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Where does Egypt go from here?

As the country celebrates the end of Mubarak’s rule, the hangover of the revolution begins to kick in


 
Where do things go from here?

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Tahrir Square, the stronghold for Cairo’s anti-government protesters, erupted into heady euphoria last Saturday as the 30-second television address brought the news demonstrators had waited years to hear: president Hosni Mubarak had resigned. “My country, I love you, my country!” whispered a man stooped and frail with age, his eyes moist with tears as he stood amid the celebrations. Behind him, two toddlers rested on the shoulders of their fathers, laughing and forming the “V” for victory with their pudgy fingers.

Thoughts of the future were lost to the joy of the moment. “Just now, just this second, we have our freedom,” said Tahril Isarhow, 28. “It was a dream, now it is real. This is the moment to start again, it is real.” He repeated it over and over again, as if unable to believe his own words. “I can’t believe what is happening,” said Amr Salah, a human rights activist who risked his life to help organize the uprising. “It is like I am watching a movie. We are celebrating, singing and dancing in the street—we will stay in Tahrir Square all night, but this time it is for pleasure.”

The following morning, hundreds wandered the square, grubby from 18 nights of sleeping on the sidewalks, exhausted but smiling. Troops of “revolution popcorn” stands, vendors of drinks, flags, top hats emblazoned with Egypt’s colours, poets and musicians, arrived. The area that so recently had been a scene of sniper fire, petrol bombs and violent clashes was transformed into a carnival. Families came, the children’s cheeks painted the Egyptian red, white and black. Youths bought celebration blow horns, fashioned from straws and conical cartons. In a corner of the square, on the walls of a battered KFC fast-food shop, attempts to immortalize the revolution had already begun. Artist Omar Fathi, 25, nicknamed “Picasso,” moved his brush to complete the tip of a Giza pyramid. “This side represents great Egypt,” he says. Mubarak, his face contorted, is shown running away in the direction of a road sign marked “hell.” “If we did something like this in the past, we would be in jail,” said Mohammed Gabri, 23, who organized the “Artist Revolution,” an offshoot of the protests.

Along the square, cafés and shops reopened their doors. But for some, the hangover of the revolution was beginning to kick in. Until now, the protesters had been united by a single aim—to push Mubarak out. Now, questions of what to do next began to strain their unity. Groups gathered in conversation, debate and then confrontation between those who trust the army, which assumed control after Mubarak’s departure, to lead a smooth transition to a civilian government, and those who don’t. “Ousting Mubarak is a very good start, but it is not the end of our revolution,” said one man in his late forties. “We want a civilian government, we respect the army, but politics is a different world.” But Afat Yehia, 26, sitting on a pile of blankets on the sidewalk in Tahrir Square, which for the last two weeks had been her home, said it was time to end the protests: “We trust the army. Now we have our freedom, it is time to go home.”

In the protesters’ command centre—a broken-down travel agency in Tahrir Square—those who had been leading the protest were split. Spokesperson Noha Tarek, 25, expressed her concern. “We trust and respect the army, but this country has been under a military regime since 1952. We want to make sure the system is peacefully transferred to a civilian council. We can’t go home and forget everything—we have to realize that this is only the first step of the revolution.”

In the end, the army moved in to disperse the protesters from Tahrir Square and clear the roads. But the uprising continued in other arenas. The protest’s leadership committee—whose names remain unconfirmed—released the “People’s Communiqué No. 1”: a set of demands to the army. They include sweeping political reforms, the removal of the emergency law that has for decades given police disproportionate powers, and the release of all detainees—thought to be in the thousands—taken during the protests.

For its part, the military leadership has set a swift timetable for change, aiming to have constitutional amendments drawn up within 10 days, and a referendum to approve them within two months, ahead of elections for a new parliament and ultimately a new civilian government. But protesters remained wary. “If our demands are not met, we are planning a new mass demonstration on Friday,” said spokesperson Ahmed Naguib. “We will bring hundreds of thousands, even a million, to the square.”

Unrest continued in other areas. There were smaller protests and, in a sign of the underlying economic problems that plague Egypt, workers from major industries, spurred on by the popular uprising, held strikes. Shouting and carrying banners, employees of the telecommunications giant Telecom Egypt blocked Ramses Street, one of Cairo’s central boulevards, as they protested outside the company building. Similar protests were also held in two other locations. “They are protesting because they haven’t been paid this month,” said Sam Erfan, an American-Egyptian businessman and lawyer.

Nearby, hundreds demonstrated outside the Cairo branch of Egypt’s government-controlled power utility. One banner read, “The union is useless—a piece of s–t!” as employees shouted over each other to express their anger. “My basic salary is 280 Egyptian pounds per month [$47]. I have been working here for seven years!” complained one. “Most of us are on temporary contracts,” explained another. “I had to pay bribes so that I could keep my job.”

The strikers’ first demand is to fix a minimum fair wage of 1,200 pounds ($200) per month. This follows a court ruling in 2010 that the government must set a minimum wage compatible with the cost of living. (In November, the minimum wage—which had been set at 35 pounds ($5.90) a month since 1984—rose to 400 pounds ($67). “The problem,” said Erfan, “is that the government hasn’t started paying.”

Behind the scenes, Erfan and a group of 50 other lawyers have been a motivating force for the labour protests. Calling themselves “A Change for the Future,” the group, which was also involved in the anti-Mubarak protests, is “waging a war against corruption in Egypt,” Erfan states. “I have proof that some members in the National Bank of Egypt—those well connected to the government—earn as much as three million Egyptian pounds per month. That is more than in the United States! Egypt is not a poor country, it is the distribution that is so wrong.”

In the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where Mubarak reportedly went following his resignation, the Egyptian revolution has manifested itself in empty streets. Among the kitsch camel figurines and belly dancing outfits on offer along the tourist strip, a shop owner who calls himself “Shaggy Lover Lover” looked out at the deserted thoroughfare where thousands of tourists would usually be walking. “I sold something this morning,” he said, “but many shops haven’t earned a single pound in three weeks.”

This tourist strip, so vital to Egypt’s economy, lies just kilometres from where the defeated president now hides, in a villa beside the beautiful Maritim Jolie Ville Resort. The hotel, set among palm trees and lush gardens that overlook the sky-blue waters of the Red Sea, comes with sniffer dogs and dozens of armed security officers. Guests in the hotel are carefully watched. “It has been lovely but quite odd,” said Judith Wood, 41, from Britain’s Isle of Lewis. “They say that we can’t swim in the sea at the hotel because of the sharks—they won’t let us near the water jetty without a security member. But they took us on a boat trip away from Mubarak’s villa, and were happy for us to dive into 45-m water!”

The goings-on in the villa are a mystery, with rumours mixing with leaks from Mubarak’s staff. “Mubarak is here, but he is very ill, he is in bed and needs assistance to walk—he has cancer,” said one source close to his security detail. “No, no, Mubarak is not here,” said a hotel staff member, scurrying away before he could be questioned further.
Back on the main strip, locals have mixed feelings about the former leader. Mubarak’s last redoubt is also his long-standing holiday home. “He loves Sharm el-Sheikh,” said tourist shop owner Thomas Romani, 28. “I love Mubarak, I don’t know why people did this.” Shaggy Lover Lover has a different view. “Now he is in hell,” he said jovially. “You can have all the money in the world, but if people hate you it is worth nothing.”


 

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