As I walked into Mada Masr’s second anniversary celebration, a rather murky thought occurred to me: “Maybe the team should have split the event into two occasions. Pretty much every independently minded journalist, activist or analyst, is here. If the powers that be decide to raid tonight, they’ll get us all in one fell swoop. But if we split it up, then those that aren’t here will work to get those who are here out.”
That was my one of humorous (if dark) thoughts for the night. The other one was, “No wonder Egyptian Twitter is so quiet. Everyone is here, busy catching up.”
Now, that is Egypt. (Apparently there is some kind of campaign around this slogan – I wonder how long it will take before some #Jan25 activists decide to create their own, not so bleached form, of the campaign.)
But despite my own poor attempt at humor above, it was an evening of smiles, to be sure. And it should have been. There was no escapism, nor was there denial of the challenges this country faces. But there was also defiance – a confirmation, and reaffirmation.
Almost three years ago, I was at another fundraiser for the same team that held last week’s event. It was pre-Mada – it was one of their last ditch efforts to raise funds for the media organization that preceded Mada. I remember it well, as it was right in the middle of the period that divided the clashes outside the presidential palaces in December 2012 and the June 30 protests. I bought a t-shirt at that event which read, “al-ya’s kheyana” (despair is betrayal).
A friend of mine complained to me about the slogan. “How is a natural emotion ‘betrayal’? Don’t we have the right to feel despair?” Doesn’t this situation warrant our anguish, she thought – isn’t our distress defensible?
How things change, and how things stay the same. Almost three years later, most of that same team, augmented by others, found their way to celebrate more than two years of a new venture. I saw a member of that team and said, “So, how are things going? They seem to be going well – one of your reporters got summoned to military intelligence for writing an article. That’s a compliment if ever I heard one!” (OK, so maybe I made more than two dark jokes that night). She smiled and said, “Yup. We must be doing something right if they are so nervous about a simple factual piece.”
When they first started, Mada’s editor-in-chief Lina Attalah wrote a piece just in advance of the June 30 protests called “Back to the margins.” It was important to her and the Mada team to ensure they were ready for those first days post-June 30. That piece summed up the feelings of many, I think. Particularly those who opposed the increasing authoritarianism of former president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, but recognized the opposition to it was in a state of perdition, having been overcome by forces loyal to suspending – or destroying – the democratic experiment that the January 25 revolutionary uprising had forced into existence.
At different times between 2011 and 2013, I went on many a protest and rally – and I’m not averse to noting I did so as an analyst on certain occasions, and as a participant on others. I did not, however, protest on June 30, nor on the successive days until the military removed Morsi. But on the night of his detainment, following an interview I had near Tahrir Square I walked the streets with a friend of mine who had protested, and had vowed to protest again, against the military who he insisted had robbed him of his victory.
We met in the midst of celebratory crowds and greeted each other in bafflement as those around us rejoiced, with some hoisting police officers on their shoulders. “They screwed us over. Again.” A few hours later, he told me, “I guess Lina was right. Back to the margins it is.” And then he got into a taxi and drove off.
It wasn’t simply back to the margins at all. For that “maverick middle” – that part of Egyptian society that simultaneously rejected the forces that made up Mubarak’s regime, the military apparatus and the Muslim Brotherhood-led majority portion of the Islamist camp – there was far worse than the margins that awaited them.
Walking around Mada’s celebration, I noted some of those battle scars. I saw no less than three companions who had been imprisoned – really, kidnapped is probably a much more accurate word – and then released. But there was no sorrow; there was only joy that they had been returned to us, and hopes that others would follow. We embraced friends who had been freed – some due to quiet pressure, others due to far louder tools of leverage. We were grateful for that.
In the midst of that joy, there’s also a particular type of resilience. We learn to see what works, what doesn’t work, and we learn how to apply our knowledge, while trying to keep up with the changes in the terrain. We learn to navigate, and sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we don’t, and that night, we missed a lot of people who we still haven’t figured out how to help.
But we keep going on, and that was and is the spirit that Mada is based on. It is to insist that while we are still free, the expression of our freedom is to be true, just as the existent expression of our genuine gratitude is to use what gifts we have for the good in this world – that’s a perennial principle.
Despite what the haughty accusers continue to willfully or unknowingly misunderstand, we love this land. We love this country in ways that detractors may or may not understand, but that is our right. In reality, it’s also our duty. It is not out of some kind of ugly jingoism that so infests the political arena and instigates abuses of the ugliest kind – but out of love. They may think we’re trying to destroy it, or serve the base interests of “foreign hands.” But on the contrary, we’re only trying to do our bit to restore its spirit.
I saw one of those who had been taken from us and then returned to us – a friend, someone I hadn’t met before but had heard much about. I told her how her reputation preceded her, and in her reply she mentioned someone else whom I would have dearly liked to have seen that evening: “I’ve heard about you too – Bassem Sabry told me a lot about you.”
Every time I hear his name, our noble friend who tragically passed away in an accident last year, I smile.
“How much you would be grinning, Bassem, that every time I hear your name my eyes begin to water.”
Realizing she had said something that touched me, she tried to apologize for perhaps stirring up uncomfortable emotions. But on the contrary, I replied, “No, not at all. Thank you so much for reminding me of him. Thank you so very much.”
And therein lies one of the secrets, perhaps: that in loss, we also learn joy. That in pain, we also learn healing. That in trials and tribulations, we also learn spirit and strength.
It has not gotten any easier since Mada began – on the contrary, the array of forces stacked against a freer, more just and pluralistic reality have only become more emboldened, if also more disparate and incongruent. They do not let up, and nor shall we. Day in, day out, the numbers of those who remain unconvinced about the veracity of those forces’ claims increase. But even if they didn’t – that was never the point.
The point then, before and after was to be true. The rest is commentary.