On 11th February, 2011, on the 18th day of protesting, Egyptian revolutionaries forced their dictator to stand down, after 30 years of oppressive rule.
Mona Seif was at the heart of the revolution. Chris Crowstaff spoke to Mona on the 12th February...
On the second evening – you were asking people to stay positive, even when your dad was in prison. I saw your tweets calling for millions to come the next day, and low and behold, they did. How did you manage to stay positive yourself?
People find it hard to believe, but it was really easy to stay positive if you were in Tahrir Square.
If you are in Tahrir Square you really feel people’s determination and you really feel Mubarak is just one kick away from stepping down.
Once you step out of Tahrir you get faced with all the other complications of the real world and how hard it is for real. So if you talk to anyone, and I talked to a lot of my friends and they all had the same impression – you basically need to go to Tahrir Square to get this spark of positivity and optimism and then take it out to the world. You really feel like nothing could bring the people who were in Tahrir day and night down.
Even his last speech which really put me in a state of anger, it really took 30 minutes for this anger to disappear because people suddenly turned it into this very positive energy and we marched out of Tahrir Square and we took over the TV building and we took over the presidential palace, so there’s always something positive.
A lot of people were asking whether, in the Square, you knew you had the support of millions of people throughout the world?
We kept telling the protesters that the whole world is watching and is completely with us and completely inspired by what is happening"
I was, because I was constantly online, I was constantly on twitter. The last week I’ve been getting supporting tweets and supporting emails and some of them were really personal and really touching. I have a flickr account where I post my photos and it’s a free account. One day I woke up and I found that someone anonymous, I don’t even know who it was, paid for it to be a professional account. We have been getting a lot of supporting emails and comments, and when people asked us in Tahrir Square, when people were shooting and we were posting photos, we kept on telling them the whole world is watching and it’s completely with us and completely inspired by what is happening in Tahrir Square. So this helped, for me personally - the moral boost and the hanging on to positivity.
I have to ask this, people keep asking what part did women play in the revolution?
Women were involved with distributing food, collecting money, getting blankets, arranging the stage from which we announced and we organised stuff, medical aid on the field while people were getting shot at and wounded – everything.
Ah – I’ve been asked this a lot.
We played everything.
I didn’t try to stop and point out what we did in the whole movement until I was asked frequently about the role women played. Because, from the beginning, I went to demos with women. I went with my friends, my mother, my sister. So I was always surrounded by women. I always saw women I know and I don’t know really getting involved in everything. Even like organising January 25th from the beginning it was from a female friend of mine that I knew about all of the details and arranging the distribution of food, the collecting money, getting blankets, the women arranging the stage from which we announced and we organised stuff, medical aid on the field while people were getting shot at and getting wounded – everything, everything, women and girls were there.
One of the stories I would never forget is one day I stumbled upon this girl in Tahrir Square and she comes from a very conservative family. She is veiled and for her to be out in the streets is a big step and basically what she did, she actually told her family she’s going on the demonstration in the city. She was watching what was happening in Tahrir on TV and she couldn’t imagine not being part of it and she went to Tahrir and she gave them a call from Tahrir Square telling them, ‘I’m sorry I have to be in Tahrir Square and I won’t be back till this is over’. And me and her were joking about how the revolution must succeed because otherwise she can’t go back to her family!
So I have really seen amazing women and there was no question about even thinking for a second the role of what women play in the movement because they were part of every single detail out there.
When you say, ‘in the beginning’, when did you start planning this and at what point did you realise you were planning a revolution as oppose to a demonstration or protest?
They shut down the internet, mobile communication, TV channels and yet I was sure it would go on.
First of all, I wasn’t part of the organisers at all. I just happened to know a lot of them and I was part of the people who, from the beginning, thought this is an important day and promoted for it online. But what I was thinking that I was promoting for was basically a big day for showing our anger and our opposition to the corruption of the state and particularly the sort of economic problems we are facing, the salaries, the lack of chances for graduates and the young generation and also protesting against emergency laws, the basic problems that we have.
The day before January 25th, I sat on my blog. My blog is really personal, even when I shout out a call for political events I do it from a personal perspective and I wanted to write a personal invitation for people to join us on January 25th. I didn’t think this was a revolution, even though people were saying ‘come on, a revolution on January 25th and stuff’, I was calling for people to participate in a big protest. The only thing I could think of to tell people to come is that if we manage to fool the police for a couple of minutes and if we managed to walk in the streets chanting loudly against Mubarak and his regime and chanting about our problems, without the police clamping down on us, if we manage to do this – I had this feeling on a smaller scale in a previous demonstration – that if for these couple of minutes we feel for once that this country is ours and these streets are ours.
I think that anyone who claims that he wants to stay in this country and he likes it and loves it has to have this feeling, this feeling of a sense of ownership for the country and for the streets. And that was the only reason I could give anyone to come and join this movement. I would have never thought that it would extend over days. I would have never thought that it would really turn into a revolution where we actually claimed our ownership of the country. And I think everyone really realised that this could become a much bigger thing when we ended up marching tens of thousands towards Tahrir Square on the 25th and we took it over.
And we sat down and agreed with all the people in the square that we had three demands. It was for Mubarak to step down, for the cabinet to be dissolved and for the parliament also to be dissolved. And that was the statement of the Egyptian revolution.
I remember we didn’t have communication in Tahrir Square. They shut down the mobile networks in Tahrir Square. So I ran out of Tahrir Square so I could find a place so I could email this to my brother and friends outside so they can circulate it out to the media. And everyone out of here, everyone who wasn’t living this moment of us taking over Tahrir thought we were completely out of our minds. Like why would we think that taking over Tahrir Square and moving into a big protest, that we could suddenly really ask for Mubarak and his regime to step down.
But everyone in Tahrir Square thought that we could do this. And so from this point on it became a street movement. It had nothing to do with the initial call. It just took over completely and it was going to continue whatever, whatever the regime did.
They shut down the internet, they shut down mobile communication, they shut down most of the TV channels covering us, and yet I knew I was sure it would go on.
And that certainty came across. It was incredible to ‘be there’ virtually. It was incredible for people in that situation, in Tahrir Square, to actually be spreading positive energy out to the rest of the world.
What would you say to people who might be in a slightly similar situation and also to the people in the rest of the world who would like to support that process?
They arrested journalists, human rights funders, bloggers and prominent activists – but it wouldn’t make any difference...
Basically, what I think I have personally learnt is that first of all it was that really the strength is in our numbers. I have been for years attending demonstrations and when we hit a thousand, we felt this was so powerful. And always because we were such a small number it was always easy for the police to beat the shit out of us and to detain people. Really the strength is in our numbers and so people can really just take it to the end. Because this was a street movement it had no leaders and that is one of its main strengths. If it had a leader, it would have been very easy for the regime to target this leader and abort the movement. But it had no leader. It would have been very easy for them to arrest all of the - as they did - to arrest journalists and human rights funders and they arrested bloggers and they arrested some prominent activists – it wouldn’t make any difference. Once it’s a street movement, it will topple the regime no matter what as long as people are really willing to stick it to the end.
I have seen people die. And this is why I knew nothing, nothing, nothing could stop this movement.
I had seen people die for it and die with no fear. They weren’t scared, they were really facing their death in, I don’t know, like triumphantly, like they were really walking bravely toward it because they knew this was for a justified cause.
So really the power is in the people and the numbers and that’s it.
We’ve seen interviews with older generations, younger generations. And certainly people’s parents, grandparents are saying that it’s a dream come true to see this day. You get the impression that, all through their lives, they’ve been really wanting this to happen but they didn’t quite have the courage or something or they needed the younger generation to increase the numbers.
Did you have a sense while you were growing up (with your dad, a human rights lawyer, in prison for many years) that actually there was a majority that was totally dissatisfied?
The case that really really changed the participation of the young generation in publically opposing the regime was the death of Khaled Said last year.
I’ve always had the sense that everyone was dissatisfied. But I was always disappointed at people’s ability to swallow the dissatisfaction and not wake up. We always have this common saying, like a proverb, that ‘you walk by the wall’ so basically you step aside and try to avoid any confrontation or anything that would drag you into a confrontational state. I really think what changed all of this are a sequence of incidents in which it was obvious that the brutality and the corruption of the state could harm you and even kill you, regardless of your involvement in the political scene or not.
The case that really highlighted this and really really changed the participation of the young generation in publically opposing the regime was the death of Khaled Said last year. Khaled Said was an Alexandrian boy and he was beaten to death in public by two policemen. And it was not the standard stories in which people usually found an excuse for torture – and of course torture is inexcusable – but people always find personal conditions to justify why this could happen and also why this could never happen to them. In Khaled Said’s case none of this applied. He was a regular boy. He was not politically active. He was not a criminal. He was just like any boy you would probably see at university or at the club or in the neighbourhood. And this case really changed people’s participation and people’s reaction towards what was happening and I think it really started this new wave that eventually, along with the Tunisian Revolution, was one of the things that eventually led to January 25th.
So that’s basically why our generation made it while my dad’s generation didn’t.
Obviously, you haven’t had a chance as a country to plan ahead now, because you didn’t know there was going to be a revolution, but do you imagine that women might play a major part in the next steps and, if so, what do you feel that women’s involvement might be?
I don’t know. I’ve never really looked for what women could particularly do because I come from a family where women are extremely empowered. The joke in our family is that our women are more powerful than our men! So I always have blind faith and always assume that of course women will play a major role in whatever happens next.
For example, in Khaled Said’s case, the important figure in actually talking to the people and mobilising them was his mother. If you see his mother, she is like a typical Egyptian mother and I don’t think she would have ever been the one to normally take on political battles.
But she has been through a horrible incident. She has lost her son. And she has seen how people can rise to this. So suddenly she became a symbol and she is such a great woman.
You can’t imagine how moving it is to just see her talk. And so she became such an important figure for all Egyptians. Actually a lot of people call her ‘Mother of Egyptians’.
So women have been part of this movement and they are going to be part of what comes next and they are always going to be there. There’s no question about it. I think we have to stop wondering how much they will be involved because they are involved and they are a huge part of it.
The Egyptian women I’ve spoken with come across as very powerful. Egypt has certainly been a huge inspiration – it gives us hope for humanity! Probably a silly question, but how are you feeling now yourself? Is it possible for you to begin to describe how you feel now compared with your childhood when you were visiting your father when he was in prison? What might it be like to go back to some sort of ‘normal’ life – what is your work?
OK – how am I feeling? I’ve never been happier! Like really! I’ve never been happier.
Like always, before, when I used to talk with anyone, going back to being a child, I used to say how I love this country, I love a lot of things about it but one of the things I hate most is how I feel alienated a lot of the time and how I always walk in the streets feeling sexual harassment and feeling conflict with a lot of people and I am the sort of person who likes to make contact with all people and make friends at random with people on the streets. So what I am feeling today is I am just so happy and I love how I just walk in the streets, smile at people and they smile back at me. We all congratulate one another. Everyone is happy.
Everyone is genuinely happy and so everyone is genuinely kind and genuinely warm and genuinely proud to be there and happy to have anyone share this moment with them.
So this is a great day, like I don’t want to leave the streets. I am so happy. And also I don’t feel like a minority. And it’s not that I’m a minority. At the end of the day I’m a Muslim middle class girl so this is not really a minority. But I’ve never felt like I belong and am comfortable here until now, and this is not just my feeling – this is the feeling of all of my friends.
My brother, who was staying in South Africa, and who just couldn’t stand being away while all of this was happening and he returned last Sunday. He and his wife have decided that they want to return to Egypt. They were going to stay in South Africa for a couple of years. They want to return to Egypt.
Most of my friends who are studying abroad are deciding that they want to end this and come to Egypt. All of us who thought that the only way to build this country is to go out and get a proper education and get established and then come back and try to work here know now that by our efforts and by our generation’s work, we have a proper chance to start working here and building ourselves here and help build the country here.
I am doing my masters and I can hopefully finish it soon and then I could go abroad and do a PHD so I was looking at possible projects where I had the opportunity to go abroad. And now all I can think of is that I want to stay here and may be find potential projects that would fund work here. So suddenly all of our dreams and focuses have changed and we feel that we are part of this country and we feel that we are working here and we feel that we have a base here and it’s not a waste of our energy or efforts or anything.
What is my work? Actually I graduated in 2007 from the faculty of science where I studied Biology and Chemistry. I am working as a junior researcher in the cancer biology research lab in Cairo university, particularly molecular biology and breast cancer.
Did you camp out the whole time in Tahrir Square?
At the beginning, when the internet was shut down, I wasn’t because me and a couple of friends were the only people who had got internet connection in the whole of Tahrir. By coincidence, a friend of ours had internet provided by the one company that had all of the financial and the stock exchange process on it, so when the government shut down all internet provider companies, they didn’t shut down this one. So we still had an internet connection. So she offered us to turn her house into sort of an information house. So we were like 20 to 25 people camping at her place. We go out, we participate in the protests, we take as much footage on video as possible and then we go back and uploaded all of this footage because it was really our last method of communicating with the world like this.
So for the first couple of days in the mornings we went to the demonstrations until night and then I go and then return the next morning.
After the communication was resumed, it was easy for me to stay on Tahrir because I had my phone and I could automatically, on the spot, tweet and send out photos and everything.
So it’s going to be strange being home again?
Yes actually I am staying at my friend’s place because I still want to be close to Tahrir Square. And I’m thinking may be if I go home I should bring a couple of my friends with me so we can keep the feeling that it is still a crowd there!
But, yes, sooner or later we’ll have to get back to our normal life but it will be with a difference.
Is there anything you’d like to add that you’d really like people to hear?
I can’t believe this all happened in 19 days only. It seems like a lifetime. I can’t believe all of this could really change at such a short notice.
I lived 18 days in Tahrir Square where I really experienced everything I always dreamed my country would be and it wasn’t. I’ve seen people co-living together, regardless of their backgrounds. I experienced a sense of belonging I’ve never felt. I experienced welcoming smiles and talks from complete strangers.
It is an amazing, amazing experience and I just hope that what this revolution did to Egypt is to basically turn all of Egypt into Tahrir Square and what we experienced in Tahrir Square.
I just want everyone to remember it was peaceful, it was amazing how people insisted on being peaceful to the end.
But we lost a lot of people for it. And not only the people we lost during these 18 days but all the people we lost previously through torture, or though any other state brutality. So these people are really the ones who paid the price.
At the end of the day, I was out in Tahrir but I was safe and fully protected.
They gave their lives to get us there and it is now our responsibility to work on it and to keep it safe, keep Egypt a bright place.
Well I wish the feel of Tahrir Square could spread out to the whole world, to be honest!
Yes, yes, yes. Hopefully the wave will move to other regions. We were thinking of may be sending our troops to Algeria!
And we have to remember Tunisia. Tunisia is what gave people the hope and pushed people to call the 25th a day of anger and a day of revolution and everyone made a joke about it and now it’s not a joke, it’s a reality.
But really really what happened in Tunisia gave us this, basically, flare of madness to go on with this.
I wish we could have an open day in Tahrir Square where all the supporters all over the world could come and join us and celebrate!