Beirut’s Cafes Echo to the Egyptian Revolution
Beirut cafes have long been a focal point for Leftist Arabs
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On an unseasonably warm and sunny day for Lebanon in February, the middle aged and staid have returned to a revolutionary fervor of the 1970s. Hamra, a high street long regarded as the intellectual epicenter of Arab progressive movements, is abuzz with words not heard without irony in the Arab world for some time now: “revolution”; “the Arab masses”; “the Palestinian national movement”; “Zionist collaborators”; “colluding regimes”. Al Bawaba had a cup of coffee with a pan-Arab group of graduates of the American University of Beirut to talk about Cairo in 2011, the Arab spirit of decades gone by and the inescapable question of Palestine.
Salwa studied economics at the American University of Beirut together with a cohort of Levantines in the 1970s. Holding back tears, she spoke of how her daughter, an NGO worker living in England until last week, was cheered by crowds as her plane landed in Cairo. “I have never felt so proud to be an Egyptian”. With her mind quickly turning to prosaic matters of the morning after the night before, she leapt to point out that she was “full of confidence in the new order” which, she pointed out, “was based on the will of the entire Egyptian people”. She also bashfully sought to claim some sort of responsibility for the undertaking: “It was this youth generation, the generation of my daughter, who did this; but we here around this table, we raised that generation on revolutionary values!”
Salwa was thinking of how the revolution would change her and her daughter’s life; how it would create an alternative country for her family. Around the table, her former classmates were star-struck, waiting for the next gains for the Arab cause, so long in the coming and so sweet in the arrival. “I think now it will be possible for us to truly challenge Israel; Egypt, the leader of all of the Arab states, has left the neo-conservative Zionist camp! We can now build the new regime. We are living in exciting times, truly exciting times!” It felt odd to hear a smartly-dressed, bespectacled and clearly patrician Hanna, or “Johnny” to his friends, a Palestinian businessman living in Beirut, speak like a revolutionary, but he was more than willing to do so. Hanna, who divides his time between Beirut, Paris and Athens, was ready to grab the bull by the horns and welcome in the changes in the Middle East. “The Zionist state is the real culprit of violence in the Middle East, but we get the bad rap in the Western media. If an Arab shouts out ‘Allahu akbar’, he’s accused of being a member of Al Qaeda or a takfiri group, while the Israelis are more zealous and conservative, but do not have to justify themselves to a media debate, and what’s more, they kill Palestinians with impunity in the media. Now, this will change!” Of course, Hanna was willing to make a few concessions to the realism of the situation. “As the Hamas statement said, this is the beginning of the Egyptian revolution; just the beginning! We will have to work hard until we achieve the aims, but our vision of the world is slowly taking hold in the region.”
Hanna’s friend Mustafa stood by slightly bemused by the whole conversation, and was looking at his coffee with a widespread air of disbelief. “What I think happened yesterday was, really, just unbelievable. Tunisia was enough of a surprise, but now this is truly unbelievable. I am kind of sitting down and wondering who is going to go next, and I do really hope that whoever takes power, that they really protect property rights.” Mustafa was an industrialist who sold his high-end industrial goods to the UAE. “I just don’t know how to express it. I did not expect to see this day worked out in an Arab country, so I did not really prepare for it.”
“Maybe the Gulf states will be next and you will have to find new markets for your stuff, you old fart!” Hanna joked with Mustafa, and they all laughed.
With their coffees well and truly over, and their families and work lives waiting for them at home, another old AUB classmate walked out of an adjacent Hamra café, recognized them and stopped. “Hey Jamil, who do you think is next?” Hanna shouted out.
“I always supported Algeria against Egypt in the World Cup” Jamil retorted, “and I expect them to have a better revolution, too.”
With homes stocked with groceries, stable jobs and their own children in university, the group sipping espressos in Hamra seemed, on the surface, like its moment had passed; but the reverberations of the Cairene revolt brought a spark of hope back to the eyes of this group of old Arabs.
“Come back and join us for more next Saturday- and if we have something new to celebrate I shouldn’t be surprised. We’re here having reunion coffees every Saturday, unless one of us dies!”Albawaba plans on meeting the old group sometime soon.
By Abdulhadi Ayyad