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During Egypt Uprising, Alexandria Led The Way

Antigovernment protesters march in the coastal city of Alexandria on February 11.
Antigovernment protesters march in the coastal city of Alexandria on February 11.
International commentators continue to look for causes of the sudden uprising that toppled longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February. Many underlying causes have been suggested, from unemployment and inflation to corruption and a yearning for liberty and democracy.

If you ask young Egyptians, you'll hear all of these arguments and more. But you will also hear the name of Khaled Mohamed Said.

Said was a 28-year-old resident of Alexandria who died in police custody in June 2010. A Facebook group called "We Are All Khaled Mohamed Said" was formed and quickly became one of Egypt's largest Facebook groups. The site was, of course, started by Wael Ghonim, the activist and Google executive briefly imprisoned during the closing days of the Mubarak regime.

On June 6, 2010, Said was a young man using an Internet cafe in Alexandria's middle-class Sidi Bishr district. According to witnesses, he was approached by plainclothes police, who demanded a bribe. After he claimed not to have any money, he was savagely beaten. Police later claimed he choked to death attempting to swallow a bag of marijuana.

Photos of his mangled face that appeared later on the Internet clearly told a different, brutal story. The killing shocked Alexandria. On June 10, a large rally was held in front of the local prosecutor's office, with protesters demanding an investigation into the torture and killing of Said. A sympathy protest was held in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Looking back, these small protests seem like a dry run of the events just six months later.

Center Of Political Life

It wouldn't be the first time that Alexandria took the lead in Egypt. The city was the center of Egyptian political life for most of the past 200 years. As late as the 1950s, the fabled Mediterranean resort was the country's summer capital. In the first half of the 20th century it was a cosmopolitan commercial center. The city was home to British, Italian, Greek, and Armenian residents. Foreign merchants did business with local Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Egyptians.

The 1950s Nasserite Revolution set much of the expatriate community to flight, save a few thousand Greek-speaking Egyptians. The antiques they left behind can still be found in the dusty secondhand stores of the city.

But even under Nasser, Alexandria continued to set the pace of Egyptian politics. On October 26, 1954, the city was the scene of a famous assassination attempt on Nasser, in which the leader continued speaking calmly as shots rang out around him. The attempt, which came shortly after the suppression of the Communist Party, served as a pretext for cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 1956, Nasser chose the city to announce the nationalization of the Suez Canal.

Tourist Destination

In general, though, influence under Nasser shifted from Alexandria to Cairo, the country's largest city and the nest of the military. He viewed Alexandria's Mediterranean perch as a strategic liability. Under Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, the city became a tourist destination for middle-class Egyptians escaping the summer heat. A few aging Greek restaurants and the famous Greek-style ice cream are all that remain of a cosmopolitan city that once attracted the likes of E.M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell.

Alexandria's long intellectual heritage was lost but not forgotten. In 2002, the renowned Library of Alexandria was refounded as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. In ancient times, the library was the center of learning for the entire Mediterranean. Ironically, both Mubarak and then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein partially funded the library.

Nonetheless, the library quickly became one of the most important and well-funded centers of free thought, expression, and tolerance in Egypt. The library's liberal policies provoked criticism from extremists within the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2008, Culture Minister (and Mubarak crony) Farouk Hosni was questioned by Muslim Brotherhood representatives in parliament about whether there were any Hebrew-language books in the library.

"If there are any there," the Alexandria-born Farouk said, playing to the crowd, "I will burn them myself in front of you."

The events of recent months in Egypt are a new chapter for Alexandria. Looking back, events moved quickly following Said's killing. Following disputed parliamentary elections in November and December 2010, rioting broke out across Egypt.

Copycat Self-Immolations

On New Year's Eve, the bombing of a Coptic church -- also in Alexandria's Sidi Bashr district -- quickly became a key event in the downfall of the Mubarak regime. In the days following the tragedy, Christians protested in the streets and were joined by some Muslims. Protesters of both faiths clashed with police and Muslims served as human shields at a Coptic New Year's service. The favor was symbolically repaid when Copts linked arms to form protective circles around praying Muslims during the anti-Mubarak protests that started just weeks later.

Following the self-immolation of 26-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, an act that sparked the protests that eventually toppled the government of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, four Egyptian men from different parts of the country set themselves on fire in copycat self-immolations. Only Alexandria's Ahmed Hashim al-Sayyed succumbed to his injuries.

As events developed and accelerated, however, Cairo's vast size and political gravity drew the limelight away from Alexandria, although a January 28 demonstration in the city met with violence from Mubarak's riot police. The library was forced to close its doors and protesters formed a human chain to protect it.

Residents of "Alex," as the city is known, have long taken pride in the city's rich legacy. Now they can add the city's role in toppling Mubarak to its illustrious history.

For one glittering cybermoment, the "We Are All Khaled Mohamed Said" Facebook page made all citizens of Egypt Alexandrians. Surely, this new chapter in Egypt's history will one day find a home in the Library of Alexandria.

Joseph Hammond is a collegiate network fellow at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL