A Cairo Journal
One Day After Mubarak
I arrived February 12 at a nearly empty Cairo airport soon after President Hosni Mubarak resigned, an act once thought unthinkable. Over one million tourists had left Egypt in the last week, according to the country's press reports, so the hotels and streets were empty. I had come hoping to see how people were able to forge such a powerful movement in such a short span of time.
I passed the presidential palace while on my way to downtown Cairo and heard the constant car horns celebrating Mubarak's departure. This gave me my first indication that I was entering a city charged with confidence and enthusiasm. In particular, I noticed how informed people were, how willing everyone was to talk politics and to have an opinion. There was an explosion of dialogue.
People were eager to speak with me, with no apparent hostility. This was different from the last several weeks, as reported to me by a British educator living in Cairo. "Today is the first day I actually feel comfortable outside," he explained. "Before, the government was trying to stir up anger against foreigners by blaming them for the demonstrations and this gave thugs and police free rein to harass us."
With Mubarak's resignation on Friday, February 11, the army high command quickly declared that the "protestors had won" and that the country's profound social and political turmoil must come to an immediate end. This undoubtedly struck a chord among many Egyptians who genuinely believed the whole bankrupt regime, not just one despised president, had collapsed. Notably, most Egyptians I spoke with believe the military has historically stayed out of politics, unlike the hated police apparatus. Many Egyptians will also tell you that the army has not been tainted by the legacy of corruption. "Our army is honorable, they are not businesspeople," a 55-year-old manager of a clothing store told me.
My questions in interviews reflected my skepticism about the role of the army, but I found general appreciation for the army by protestors in Tahrir Square, from people in adjacent poor neighborhoods, vendors and shopkeepers, and numerous people I spoke with. In fact, the army seemed the only remaining institution under Mubarak that enjoyed any semblance of credibility in Egyptian society. Neither Mubarak nor the speaker of Parliament or the Parliament itself, or any in the business sector—whose crimes would make Al Capone envious—or any of the docile legal political parties could have handled the transition.
Vice President Omar Suleiman, groomed to take over for Mubarak, was also thoroughly discredited after claiming Egypt was not ready for democracy. This infuriated a whole nation and within a few hours of Mubarak's attempt to cling to power, the old despot was gone and the army had superseded Suleiman's new powers.
From a variety of occupations and neighborhoods, the sentiment of the many protestors I spoke with was essentially that, "We must now begin to rebuild our country. The country is ours now, we want stability so we can build democracy and restore Egypt's economic power." A young man in his early 30s, a manager of an engineering firm across from Tahrir Square, emphasized this. He had participated in all the protests, including being the first on his block to organize defense of the homes and businesses in the early days of the revolt, when criminal looters instigated by the government were on the loose.
The pro-democracy activists who want to remain in Tahrir Square until the decades-long state of emergency and other political reforms are implemented will be isolated if they stay, he told me. They don't represent the majority opinion. His younger brother, a student, his sister, an artist, and their friend, a young Muslim woman who worked for an insurance company, were all in agreement. When I asked why they support the army so much and did not agree with continuing to occupy Tahrir Square, they said: "We want to get back to rebuild our country, but we will return if we have to. Everyone knows and understands this, including the army. Our massive protests and the broad unity of all classes was a warning to them. If they do not rapidly safeguard our transition to democracy, if there are not genuine economic reforms, then we will return. We are no longer afraid. Hundreds have been killed and we do not forget their sacrifice. Our movement is incredibly deep. There were protests in 15 cities yesterday. This is why we belong at work now and do not have to be in the square."
The Beloved Ground of Tahrir Square
The government, now under the firm control of the military, clearly wants to move as rapidly as possible to establish the stability they now proclaim as the country's most urgent need. At Tahrir Square, I saw evidence of this when several dozen army troops began pushing and shoving protestors away from barricades built during the worst of the police attacks. Hundreds of families with young children scattered, but a large core of obviously experienced protestors locked hands and urged people to stay. The message was, "It is our square, where blood has been shed. We will not leave."
At the same time, all across Tahrir Square, hundreds of Egyptians could be seen sweeping and cleaning the beloved scene of their most valiant sacrifices and most profound victories. Something hallowed and honorable happened in Tahrir—really, throughout Egypt.
A 24-year-old doctor, locking arms with hundreds of other young people as the troops attacked only 25 yards away, refused to leave and was urging others to "Stay, don't worry, do not leave." He responded to my question of why Tahrir Square was being cleaned by turning the question back to me, "If your house is dirty, don't you clean it?"
One thing is certain. The freedom won in the last few weeks gives Egyptians the opportunity to democratically decide their future with new confidence. The people are no longer afraid. No doubt that reality must frighten those who long profited from the old regime, both in government and business, and who now may want to reestablish their own idea of "stability" in order to return to the past.
We All Know Our Way Back to Tahrir Square
The street protests centered in Cairo's Tahrir Square continued across Egypt in the days after Mubarak left, as labor unrest grew. Thousands of workers belonging to local units of the government-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), who largely work in the public sector, were striking and protesting right alongside their unorganized brothers and sisters in the private sector. In addition, new independent unions were forming, determined to be democratically controlled by their members instead of by a government and current state constitution that only recognized unions considered obedient to the ruling politicians.
It's not hard to understand why. Egypt's workers have suffered enormously under the country's long-standing neo-conservative economic policies of privatization and elimination of state social subsidies. The United States government, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank have promoted these policies since the days of Anwar Sadat, Mubarak's predecessor. As a result, there has been a tremendous growth in informal sectors of the economy where workers have no rights, no benefits and no contract rights. One young man I met in downtown Cairo, Said, was working in this unrecognized part of the economy. He was an English teacher by day, but had to work evenings as a street vendor with his friends, other teachers I also met, to supplement his 280 Egyptian pound (less than $50) monthly salary.
This is not a unique example. According to the AFL-CIO, 40 percent of Egyptians barely exist on $2 a day. This explains the startling statistic that between 2004 and 2008 there were some 1,900 work stoppages and other forms of protest in Egypt involving 1.9 million workers. Obviously, the national uprising against Mubarak was a long time in the making.
Beyond Tahrir Square
With events moving so rapidly, I wanted to see if military efforts to clear the square of all protestors signaled a downturn in the movement. Early on February 14, I walked to Tahrir from my hotel through downtown Cairo, past the central Court Building (now open) and the revered Egyptian Museum (still closed and guarded by the military).
Only the day before, thousands were still assembled in Tahrir Square despite warnings from the army to leave the area. But, as I got closer, remarkably, overnight, the center of the square was completely empty. All the protestors were gone, the tents and medical triage centers torn down, and all the makeshift barricades removed. In their place in the center of the square hung a very large banner reading: "Egypt is Now Happy." A few dozen smartly dressed, unarmed military police stood guard around the perimeter of this most sacred area.
I began walking around the perimeter of the square where I discovered several different assembled groups of people, some praying at hastily erected altars honoring those who had been murdered. Other scattered groups were having conversations that could only mean, in today's Egypt, that they were talking politics. I approached one of the larger groups and began asking questions. Was it a good thing that the protestors left the square? I asked a 27-year-old well-dressed young businessperson as he stood alone gazing out over the square. "Yes, what we wanted came," he replied. "So why stay?" Others echoed this view. "Yes, why not?" said 32-year-old Mahmoud, an unemployed accountant who is now working as a chauffeur. "I am glad the people made the changes in a system we had for 30 years. They did what we all wanted."
As I was taking notes, others began to come into our little circle and participate. The discussion group grew bigger and bigger. This happens all the time now whenever I stop to interview someone. It reminded me of a remark I had heard the day before, on Sunday, with Hamad, a 26-year-old former soldier and unemployed teacher who also works as a street vendor: "Before no one talked politics. Now we are free, everyone is speaking."
After Mubarak: The Unfinished Revolution
One week after President Mubarak's abrupt resignation, another series of tremors occurred on Friday, February 18. In a clear signal that Egypt's revolution is not over, millions of newly energized and politically awakened people flooded Tahrir Square and in dozens of other plazas in cities, towns, and villages throughout the country.
Scanning the scene of several hundred thousand people gathered in Tahrir, you truly felt the power and unity of a people who, for the first time in their lives, are anticipating a "New Egypt." Getting to Tahrir that morning was not easy. Everyone was searched at numerous military checkpoints. Documents were reviewed and passports checked. In my case, I was forbidden several times to enter with my camera. This was strange because many Egyptians already entering Tahrir had phone cameras. It seemed to me the army was showing their lingering discomfort of foreign press coverage of mass rallies.
I quickly found another checkpoint and walked briskly around the guards checking papers. I soon found myself, camera in hand, among hundreds of thousands of people. This was a diverse crowd from all faiths and all social backgrounds. There were men and women, young and old. Many families were there with children.
The highly respected Imam Yousef el-Qaradawi was speaking at what was the start of the traditional Friday prayer meeting that normally occurs five times a day. Today, they were all combined into one huge service in Tahrir Square before the official start of the day's festivities. In dramatic fashion, typical of these days where everything seems possible, the religious leader had just returned the previous day from political exile in Qatar. His last sermon in the country of his birth was in 1981. As the Imam spoke, several worshippers whispered translations to me. Most significant, I learned that el-Qaradawi urged "patience with the military" and suggested "all return to their jobs so we can rebuild our country." This is the same political approach shared by the Muslim Brotherhood who are among the small circle of political leaders and groups thought to be currently in negotiations with the army about the timing and character of reforms. Noticeably absent from these government negotiations are representatives of the newly formed independent unions and leaders from the thousands of striking workers protesting all across Egypt.
Building a New Egypt
As I walked through Tahrir Square on Friday, I was struck by the sense of determination that was in the air. One man, 60-year-old Hamad, a Muslim who worked a few years in Germany as an engineer, perhaps best expressed the spirit of the day: "It's not just the last 30 years. We have been repressed by dictators for thousands of years. We are never, ever going back. It's over."
But what about the top generals, all of them long-time cohorts of Mubarak? Certainly the military command has shown itself far more politically astute than the stubborn and arrogant Mubarak, a man whose imperial detachment only fueled the early days of the rebellion. For example, when protestors refused to leave Tahrir Square as commanded by the authorities, the army quickly made dramatic concessions by suspending the hated Constitution, dissolving the discredited Parliament, and lifting the ban on all political groups. Similarly, on the eve of today's huge victory rally, the army arrested three corrupt cabinet ministers and one notoriously dishonest businessperson. They also announced the whole cabinet would be removed, including vice-president Omar Suleiman who had been missing in action for a week.
However, in a press statement on the day of the rally, the army command also revealed its strategic goal to divide the people's movement. In a statement praising the rally, the army at the same time condemned "illegal demonstrations and strikes," claiming they jeopardized Egypt's future.
All this was on my mind as I traveled to meet with Khaled Ali, Egypt's best-known counselor and defender of independent unions and worker protests. While waiting for a translator, I spoke with third-year law student Malek, who works as an administrator for an Oxfam-financed law firm at the center of defending human rights, trade union rights, and democratic principles. Malek told me, "Workers are not impressed with calls for stability while they suffer hardships some of the middle classes cannot even imagine. Strikers are being told by the army that they are bringing the economy down, but for workers the economy has always been down…. We do not define or limit our concept of democracy as simply establishing free, open, and honest parliamentary elections," he explained. "As important as that is, we also know that elections can be manipulated by those with money and power under even the best of circumstances. We see this happen the world over." For Malek, "true democracy" meant allowing people to improve their standard of living by freely organizing democratic unions, by enjoying the right to collective bargaining, and by the freedom to engage in peaceful protests and strikes.
In a subsequent interview with Ali, he reviewed the rich history of work stoppages and protests over the past several years that prepared the ground of the January 25 movement. He also emphasized the vital role of the Egyptian labor movement in the current protests. "If you do not understand the background of strikes and worker protests, you misread and misunderstand all recent events," he declared. "Once workers entered Tahrir after February 3, the threatened isolation of young people ended. The police disappeared and the army refused to attack. The massive participation of workers and the poor was absolutely decisive. Only now that workers want to press demands for economic justice, we are being told we are disruptive."
One thing is guaranteed. As the labor struggles continue to expand, so will the debate and discussion among the brave Egyptian people willing to face any challenge in their quest to build their new Egypt.
Carl Finamore was in Cairo with letters of introduction from his IAM Machinist local and from the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO where he serves as a delegate. Thanks to Mark Harris in Portland and to Shawna Bader for their insights. Most photos by Finamore.