Archive: February, 2011
I believe that the key to the outcome of the upheavals going on the Mideast lies with the youth of Egypt. The caliber of the young leaders who head the key groups that organized the Egyptian revolt, was enormously impressive. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, journalists – ranging in age from early 20s to early 30s – they demonstrated an immense talent for organization and strategic planning.
And this is key: their demands had nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with pragmatic interests such as establishing a government that is more representative and less corrupt. There were some Muslim Brotherhood Youth among them, but they were a very small minority and kept a low profile.
In a region where 60 per cent of the population is under 25, these young leaders can provide role models for youth in countries less developed than Egypt. The key unanswered question is whether the abilities that enabled them to topple an autocrat can be translated into the kinds of skills that can build new, effective political parties, and whether they will be willing to “dirty their hands” by entering politics – a field heretofore disdained by most Egyptians.
I spent my last evening in Cairo at a café in Fustat, one of the oldest districts of Cairo, where working and middle class Cairenes all know each other, and live in slightly crumbling three and four story apartment buildings that lean toward each other over narrow streets.
I drank tea and talked with a group of locals about the political developments of the past weeks, and what they expect in the future. Among them were a carpenter, a government employee in the Antiquities Ministry, two cabbies, a tourist guide, an accountant, the owner of a small cloth store, and a local man who was returning home after spending 16 years in the United States.
All of them intended to vote next time, which they’d never done before because they thought (rightly) that the voting was rigged. Of the group of ten, only two said they were inclined to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood – although they said they would judge the individual character of a candidate and if a Brother had a good reputation they might consider him.
One of the most satisfying interviews of my trip to Egypt was my visit to the home of Judge Hisham Bastawisi in Cairo.
I last met him in 2005, when he was leading a protest by Egypt’s judges against the Mubarak regime’s misuse of the judiciary. At the time I wrote a column calling on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to visit the Judges Club on one of her visits to Cairo and support those who were being persecuted for insisting on the for rule of law.
The Egyptian constitution calls on judges to oversee the counting of ballots, in order to prevent rigging. However, the regime had introduced new legislation that made this oversight virtually impossible and rigging increased exponentially. Bastawisi was hounded, criminal charges were brought against him (which were later dismissed), and the pressure brought on a heart attack. He eventually left Egypt to work in Kuwait.
I went back to Tahrir Square today to see the continuing protests against the fact that the post-Mubarak government is still headed by and includes key members of the old Mubarak regime. Today the demo was still peaceful, but you can feel the protesters’ frustration mounting toward the military council now ruling the country.
I had a unique vantage point, on the ninth floor of an apartment building overlooking the square. The apartment belongs to Pierre Sioufi, a large bear of a man with wild grey hair; he opened his large and winding flat during those historic eighteen days to the Facebook “kids’ who organized the protests, so they could rest and recover. The lucky journalists who got there could look down from his large balcony on the amazing sight of tens of thousands, or even millions gathered below.
The tens of thousands gathered today were chanting "Mubarak left the palace, but Shafiq still governs Egypt,” referring to Ahmad Shafiq, the former air force commander who is now prime minister. Shafiq was initially disdainful of the demonstrators who first gathered on Jan 25, saying he would send them bonbons and "let them have their Hyde Park.” In reality, the military is the real power now; a new standoff is developing between Egyptians who fear Shafiq (and the military) want to restore the old order and the generals in charge.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace laureate and former head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, is a prescient, prickly fighter for democracy in Egypt. He caused an uproar when he came back to the country a year ago to run against then-president Hosni Mubarak; no one thought he had a snowball’s chance in the Sahara. But he allied himself with Facebook youth who took his calls for civil disobedience seriously.
I went to see him in his villa just outside Cairo, because he has been so outspoken in his concerns that a counter-revolution is in the works to undercut the revolution precipitated by Egypt’s young people in the past two months.
“The head of the regime is gone,” he told me, “but most of the regime is still staying. What I see so far is an effort to scapegoat … the second tier. What we need is a complete cleansing of the regime. To start with, for credibility, you need … transparency [from the military, who are now in charge]. It is not there from the army, they are not reaching out or consulting anybody, there is still quite a degree of control of TV which is still the main media for the ordinary Egyptian.”
Mohammed Goma, the man in this photo, who delivers fresh bread from a bakery, earns 30 Egyptian pounds a day, the equivalent of five dollars. Mohammed, The 15-year-old next to him, who dropped out of school in sixth grade, works 12 hours a day for 25 pounds. His 11-year-old brother, Samer, who never went to school at all (see second photo), earns 15 pounds a day for his 12 hours. Their father is a farmer outside Cairo and has sent them to the city to work.
This is the other Egypt.
With all the excitement over Egypt’s political revolution, few people are talking about the economic crisis in the country. Tourism has tanked since the uprising – even though Cairo is perfectly safe now – and there are strikes all over the country as frustrated workers try to be heard and vent their anger at the corruption that flourished under Hosni Mubarak.
I went down to Tahrir Square today to see who would come to a snap demonstration called on Facebook. It was protesting the fact that the military has still not fired some members of the old regime from the cabinet, including the Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq.
This demo was not endorsed by the coalition of young leaders that have emerged from the revolution. It erupted because some stalwarts of the 18-day battle in Tahrir Square feared that the momentum of the revolution will be lost if old faces are still on the job, and mistrust the plans the army has made to transit back to civilian rule. So they posted a call on Facebook and 20,000 signed up. Voila! The demo was on, but only a few thousand showed up, and it led to debates over what the demonstrators should do next: try to hold the army’s feet to the fire, or trust them to do what is best for the country.
Last night, on a widely watched talk show, three generals who are part of the army council that is the real power during this transitional phase said bluntly that they wanted the demonstrations to stop. As I walked around the square I heard people arguing over this idea, like the two young men Sherif and Mahmoud, in the photo with this post. They are smiling in the picture, but they had been really going at it before, and didn’t want that picture used.
You see it in the little things. Trash bins on Cairo bridges that never had them before. Volunteer clean up crews of young men in tough districts like Imbaba where there was always trash on the streets.
And on the Kasr el Nil bridge leading to Tahrir Square this engaging volunteer crew was painting faces and hands with the colors of Egypt's flag, charging a small fee and using the money to buy paint and paint the bridge railing green.
This newly liberated civic spirit, if harnessed, could make Egypt a different country where people took individual responsibility for their lives, and also held their government responsible for carrying out its duties (including the honest, not corrupted, collection taxes and the provision of services such as garbage collection). This civic pride - in a country where there has long been none - could make Egypt unique in the region.