This commentary was published in The New York Times on 17/02/2011
When the history of the Egyptian Revolution gets written, a large place must be reserved in it for Pierre Sioufi, the bearded, twinkly-eyed, chain-smoking, larger-than-life guru of liberation who threw open his sprawling apartment overlooking Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the “kids” who demanded the right to connect.
I say a “large place.” Sioufi weighs in at some 300 pounds. If Tahrir Square during those 18 days had its elements of Woodstock — the plastic tents, the bleary-eyed folk at dawn, the all-we-can-really-do-is-love-one-another spirit — then he was its Jerry Garcia (with a touch of Allen Ginsberg).
Picture Sioufi at his cluttered desk, like a captain at the helm of a storm-tossed ship, reaching for his box of Swedish matches, lighting another Marlboro, waving in some group of Facebook “kids” (he always called them that) with their laptops, dressed in a T-shirt that says “Fel Meshmesh” (roughly “It will never happen”), searching for a charger in the pile tangled around a bottle of Maille vinegar, gazing out at glass-faced wooden bookcases with leather-bound volumes including “La Grande Encyclopédie,” eating his way through another bowl of lentils, writing messages to the world on his desktop, exhorting, welcoming and laughing.
There were never less than 40 people in Sioufi’s apartment, sometimes many more, out on the terrace with its panoramic view (and twisted cactuses); in the computer room where the “kids” did the Facebook work of coordination (often to the sound of Led Zeppelin); in the kitchen where somehow food never dwindled; threading their way down labyrinthine corridors beneath gilt-framed portraits hung at all angles; watching TV through palls of smoke; trying not to tread on Olive the cat or on the two terriers Coquette and Babo or on a woman curled up with her video camera on one of many mattresses scattered across parquet floors; plotting and praying and sometimes, at the sight of the immense crowd, just murmuring “Oh my God.”
At its most basic level, what’s gone on in Tunisia and Egypt, and what’s going on in Bahrain and Libya and Yemen and Iran, is about what happened in Sioufi’s apartment: the right to meet, to exchange views, to organize political campaigns, to connect. A big part of the Arab-Persian world’s problem — and the West’s problem in turn — has been that for decades about the only place people could gather in the security states of the region has been the mosque.
For the United States to support Mubarak and his ilk, and at the same time imagine violent Islamist extremism might erode, was delusional. Tahrir brought debate into the public sphere. It lifted the lid of the radicalizing Arab pressure cooker.
“I was just here by chance,” Sioufi, 50, told me. “I’m no more than a salon revolutionary, perhaps because I can afford it. If I couldn’t, maybe I’d be a real revolutionary!”
It was not easy, in the hubbub of what became known as “The House of the Revolution,” to get to the bottom of the Sioufi story — I’ll leave that to the historians. But there was money — a grandfather did well representing a German chemical company — and the building we were in had been constructed by his family.
Sioufi himself, in gray sweatpants, pepper-and-salt hair flying at all angles, had worked as an actor, an artist, a journalist; he had also devoted serious time to keeping work at bay.
“What’s an artist?” he mused. “I try to be as free as I can individually, use what I have to be as free as I can.”
Perhaps that sounds too highfalutin’ for the task of overthrowing a ruthless regime. But Sioufi was laser-like in his analysis — “Either Mubarak has to kill or he has to leave,” he told me early on — and he performed an immense practical feat in providing space, electricity and nurture to the diverse crowd that gathered beneath his roof.
I saw Muslim Brotherhood folk mingling with the likes of Sanaa Seif, aged 17, high school student, Facebook fiend (“I’ve no idea where my parents are, they’re activists like me.”) I heard all the dark humor between young computer-science majors plotting revolution (First geek: “I think we’ll be friends for life.” Second geek: “Yeah, either in prison or a free Egypt!”) Above all there was Sioufi, a personification of the uprising’s eclectic spirit, a Christian with images of the crucifixion hanging in this apartment and, he told me, a sign saying “Allah” at the entrance to his other Cairo place, and books like Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” lying around.
It all began with wanting to offer a “safe haven” for “the kids.” He was afraid for them, for Egypt’s youth. They were heroes, confronting Mubarak’s thugs. They needed a place to recover and tweet and, yes, eat. And so, in the serendipitous way of much of the uprising, the “Facebook flat,” as it was also known, took form.
On his own Facebook page, Sioufi’s “basic information” entry runs as follows: “Life’s a bitch — then it delivers six puppies, always more responsibilities.” Except that every once in a long while the puppy is freedom.