In Egypt, a dreamer continues lonely protest


Rasha Aza, 28, speaks to protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo. (Shawn Baldwin/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
October 4, 2011

Rasha Azb, tired and disheveled, walked up a dimly lighted, winding staircase to the three-bedroom apartment she shares with her mother, brother and sister. She quickly grabbed some clothes, ate, kissed her nieces and prepared to leave again.

Azb, a 28-year-old activist, hadn’t been home in 10 days. But there was another protest to attend, and Azb felt the familiar pull — a blend of exhilaration and obligation. There is always another protest.

For 18 days this winter, hundreds of thousands of Azb’s fellow Egyptians joined her in demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that accomplished the unthinkable, forcing the ouster of the country’s autocratic leader of nearly 30 years, Hosni Mubarak.

But in the months since the revolution, Azb’s struggle has gone back to what it was before the uprising: a lonely fight that few in Egypt are inclined to join against a seemingly implacable foe. The youths who once were hailed for leading the revolution as national saviors and true voices of the Arab street are now seen by many as a nuisance, clogging traffic and spoiling the economy. Even Azb’s brother tells her she’s wasting her time.

And yet to Azb, the stakes remain every bit as high as they were in February, when Mubarak fell. With the military in charge and elections on the way, this is the moment when Egypt will either live up to the ideals of those who fought and died for freedom, or revert to the old ways.

“Why are you silent?” she screams at passersby during demonstrations in the streets of the capital. “Do we have human rights yet?”

Her call is met with shrugs, or worse.

Azb is a dreamer, not a realist. She swears incessantly but is moved to tears by injustice. She screams for the end of military rule and for compensation and justice for the families of slain protesters. But when pressed on what exactly would satisfy her, she has no answer.

‘Time to come home’

In the family’s small apartment, with cracked walls and laundry hanging from the balcony, Ahmed Azb watched with resignation one recent day as his sister repacked her orange backpack in preparation for a return to Tahrir.

He was worried about her but also annoyed. The protests disrupt daily life, hurting the family business — a car repair shop that brings in about $500 a month. Now that Mubarak is gone and on trial, Ahmed Azb doesn’t understand what more demonstrations will achieve.

“Tahrir is the center of the city, and if it stops life, it’s not a good thing,” he said. “We’re going to suffer, and freedom can’t come from vandalism and destruction.”

Rasha’s mother is frustrated but proud of her stubborn daughter. She doesn’t understand why her daughter won’t get married and have children, why she won’t fix her curly hair, which is always pulled into a tight bun, or exchange her uniform of jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers for a dress. She never knows whether Rasha will come home bruised or perhaps end up in jail again.

“It's enough. It’s time to come home,” Sabr Azb told her daughter. “You can’t change everything.”

Rasha Azb rolled her eyes. In her mind, people flowing into the streets, civil disobedience and, in some cases, rock-throwing are all necessary to force the hand of authority.

“If the revolution stops now, we’ll take 100 steps back,” she said, sitting in her childhood bedroom, where the sheets are covered with cartoon hearts. “I have to keep my eyes open all the time so no one steals this revolution.”

Her walls are adorned with Che Guevara portraits and posters in support of Palestinian rights. Bookcases sag under the weight of hundreds of books, and an armoire overflows with newspaper clippings that recount important events in her life of activism.

Before she became involved in politics in 1997, she convinced her tradition-minded family that, although a woman, she would strike her own path in life. She stopped donning a head scarf in high school, though the rest of the women in her family wear one.

Azb spends her days with other activists, many of them the children of upper-crust families who learned about socialism and injustice in college classes. She learned about those concepts in her neighborhood, where the poor don’t have the money or the government connections to right the wrongs against them. She makes fun of the elite, saying they are too soft and out of touch in a country where millions live at or below the poverty line.

Azb shares her views in a column she writes for the al-Fagr independent news weekly. Her pieces are harshly critical of the nation’s military leaders; sometimes her editor tries to tone down her work.

She prints fliers to publicize protests. She has thrown rocks at the country’s former security chief as he was being carted off from yet another postponed trial, where he faces charges of killing protesters. And she has spent nights in the morgue to help the family of a slain protester obtain their loved one’s body without signing papers that called the death accidental.

Many Egyptians, eager for stability, treat Azb and the others disrupting traffic as a bother. She dismisses those people as members of the “party of the couch” — those who never act but reap the benefits of others’ sacrifices.

“My brother is like most Egyptians. He wants to work, eat, sleep and raise his children,” she said while driving away from home in her beat-up Fiat, the side mirror dangling, the fender smashed and the interior filled with protest fliers and posters. “He thinks freedom will come to his door. He doesn’t know that people are dying for that freedom.”

‘A long journey’

Rasha Azb is among those who have risked everything.

During parliamentary elections in 2005, she tried to enter a polling station to monitor suspected fraud. When state security forces refused her admission and confiscated her ID card, she swore at them and threw stones — unthinkable defiance at the time. Security agents followed her, but neighborhood residents who were impressed by her bravery at the polling station protected her.

“By herself she had a mini-uprising,” said her friend Diana al-Assi, recalling the episode. “She acts completely from her soul, because her mind is scared and her heart hurts.”

Azb was first moved to activism in 1998, when she distributed leaflets that criticized a four-day U.S. bombing campaign against Iraq.

She later organized protests condemning the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. At a 2000 protest in support of the Palestinians, Azb said, she was pushed down, punched and kicked by state security.

“It was the first time I’d been beaten, and it stung. But I realized that it was a long journey and I had to stand up for myself and stand up against the authorities,” she said.

Her anger, first directed at the United States and Israel, grew to include her own government. In 2006, she was swept up with dozens of others at a protest for constitutional reform and jailed for 33 days, accused of attempting to topple the government and insulting the president.

When Mubarak stepped down in February, Azb ran to the streets outside the presidential palace to celebrate and cry. It was a dream realized. But in the weeks and months that followed that moment of triumph, she realized that not much had changed.

On March 9, she was detained for four hours when army officers violently cleared protesters from a sit-in in central Cairo. She was taken to the nearby Egyptian Museum, handcuffed and blindfolded. She was kicked, punched and hit with the butt of a rifle, she said.

“We did the revolution so this wouldn’t happen,” she said, referring to what she endured that day. “It was more painful than any beating that came before, because it showed nothing had changed.”

‘Like an unplugged grenade’

In July, when protesters reoccupied Tahrir Square and promised to remain encamped until accused Mubarak-era officials and police were tried, Azb sat with other activists in the maze of tents. They crowded around a laptop to craft a statement urging residents in poor and middle-class neighborhoods to join the sit-in.

Azb wanted to write that the military was “complicit” in trying to slow down trials for Mubarak and his “gang.”

“We have to be politically correct,” another young female activist told her. “We don’t want to drive people away.”

“We have to tell the truth and pay the price,” Azb responded.

Even among seasoned activists, Azb has long been willing to push further than others are willing to go.

“She’s like an unplugged grenade. Sometimes it comes in handy, and sometimes it can be dangerous,” said Assi, her friend.

Lately, Azb has spent time protesting outside the Israeli Embassy, demonstrating in favor of labor rights and railing against the military for what she sees as a continuing effort to co-opt the revolution.

But on balance, is she having an impact? Do the dreamers have a place in the new Egypt, or did their moment pass in February? Is now the time for the realists to take charge?

Maybe her protests have forced the courts to put a bedridden Mubarak on trial. Maybe they’ve kept the heat on a military council that would otherwise run roughshod over individual rights. Maybe they’ve helped to ensure that the parliamentary elections due this year are held in a reasonably fair and open manner.

To Khallad Abu Zeid, the protesters are certainly having an impact on Egypt, and it’s not a good one. “There’s no stability and no investors. They’re scared to get into anything,” said the contractor and architect. The activists who want to continue to push for change, he said, are “bad for business.”

The military appears to have come to the same conclusion. Last month, protesters broke into the Israeli Embassy, ransacked part of the building and forced the staff to flee. (Azb participated in the protest but said she was not involved in storming the building.) Soon after, the ruling military council opted to expand its powers under emergency law — a key Mubarak-era tool for suppressing dissent.

Even before that, troops had dismantled the tents in Tahrir Square, beaten protesters and forced them out. Police armed with batons and shields now work in shifts to make sure that no one returns to the square. Azb has had to continue her battle elsewhere, but she’s unbowed.

“The dream is the only real weapon,” she said. “The dream itself is the only thing capable of changing the path of the people.”

Special correspondents Sulafeh Al Shami and Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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