By TARA WEINBERG
GLOBAL CONNECT BLOGGER
The Arab Spring has touched Amira Kefi, Essam El Hashani and Ahmed Rehab. They carry it around with them daily though they are far from the uprisings that changed theirs and many others’ lives.
They wonder what is ahead for the countries they came from. They take great joy in recalling the excitement the upheavals gave them. And like many of those in Chicago who straddle two worlds, they do their best to keep their balance in challenging times.
All are from North Africa but live in Chicago. All practice Islam and love soccer. And all have been involved in revolutions in the past year – Kefi in Tunisia, El Hashani in Libya and Rehab in Egypt.
Kefi, El Hashani and Rehab are excited by the new level of political consciousness they see all around them in their home countries. Even if the current political situation deteriorates, ordinary Tunisians, Libyans and Egyptians are awake now to their political power. “We are not satisfied even now with the [Tunisian] government. We are preparing for the next revolution,” says Kefi.
As Tunisia’s government tries to find its feet, Egypt moves on from its first democratic elections and Libya staggers towards its first parliamentary vote, North Africans in Chicago reflect on the results of the ‘Arab Spring’. Kefi, El Hashani and Rehab speak about the difficult struggle for freedom in their home countries and recognize the long road they must still travel to realize the potential offered by each revolution.
Amira Kefi, 30, is a bioengineering student at University of Illinois in Chicago. She has wavy red hair and glasses, and she gesticulates wildly when she speaks. Kefi came to Chicago to study because she felt stifled by the government while practicing as an academic in Tunisia.
Kefi has first-hand experience of the revolution in her home country Tunisia, which took place between December 2010 and January 2011. The revolution ended twenty-three years of rule by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Kefi describes the Tunisian revolution in vivid terms. “It was the first time in my life that I heard guns and saw bullets. I used to see movies and see people get killed and injured, but not in real life. I never thought that would happen in my country. The police were shooting people in the streets and using gas. It felt like a nightmare – I couldn’t believe it. Personally, I thought it was the end of the world – I felt like everybody was going to die.”
Many of Kefi’s family and friends took to the streets of Tunis and its surroundings, protesting Ben Ali’s corrupt regime. At first, Kefi says the police were wary of shooting protesters in the suburbs of Tunis where she lived.
“There was a lot of press and they were afraid,” she says, “but at night, they didn’t care. They shot us. My neighbor was shot at home through his window. Other neighbors were also killed. I taught at a high school at the time. In the mornings we went to work at the school, in the afternoon we went out into the streets. The next morning, one of my colleagues wasn’t there – he was dead.”
Amidst the violence, Kefi found inspiration in the country’s older women, who encouraged her and other young people to keep fighting.
“Women were more brave than men,” Kefi says, “our mothers, old women with scarves … they were in the streets! It was so funny! If you see them, you forget about all the suffering and the people that are dead. Imagine…they left their home, their children…in a conservative country and they were shouting and protesting!”
Since the Tunisian government controlled all of the media outlets and heavily censored art, theater, music, books and other forms of media, young people in Tunisia were forced to find creative ways to coordinate protests. Many created alternative profiles on Facebook to criticize the government and organize demonstrations.
Kefi explains that in her alternative Facebook profile, she took on a fake name, indicated she was a man and used a picture of a dog as her profile photo. She would always log on from public Internet cafes so as not be traced. On Facebook, protesters would use a combination of the English alphabet, Arabic script and numbers to communicate with each other. This garbled language made it impossible for the government to scan Facebook by keywords when trying to track protest activities.
Kefi describes the huge relief Tunisians felt as the revolution came to a close. “In the last days of revolution, everyone was breathing,” Kefi says, “When he [Ben Ali] quit [on January 14, 2011] it was like a release for everyone. Even though now the country is now in a political and social mess. But as long as that system and dictator went away, everybody has realized you cannot dump the people and treat them in that bad way but say it is the good way. They are not animals. They know what is good and bad.”
Essam El Hashani, 33, is a doctor at the University of Chicago Hospital. He has a stocky build, with black hair and dark eyes. He is an active member of Chicago’s Libyan community, which consists of about 150 families. He came to Chicago because he felt there were few opportunities for upward mobility prior to the revolution. El Hashani remarks that his dad, who is also a doctor, earned a high salary by Libyan standards – about $250 a month.
El Hashani was not in his home country as the revolution unfolded in Libya but he rallied with Libyans in Chicago against Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi ruled Libya for forty-two years and El Hashani describes him as “evil, a killing machine.”
Protests against Gaddafi’s regime began in El Hashani’s hometown of Benghazi, in the eastern part of Libya. Protesters took to the streets unarmed and the government responded by shooting at them.
When El Hashani heard of the protests, he phoned his family immediately. “My brothers, sisters and mom were all crying and freaking out,” he says.
Sixty people died on the first day of protests in Libya. Four hundred were dead after three more days of uprisings.
“The government thought if they killed protestors, they would back off.” Instead, El Hashani says that for every person killed, the revolution grew.
El Hashani at times felt powerless, gathering scraps of information from events in Libya, and not knowing whether or not his family was safe. So he and his Libyan friends began calling news stations all over the U.S. as soon as they had news from home. They contacted CNN, ABC, CBS, Al Jazeera, and sent emails to the White House and U.S. Senators. Together with other Libyans in Chicago, El Hashani participated in weekly rallies downtown for the eight months the revolution lasted before Gaddafi was overthrown.
“We knew Gaddafi was afraid of the situation getting out in international media,” El Hashani says, “we wanted the world to know what was going on inside Libya so they could do something. The rebels had no weapons, the government were just shooting them. Not just with light guns but with aircraft, machine guns. If I showed you the pictures of the people killed in the first few days, you would be terrified.”
NATO intervened in Libya on March 19, 2011, declaring a no-fly zone over Benghazi. “We [the Libyan community in Chicago] were happy when we heard NATO was going to intervene,” El Hashani explains, “because when you have the U.S., France, England standing by you, they’re gonna kick Gaddafi’s ass!”
Ahmed Rehab, 35, grew up between England and Egypt, and moved to the United States as a teenager. An activist, columnist and media columnist, Rehab is Executive Director of Chicago’s Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). He is tall and wears silver-rimmed glasses.
“I grew up in a generation that was disgruntled with Egyptian government and politics,” says Rehab. He and his family discussed how Egypt’s problems had grown under years of military dictatorship – its education system had deteriorated, agriculture had “died”, the textile industry had suffered, and pollution had increased.
So when Rehab heard of that political demonstrations had been organized in Cairo, he left Chicago to participate in the protest activities in Egypt. After many conversations about Egypt’s political situation, Rehab was excited to be “part of something” and to feel that he and other Egyptians had “a little bit of power” in their hands.
Rehab arrived in Cairo on January 23, 2011, two days before the protests began in Tahrir Square, which would later become the epicenter of the revolution. On January 25, he joined the protesters trying to get into Tahrir Square but he and his friends were beaten away by the police around midnight. They went looking for another protest, and found one in a slum area.
The next day, the government began to shut down media services. First Facebook, Twitter and the Internet. Then it shut down cell-phone lines and landlines. Eventually there was a complete media blackout.
Rehab believes that the communications blackout politicized many more Egyptians, turning them against Hosni Mubarak’s regime. “A lot of Egyptians who were not against the government especially, were just pissed,” he says, “[Communication] is like air to them so to shut this down is demeaning, disrespectful, audacious…and people took it personally…what if someone’s wife is pregnant and needs to get to a hospital? So people were very angry.”
The tide really began to turn on Friday, January 28, 2011. Rehab went to Friday prayers at a mosque. After the prayers, one man stood up and shouted “Down, down with Mubarak!” This was the flame that lit the fire. “Up until that moment,” Rehab notes, “you couldn’t tell if this was something small or something big…it could have been anything at all. But it took that one guy, and then everybody in that mosque just chanted after him. Within minutes we were flooding the streets. We kept marching until we got to Tahrir Square.”
Rehab admits that the Egyptian revolution has suffered some setbacks since the overthrow of Mubarak. During the revolution many different factions came together to overthrow Mubarak.
“During the 18 days of Tahrir Square we saw the best of what Egypt had to offer,” Rehab argues, “cops and protesters standing hand in hand. Men and women taking equal part in this revolution. We saw young and old, communist, socialist, capitalist, Islamist…you name it, everyone was there. It wasn’t ideological or economic; it was just Egyptian.”
But once Mubarak had been overthrown, divisions among the revolutionary factions began bubbling to the surface. Rehab believes this puts the country in a dangerous situation, with both Mubarak’s old guard and some more extreme Islamists trying to wrest control.
Despite these setbacks, Rehab is optimistic about Egypt’s future. He says the revolution in Tunisia gave Egyptians the belief that regime change was possible. “The main thing stopping us was that belief that ‘oh, forget about it, it’s never gonna happen’”.
Rehab believes one of the most important results of the ‘Arab Spring’ was an awakening of political awareness across North Africa. “One of the best things that’s happened in the country because of the revolution,” Rehab says, “and this will be hard to roll back…is that people are out there and they are talking…it’s not soccer anymore, it’s all politics…every street corner, cafe, cab driver, TV show. That’s the real change.”
Kefi too believes that the revolution made ordinary Tunisians politically conscious in a way they were not before. “Before the revolution we had ten million soccer analysts, after the revolution we have 10 million politics analysts,” she laughs.
El Hashani also feels that one of the best features of the Libyan revolution was the degree of political engagement from ordinary people. Almost everyone contributed to the revolution effort.
The Libyan rebels who fought Gaddafi’s forces comprised mostly people who had “never held a gun in their life.” People who had served in the military before started teaching others how to use weapons. Families began cooking and packing food for the rebel fighters, and sending it to the front-line. Computer technologists used their skills to spread the word about the revolution and to connect people to their loved ones during the communication blackout. El Hashani was able to get in touch with his family through a computer technician who used his satellite phone to connect families inside and outside Libya.
Amira Kefi and Essam El Hashani want to return to their home countries after finishing their stints in Chicago. Kefi hopes to get a job in academia or the government as a bioengineer, while El Hashani wants to employ his medical expertise in Libya. He returned home for the first time since the revolution April: “It’s amazing, the feeling that there’s no Gaddafi and no fear. Now there is hope in Libya. Anyone can be President…why not? The government will be chosen by the Libyan people. It’s such a joy to see this in Libya. It’s freedom…and freedom tastes really good.”
Kefi, El Hashani and Rehab’s experience of the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt shed light on both the horror and inspiration that can be found in the uprisings that swept North Africa in the past two years. One of those inspirations is the desire of a whole generation to return from the United States to their countries of birth. Another is that while the North African revolutions have not necessarily produced “freedom” in the fullest sense of the word, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are a few steps closer to realizing this ambition. In light of their struggles, Nelson Mandela’s words ring true: “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mou