeting friends who live and work in London, in Brussels, in New York and Doha. We hug each other. We have all come home.

I go to look at the front line of yesterday’s battle between the Egyptian Museum and the Franciscan School. The thugs have been beaten back but they’re regrouping. The clinic area hums with activity, and young men are standing at the edge of the square with linked arms to protect it. A woman sees me writing and says: “Write. Write that my son is in there with the young men. That we’re fed up with what’s been done to our country. That this regime divides Muslim from Christian. That it’s made people hungry. Our young men are humiliated abroad while our country is bountiful. But they’ve made it a country of corruption.”

We get news that 39 more people have been taken. Among them seven of the young organisers – kidnapped from the street after a meeting with El-Baradei. A friend phones. She says many Egyptian Christians are fasting; fasting for victory.


I shall leave now for Tahrir Square. My family is already there. My son phoned and said it’s fine: the military are running checks and everything’s orderly.

The questions that are being settled on the streets of Egypt are of concern to everyone. The paramount one for us today is this: can a people’s revolution that is determinedly democratic, grass-roots, inclusive and peaceable succeed?

8pm: The thugs have stayed in the side streets. The square is well defended, and has provided all day – as in the other two days of peace we have had – a space for debate. Many ideas for moving forwards are being articulated and discussed. What we have here is the opposite of a vacuum; we have democracy in action on the ground in Tahrir Square. We are full of hope and ideas, and our gallant young people are guarding our peripherary. A British journalist I met on the square told me she was privileged to have witnessed Tuesday. This, she said, is the ideal revolution that we never dreamed could actually happen.

Well, here it is, and we shall do everything peaceable and decent to hold on to it.

Ahdaf Soueif is the author of The Map of Love and many other books. She lives in Cairo and London

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