A Tahrir protester, then and now

The trajectory of a young woman reveals the changing views of many who helped drive Mubarak from power.

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
An anti-Morsi protester waves an Egyptian flag as a military helicopter flies over Tahrir square during a protest to support the army in Cairo on Friday, July 26.

Reporter Gert Van Langendonck and cameraman Jonny von Wallström interviewed Miral Brinjy in Tahrir Square on Feb. 1, 2011, and it quickly became an internet sensation: A young, unveiled woman speaking passionately and clearly about democracy and hope on the spot that would soon become synonymous with popular uprisings against autocracy around the world, and where Hosni Mubarak's regime was undone.

I first met Mr. Van Langendonck a day or two later and he showed me the clip and asked my opinion. I told him "it's gold." Well shot, with military helicopters hovering overhead and sometimes drowning out the interview, it beautifully captured the contrast between youthful optimism and the military machine Egyptians had finally stood up to when protests erupted on Jan. 25. The day they broke the shackles of fear that had served military-backed dictatorship in Egypt for decades.

"The ministry of interior unleashed all the thugs to destroy the cities so that people would say they still need the regime," Ms. Brinjy said then. "We don't want the regime. We want either a constitutional amendment or something that says that the next president of Egypt will be chosen by the people. When we say we don't want the regime it doesn't mean we don't want Hosni Mubarak as a person and be stuck with someone else who's imposed on us. We want to chose our president because we want to take this country into the future."

Clear, direct, a call for a leader at long last chosen by the people from a younger person wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed: "I love my country. It's the government I'm afraid of."

The next morning the Egyptian military urged the protesters to abandon Tahrir and warned there might be trouble if they didn't go home. The military was right. That afternoon, a large group of thugs abetted by Mr. Mubarak's National Democratic Party and the Interior Ministry assaulted the square – some of the attackers on camel and horseback. The melee, which came to be known as the "battle of the camel," left 11 dead and hundreds injured – and Mubarak's hopes of hanging on to power in tatters.

The assault led to a surge of public support for the protests and nine days later Mubarak was gone, pushed out by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

It came to mind today as I thought about how much has changed since early 2011, and how frankly ugly so much of Egypt's political discourse has become. The Muslim Brotherhood is derided as "terrorists" by many of their opponents, there are mass demonstrations on the streets in support of the military, and there are looming questions over whether an Egyptian transition to a stable democracy is really possible any time soon.

Egypt got its first elected leader - though not the one Brinjy and many others at Tahrir would have hoped for. Mohamed Morsi's election in June 2012 saw the Muslim Brotherhood take the reins for the first time in Egyptian history. His year in power was marked by heavy-handedness and growing fear that the movement's Islamist vision would be be imposed on all Egyptians – never mind that he took only 51 percent of the vote against a secular-leaning politician and long-time Mubarak stalwart Ahmed Shafiq.

So Brinjy and hundreds of thousands like her took to the streets again, with mass protests breaking out against the Brotherhood on June 30. The military has been almost universally praised for its actions by the anti-Morsi camp and it turns out Brinjy is among them.

I shared the old video clip on Twitter. It was quickly re-tweeted by the Muslim Brotherhood's official English account:

Brinjy, now a local coordinator in a Cairo neighborhood for the secular Dustour ("Constitution") Party of Mohamed ElBaradei, noticed and took umbrage at the Brotherhood's appropriation of Jan. 25 for its "anti-coup" movement.

I asked her who the "terrorists" are and she responded "those who kill to terrorize people for political gains." Pressed for specifics, she wrote back: "If you ask me I think the [Muslim Brotherhood] are the mother of all Islamist terrorist and militant groups."

That someone like her is hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and its ultimate agenda for Egypt is natural and understandable. But the exchange also shows the extent to which the military is being exalted and trusted by many of the country's secular activists. These folks generally trust the army to guide Egypt to democracy, its track record to the contrary notwithstanding.

I suspect if Van Langendonck had asked her in Feb. 2011 if she'd support a military removal of a democratically elected president from power she would have said "no." But a lot has changed since then.

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