Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Why I Protest: Ahmed Harara of Egypt

Ahmed Harara, 31, is a dentist. During the violent clashes that broke out between protesters and Egyptian security forces in Tahrir Square in January, he lost his eye to a rubber bullet. In November, he went back to the square, only to lose his other eye the same way. He spoke to TIME's Abigail Hauslohner about his sacrifices for Egypt's unfinished revolution.

TIME: What are you going to do about your injuries?
Ahmed Harara:
I'm going to travel to Germany and Switzerland to operate on my eyes. There has been talk about transplants.

Will it work?
Everything is in God's hands. They say that transplants have undergone a revolution — why not? I will try, and if God wills, it will happen. It's still undergoing testing, but what I have been told is that it's like chips that are transplanted and the vision is black and white and there are prototypes, so why not, but I'm grateful whatever happens, whether I can see or not. That's why I cannot go to Tahrir. Doctors have prohibited it completely because the new tear gas causes optic-nerve inflammation. Two friends got optic-nerve inflammation and blurred vision for a while from the new gas, which I think is made in U.S.A. ...

If God wills that I start to see again, I will look for office work. If not, I will learn braille and look for any appropriate job. I cannot stay home without work. I was going to work at al-Ahly Bank, with one eye, as I have applied and was accepted. But now my other eye is gone. But I don't think that just because I was injured in my eyes, I should stay home and not move and wait for someone to feed me and give me money without me doing anything. It's not something that should be done.

What event made you an activist? What made this a personal thing for you?
Before the revolution, it [my level of political involvement] was mainly talking with my friends, saying that the the current situation is not okay, that the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer. We said it aloud in local cafés but never participated in protests or did anything about it. On Jan. 25, I didn't join protests, because they were mainly calling for the ousting of Habib El Adly [the Interior Minister] and to end the state of emergency, as well as raising minimum wage, and I didn't see that changing one minister for another within the same system would make a difference. But when I saw on Facebook the words "The people want the fall of the regime," I went down there on the 26th. There wasn't much action. We were chased and hit — on the 27th too. And on the 28th we found out that people would gather in Mostafa Mahmoud [a mosque in the Cairo neighborhood of Mohandisseen, across the river] so we went there. I felt that that was the first day the entirety of Egypt took to the streets due to the state of extreme anger at the regime. I was hit on the 28th, and I was injured severely with shotgun pellets. There were 64 injuries in my face, six in my neck and four in my lungs that caused internal bleeding, and I had to stay home to rehabilitate. But the minute I could function normally, Tahrir was the place to be, so I joined the protests for trying Mubarak or the cleansing of the police, state media, the judiciary. I started talking to politicians and gaining experience. Before that I wasn't interested in politics beyond talking about the current conditions within my circle of friends.

What was the most memorable moment for you?
Actually, there are two days: the 28th of January here in Egypt and the day when the Americans occupied Wall Street. Because here in Egypt we raised the slogan of social justice, and I see that Americans need it and did that too because there has to be social justice. As I told you before, absolute capitalism has to be removed. There can be capitalism, but for me as a citizen, I need to know very well that the taxes I pay are being used in education, health care and services. Health care and education cannot be privatized; it has to be offered to everyone. Same with services. All my needs have to be met as long as I'm living in a country. This is what we ask for here. It exists, but not enough money is spent on it. We need to improve it. And what I know is that in America you have to have [health insurance] to be treated — otherwise you won't be, and this is brutal and inhumane. It has to be reformed all over the world. There can't be a private company that controls electricity, transportation, water, education and health care. All this has to be available to the people. As they say in America, "The power of the people will change everything." There is nothing in the world that stands in front of the power of the people. The next best day was 15th of October. There was a socialist stand all over the world, in Cairo, Spain, Italy, America that called for socialism and social equality in about 30 countries, and I know that it will be achieved because nothing stands against power of the people.

What was the most important lesson of the revolution?
[Last winter] Huge numbers of people went to Tahrir and stayed the whole time until the army took control. They gave hope to the people that life will be good. And since we are emotional people who are naturally inclined to stability and peace, Egyptians decided to trust the army with running the country's affairs, and they went home. But about 2,000 or 3,000 stood still, and the demands kept on rising, and repression started from members of the military. I do not blame people who left because they trust the military. But it kept escalating, from 2,000 to 5,000 to 20,000 to, as you can see now, a million, because as time goes by, they see that the country is not where we want it to be. Demands aren't achieved after lots of time. And people felt there was a strange policy, like: O.K., we will have elections, and members [of the former ruling National Democratic Party] weren't supposed to run in elections, yet they did. That was the peak. Before that, when they had a referendum and fooled the people, it just kept on carrying on that way. The masses who left [Tahrir initially] saw that this is not what you [the military] promised us, so they went back [to Tahrir] again. In January Egyptians trusted the army so they left it to the military. But when they didn't see it going as they had expected, they returned.

I had a feeling [back in the early days following Mubarak's ouster] that it would stay the same, because there were already isolated incidents when [the military] were on duty: they mistreated guys, and on the 28th of June they attacked the martyrs' and wounded people's families [who were demonstrating in Tahrir.]. And, just like what's happening in Mohamed Mahmoud Street today, we had a "small war," also on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, then. I arrived at 12 a.m. and left at 1 p.m. the next day. I couldn't move at all. It was the same thing — they hit us with shotgun pellets and rubber bullets, and they were assisted by thugs carrying knives, while we were throwing stones back at them until they gave up and left. And that day I got hit by a few rubber pellets on the front line. I knew and expected that the police would stay the same because it hasn't been cleansed. The elements are still the same.

Will the revolution continue?
They [average Egyptians] see that [the military can be heavy-handed]. But there's a difference between "I want stability" and "I don't understand." They understand, but they want stability. They know that the police force has not been cleansed, and that police are very violent, but the fear of the Egyptian citizen outside the square is that a clash between civilians and the army takes place. I think that this fear is diminishing. The army to them is the army who won the war in 1973. Therefore it's impossible for the army not to have ethics. I'm talking about members of the military, and honor — this image cannot disappear to the normal citizen, but it started to change recently due to individual incidents. But as a whole the military is still strong and good and all we ask for is that the military council returns to its barracks and abandons politics and the country's affairs, to return to being an institution in the country. As protesters, we want that.