I meet Dr. Alaa Shukrallah in his cozy appartment in Cairo, on Monday, February 21. Dr. Alaa chairs the Association for Health and Environmental Development (AHED), a member organization of the People’s Health Movement in Egypt. I first ask him what he was doing on January 25, the day the Egyptian protest movement started.
Dr. Alaa Shukrallah: « That very day I was conducting a regional workshop on social and economic rights, including the right to health services and to water. For several years already, important struggles on these issues had been going on in Egypt and the region. Struggles that had gradually been shifting from merely advocacy and lobbying to mass rallies and pickets in front of Parliament. This way, we did our part, modest as it may be, in fertilizing the ground for the eruption of the Egyptian people’s uprising. »
What can you say about the character of this revolution?
Dr. Alaa Shukrallah: « It is a democratic revolution, which also puts forward social demands. It was started by the middle class, more precisely by the educated youth who after decades of harsh neoliberal policies couldn’t find any useful employment. Thus the dream of the middle class to move up the social ladder came to naught. »
But something must have ignited the revolt of the youth?
Dr. Alaa Shukrallah: « On June 7, 2010, a 28 year old man named Khaled Said was beaten to death by police in an internet café in Alexandria. His friends started a Facebook group named « We are all Khaled Said », which has by now gathered more than 300,000 members. The murder on this young man was like throwing a match in an oil field. The majority of these young people had never before been involved in politics of any kind, but this time they had an issue they could all identify with: Khaled Said could have been any of them! They formed discussion groups and moved from demanding justice for their friend to protesting emergency law, repression, corruption and unemployment. In short, they decided to take their destiny in their own hands and to go for real change. The final push came from the Tunesian revolution, where dictator Ben Ali was overthrown on January 14. That was the signal to start working for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, which finally happened on February 11. »
How did you personally experience this revolution?
Dr. Alaa Shukrallah: « To be honest, we didn’t expect this to happen, as we were quite far removed from the concerns of the youth with their social networks and other innovative methods. We knew that something was brewing, but we didn’t expect its magnitude and power. But very soon after our initial suprise, everyone took up his tasks and joined the movement, in an organized way. I worked several days in a row as a medical doctor in Tahrir Square. I hadn’t practiced for years, but I nevertheless put a band around my upper arm that said « pediatrician » and reported for duty in Station 4 – one of four first aid stations put up by the demonstrators. There we saw several protesters succumb to bullet wounds, in the neck, in the head. And we treated hundreds of injured. I did some minor surgery and wound dressing, in very difficult conditions. At one time we couldn’t find any scissors anymore, and we had to smuggle them into the square, as the military would not allow them to pass through the checkpoints. But whatever the hardships, the rewards were great. Not only did we taste the victory of overthrowing Mubarak, but also of unity, solidarity, friendship. Everyone shared food, bystanders came to bring medicines and money, Christians and Muslims protected one another during their respective prayers – in short, ‘we were all Egyptians’. »
And where do we go from here?
Dr. Alaa Shukrallah: « It is very encouraging to see that strikes and demonstrations are continuing. Workers on strike, in various sectors and in all parts of the country, are demanding real contracts, higher wages that follow price rises, and the removal of oligarchies from leading positions in trade unions. As for the democratic reforms, I think it would be wise to delay the holding of elections, so that there is ample time to put an interim civilian government in place first, to get the military out of business and to strengthen the people’s organizations. That is the only guarantee for this incipient Egyptian revolution to grow broader and deeper. »