Why are you so willing to head back into danger?” I ask Mona Eltahawy.
From This Story
We’re sitting in a café on the Upper West Side of New York City, not far from her Harlem apartment, and the brutal reality of the political violence she’s been subjected to seems far away. But the fiery Egyptian-born journalist-activist has been living on the bleeding edge of history since 2005, a prominent voice in the movement that led to the dramatic Arab Spring uprising, climaxing with the 2011 fall of the Egypt’s modern pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak.
And the bleeding edge is still bloody, now that the “Arab Spring” has entered perhaps its most dangerous and unpredictable phase. In Egypt, some of the original revolutionaries, such as Mona, are now turning on the new rulers, President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, who they believe have hijacked the uprising and betrayed its democratic ideals. Eltahawy has been there for all that and now, she tells me, she’s heading back to the streets of Cairo, where she has suffered torture, sexual assault and broken bones from beatings.
The historical stakes are high in this critical phase of the struggle. Will the hopes awakened by the Arab Spring be crushed the way they were in Iran after the overthrow of the shah?
I’d met Eltahawy a couple of months earlier, at a dinner party hosted by Jesse Sheidlower, American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Although texting is a dinner-party faux pas, even in Manhattan, her dinner companions understood her compulsion: She was urgently communicating with fellow activists who were at that moment clashing with the police in the streets of Cairo. The ongoing social media revolution leaping halfway around the world in real time.
The dinner captured her dual identity perfectly. She was dressed in a stylish black with a silver necklace representing the ancient figure of Fatima, “protection against the evil eye,” she said. And at one point she rolled up her right sleeve to show off a new tattoo on her forearm, an image of the goddess Sekhmet, one of the oldest female deities of one of the oldest civilizations on earth. “She represents sex and retribution,” Eltahawy explained. She’d gotten the tattoo to mark the place where the Egyptian secret police had broken a bone.
In the café, when I ask her about the violence she was flying back into, she is nonplused. “I have a lot of friends and family who are very concerned about me,” she says, “But I try not to think about it. I’ve already had my arms broken and I’ve been sexually assaulted, so I’m hoping they’re not going to do any more than that.”
She’s not exactly self-protective.
“Look,” she says, “it’s dangerous for everybody in Egypt right now. Everyone who wants to stand up to the government, the state, the regime, the military, the Muslim Brotherhood—call it whatever you want. And we’ve been hearing about activists who are abducted, tortured, dumped in the desert naked.” In other words, meet the new boss, same as the old boss, only worse because you helped get the new boss his job.