When Madeline Murphy Rabb of Chicago arrived in Egypt on January 25 with the group Grannies on Safari and her sister, she did not plan to spend her birthday trip witnessing that country's uprising against its longtime leader, Hosni Mubarak. But for the arts consultant and longtime civil rights activist, being in Egypt during the uprising is a birthday gift she will not soon forget, she said by phone from a hotel in Luxor, Egypt on Sunday.
"The action we saw was very emotional for me as an African-American because I participated in the March on Washington in 1963," Rabb said. "And observing these people gather in a very quiet, gentle way in frustration against a very oppressive situation in this country was very moving to us."
Just as the 1963 march and rally in Washington, DC was a transformative moment in US history, widely credited for prompting passage of the Civil Rights of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1964, so too is the uprising important to Egypt. And, as in the march of 47 years ago, the protesters are informally organized under the theme of "jobs and freedom."
One particular moment that caused Rabb to reflect on these parallels took place in Cairo, the country's capital and site of the largest protests. While riding back to their hotel, the Grannies' tour bus crossed paths with a group of protesters. The group did not obstruct the bus, but in fact let them through - until the bus ultimately stopped after encountering a police barrier. Getting off the bus near their hotel in Cairo, Rabb and her sister looked at each other in amazement and realized, "This is a movement. Like Selma. Like the March on Washington." For Rabb, it was "like my years in the civil rights movement, riding down US 1 in Maryland."
In light of the memories, the two deliberated: should they join the protests? Yet despite their richest fantasies, they "realized we couldn't do that. We knew that our sons would kill us and it wouldn't make sense," Rabb said with a laugh.
So instead, she asked her son, author Chris Rabb, to bring to the attention of the media her take on the story: that this uprising is not a violent revolt of undereducated, angry militias but "a thoughtful movement among all people of all ages and classes."
That is, until the violence ensued, pitting the police and military against the protesters.
Initially, Rabb believes, the protesters were not irate at the police officers per se - merely at what the forces represented. The lack of animosity toward their fellow citizens is in part, she said, because the people of Egypt are united in this struggle. Indeed, the feeling of solidarity across religious, age, and class lines is so evident that she said she saw some police officers take off their uniforms and join the protests.
Even as tensions have risen across the country, with endless amounts of tear gas and water cannons firing into protesters, Rabb is still immensely proud of the people of Egypt. The protests have not made her fearful, she said, but want to tell the true story of the Egyptians.
"To be witness to this, with all that we're dealing with and with all of our frustrations, simply gives me goose bumps," Rabb said.
She urged me to get "the word out that these are wonderful people here," stressing that despite some mainstream media portrayals, the thrust of the movement is not "crazy or wild."
"It is not a radical movement by uneducated people," Rabb said. "The movement began with intelligent people of all classes, all ages, coming together. God bless them."