Cairo: One Day after Mubarak

Carl Finamore

Employees of the transport authority rally in Cairo to demand better wages and working conditions on February 14, three days after the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Sign reads in Arabic 'Employees of the transport authority demand to be joint with the Ministry of Transport.'

CAIRO — I arrived at a near­ly emp­ty Cairo air­port on Sat­ur­day Feb­ru­ary 12, one day after Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak resigned, an act thought unthink­able only 18 days ago. Over 1 mil­lion tourists left Egypt in the last week, accord­ing to the country’s press reports, so the hotels and streets were emp­ty of vis­i­tors.

I was eager to see how a people’s move­ment actu­al­ly was able to forge such a pow­er­ful move­ment in such a short span of time. I was excit­ed and exhil­a­rat­ed to be here.

I passed the pres­i­den­tial palace while on my way to down­town Cairo and heard the con­stant car horn honk­ing by pass­ing motorists cel­e­brat­ing Mubarak’s depar­ture. This gave me my first indi­ca­tion that I was enter­ing a city super-charged with con­fi­dence and enthu­si­asm. I would see the same excite­ment through­out the streets of Cairo on my first day.

In par­tic­u­lar, I noticed how informed peo­ple were, how will­ing every­one was to talk pol­i­tics. Every­one seemed to have an opin­ion. There was an explo­sion of dia­logue about what had hap­pened and why it had hap­pened.

And, I found out imme­di­ate­ly that peo­ple were eager to speak with me, absolute­ly no hos­til­i­ty. This was dif­fer­ent from the last sev­er­al weeks as report­ed to me by a British edu­ca­tor liv­ing in Cairo. I bumped into him as we both shared a drink inside the bar of my down­town hotel, only a 20-minute walk from Tahrir Square.

Today (Sat­ur­day, Feb­ru­ary 12), is the first day I actu­al­ly feel com­fort­able out­side,” my British acquain­tance 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 range to harass us.”

So, I was quite free to explore the scenes of Cairo only 24 hours after Mubarak left the scene and, most impor­tant, to observe the cur­rent think­ing of the peo­ple. The most inter­est­ing aspect of com­ing to Egypt amidst this his­toric polit­i­cal awak­en­ing, for me, was to encounter the var­i­ous trends of thought as peo­ple expe­ri­ence for the first time in their lives the abil­i­ty to speak freely and to open­ly express their ideas.

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, there­fore, must come to an imme­di­ate end. This undoubt­ed­ly strikes a chord among many Egyp­tians who gen­uine­ly believe the whole bank­rupt régime, not just one despised pres­i­dent, has 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 rot­ten lega­cy of cor­rup­tion. Our army is hon­or­able, they are not busi­ness peo­ple,” a 55-year old man­ag­er of a cloth­ing store sell­ing Gug­gi and oth­er top brands told me.

Ques­tions in inter­views reflect­ed my skep­ti­cism about the role of the army but, so far, I found gen­er­al appre­ci­a­tion for the army alike by pro­tes­tors in Tahrir Square, peo­ple in the adja­cent poor neigh­bor­hoods, ven­dors and shop­keep­ers and numer­ous men and women I spoke with while I was walk­ing around, includ­ing a dis­tance away from Tahrir Square.

Unques­tion­ably, decid­ed­ly favor­able views of the mil­i­tary saved the whole bour­geois polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic struc­ture from implod­ing. In fact, the army was the only remain­ing insti­tu­tion under Mubarak that enjoyed any sem­blance of cred­i­bil­i­ty in Egypt­ian soci­ety. Nei­ther Mubarak, nor the Speak­er of Par­lia­ment, nor the Par­lia­ment itself, and absolute­ly no sec­tor of busi­ness whose crimes would make Al Capone envi­ous, nor 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 by 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 was gone and the army had super­seded Suleiman’s new pow­ers.

What next?

From a vari­ety of occu­pa­tions and neigh­bor­hoods, the sen­ti­ment of the many pro­tes­tors I spoke with is 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 thir­ties who was a man­ag­er of an engi­neer­ing firm across from Tahrir Square par­tic­u­lar­ly empha­sized this. He 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. As we spoke in a café, 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 would sup­port the army so much and did not agree with con­tin­u­ing to occu­py Tahrir Square, they all respond­ed in uni­son talk­ing over each oth­er. It was a dra­mat­ic, emo­tion­al response and one repeat­ed many times in inter­views on my first day in Cairo.

Yes, we want to get back to rebuild our coun­try,” declared the young man­ag­er. 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 the bar­ri­cades built sev­er­al weeks ago 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 and real­ly through­out Egypt, and it has deeply pen­e­trat­ed the hearts and minds of mil­lions of Egyp­tians.

24-year old doc­tor, lock­ing his 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 sim­ply turn­ing the ques­tion back to me, If your house is dirty, don’t you clean it?”

My encounter with this young, brave doc­tor and his com­rades in Tahrir Square revealed some­thing impor­tant to me. First, deserved­ly, there is an extreme sense of pride by pro­tes­tors for what they have achieved, leav­ing many to con­sid­er Tahrir Square as almost sacred ground. Sec­ond, they under­stood through­out their 18-day strug­gle lead­ing up to Mubarak’s res­ig­na­tion that it was only the grow­ing size and pub­lic nature of the protests in the square that made the move­ment pow­er­ful.

There are many opin­ions now on the streets of Egypt. The seem­ing con­tra­dic­tion of want­i­ng to get our great coun­try mov­ing again” with the mass move­ment want­i­ng to main­tain a pub­lic pres­ence” is what spawns divid­ed opin­ion in these first free hours on how to move the coun­try for­ward. We shall see how major­i­ty opin­ion devel­ops on these and oth­er crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant polit­i­cal issues fac­ing the future of the Egypt­ian rev­o­lu­tion.

One thing is cer­tain. The free­doms won in the last few weeks gives Egyp­tians the oppor­tu­ni­ty to demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly decide their future with a new con­fi­dence. The peo­ple are no longer afraid. No doubt that real­i­ty in itself must fright­en those who long prof­it­ed from the old régime, both in gov­ern­ment and busi­ness, and who now may want to reestab­lish their own idea of sta­bil­i­ty” in order to return to the past.

Thanks to my friend Mark Har­ris in Port­land for help­ing put this report togeth­er.

Carl Finamore is retired pres­i­dent of Local 1781 of the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Machin­ists (IAM) at San Fran­cis­co air­port. He is in Egypt with let­ters of intro­duc­tion from his local union and the San Fran­cis­co Labor Coun­cil, AFL-CIO. While he is in Cairo, you can read his brief updates on Facebook.

Carl Finamore is a del­e­gate to the San Fran­cis­co Labor Coun­cil, AFL-CIO, and for­mer Pres­i­dent (retired), Air Trans­port Employ­ees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW.
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