Half a century ago, I was part of a human flood surging through the streets of Cairo. It was March 1954, and we had poured out of the university gates intending to cross the bridge of Qasr el Nil and meet up with other protesters for a massive demonstration outside the official presidential palace in Abdin Square.
The Egyptian people had recently emerged from the rule of King Farouk, who had been ousted in a military coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952. The coup was initially met with support and hope, but that quickly dissipated as the Egyptian people watched the new leadership veer toward repression. Newspapers were nationalized, the constitution was suspended and members of the opposition were arrested.
The Egyptian people, led by students, rose up to resist oppression and call for freedom of expression and respect for the constitution, and that is how I found myself marching through Cairo in 1954.
The bridge shook from so many footsteps as we set out across the Nile. It pulsated with the anger and hope we all felt that day knowing that history was being made. And then, as we reached the middle of the bridge, soldiers opened fire. Books covered with blood flew and wounded students cried for help. The resolution of the crowd was immediate: We refused to be cowed. We would find another way to reach Abdin Square. The government had to be brought down.
We had no cellphones or Internet, of course, but word spread rapidly. We were to disperse and go as individuals or small groups to Abdin Square on foot or by public transportation. The streets leading to the square were soon rivers of people, some of them waving the bloody shirts of the wounded students as banners. Police personnel and army officers joined the demonstration. Our sense of euphoria and determination drove us on, the same feelings I see on the faces of today’s protesters in Cairo.
We fervently believed that victory was within reach. But it was not to be. Our leaders and the politicians who joined with us were invited to negotiate with the dictator Nasser. Tears were shed; false promises made. An agreement was reached, and they came out to the balcony overlooking the square to announce it as if we had achieved victory. When the protesters were told to disperse, most of them did. Egypt’s first real chance for democracy died that day.
After the failure of our democracy movement, the country slipped into authoritarianism. The Suez crisis in 1956 focused Egyptians on outside aggressors instead of repression at home and enabled Nasser to tighten his grip. Egypt’s defeat in the so-called Six-Day War with Israel led Nasser to resign on national television, but he quickly retracted his resignation and consolidated his power even further.
After the death of Nasser, Anwar Sadat took power, only to be assassinated in 1981 and replaced by his vice president, Hosni Mubarak. For the last 30 years, Mubarak has tightened his stranglehold on the Egyptian people, limiting their freedoms and failing to deliver significant economic development or increased opportunity for average Egyptians. For three decades, his actions have built a powder keg, which was lit last week.
Today, Egypt is capturing a new opportunity to recover and reclaim its destiny. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are in the streets defying the curfew, rejecting the shameless speech that Mubarak delivered and standing firmly against leadership being passed on to yet another military general. They refuse to watch history repeat itself.
We are witnessing a revolution, a turning point for Egypt. I hope that it becomes a turning point for American foreign policy as well — a lesson that we should never support repression rather than the aspirations of a nation’s people.
The United States today has a clear choice. It can stand with the people or with the dictator.
Maher Hathout is senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Southern California and chairman of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.