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Tahrir Square Voices Will Never Be Silenced

Our parents dismissed us as the apathetic Facebook generation. We are proving them wrong

Published in: The Times

(Tahrir Square, Cairo) - Last night we were expecting a momentous announcement. For the first time in two weeks Tahrir Square fell completely silent. But after such a build-up all we heard was that President Mubarak will delegate some of his powers. That is not enough.

We were expecting serious concessions but there was nothing new. The President was still in complete control. He said he had a plan to get us through the crisis. But this is not a crisis he can lead us through. People here are very angry.

How different this day felt from February 4. On that day I, along with many others from my generation, had watched the live TV interview with Wael Ghoneim, Google's marketing director in Egypt. It energised the whole square.

Released just a few hours earlier from a 12-day enforced disappearance at the state security investigations headquarters, the previously anonymous administrator of the Facebook group that first called for the protests projected courage and humility. It was truly inspirational - a word I rarely use.

Mr Ghoneim's experience echoed the incident that caused him to set up the Facebook group in the first place - the imprisonment, torture and death of Khaled Said on June 6 last year. Those two events represented exactly the abuse of power that brought so many thousands of Egyptians on to the streets and led to such a massive turnout on January 25 (ironically the national holiday known as Police Day).

The internal security division of the Ministry of the Interior is notorious for its systematic use of torture and enforced disappearance, and the absolute impunity it enjoys. No SSI officer has ever been convicted of torture. Their repressive grip has flourished under three decades of emergency rule. It was fear and hatred of this torture that galvanised my generation and drove us to activism. So it is not surprising that one of the main demands from the Tahrir Square protesters is an immediate end to the state of emergency.

Those of our parents who took part in political protest were usually fighting for the Right or the Left. They looked down on us for our lack of political conviction. But we found our cause and our voice.

Tahrir Square had settled down into a regular rhythm, with people chanting "down with Mubarak" to the beat of a tabla drum and composing spirited songs. But the scars of the past two weeks remain very fresh. Mr Ghoneim's emotional response when the broadcaster showed him pictures of those killed when police attacked demonstrators were a reminder that in the midst of hope and excitement hundreds of families are still grieving the loss of a loved one.

Human Rights Watch currently estimates the number of deaths at just over 300, based on visits to hospitals in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez alone. The families of those killed have been going to the square every day and have started to talk about working together on legal action.

There has been some alarmist media coverage of the role that the Muslim Brotherhood might play in Egypt's future. But I fear the opportunity for real democratic change and respect for human rights will slip away if the narrative on the need for stability at the price of democracy resumes. In Egypt, stability stands for repressive institutions, systematic torture, arbitrary detention under emergency law and state security courts that sanction police brutality.

Over the past week we have received an increasing number of reports of arrests and, in six cases, the torture of activists, journalists and protesters at the hands of military police. Although not widespread, the targeting and treatment is all too familiar, a clear reminder that we have yet to see an irrevocable move towards the transition of power in Egypt.

What we need to see is a genuine attempt to turn a page on the abusive practices that caused such hatred of the police and security officers, a commitment to ending torture and investigating those responsible for perpetrating it over the years and new guarantees to allow freedom of assembly and association. It is not yet clear whether those concessions will really be forthcoming .

But this is still our moment. Our parents who lived through harsh repression and several wars are speaking with respect of the "Facebook generation" that they earlier dismissed as apathetic. I have seen friends who work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the square; doctors who had always described themselves as apolitical have helped me despite the security risks because they were so horrified by the police bloodshed .

For the first time the generation that has only ever experienced Mubarak's repressive rule has learnt not to fear the State. Regardless of what may lie ahead, nothing will take these past two weeks away from us, when for the first time we felt our voices could help shape the future of our country.

The protests will continue until the President goes. That is the demand about which there is complete consensus.

Heba Fatma Morayef is a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Egypt

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