The New Face of Egypt

February 14, 2011

By the Amnesty International team in Cairo.

A child wrapped in an Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square on 11 February ©Sarah Carr
A child wrapped in an Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square on 11 February ©Sarah Carr

Describing in words the atmosphere in Tahrir Square on the evening of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation after 30 years in power would never do it justice.

It was a bit like Cairo itself – you cannot understand it unless you have lived it, felt it, smelt it and drank chlorine-filled water from its tap.

All we can say is that it was a great privilege to be there for this momentous historical occasion.

We can project, years from now, our children or grandchildren rolling their eyes when we repeat, perhaps with a fleeting look of nostalgia or tears in our eyes: “I was there, in the sea of people from all ages, social classes, political backgrounds: Muslim and Coptic, men and women, rich and poor, veiled and unveiled, feeling part of a whole new Egypt that was being reborn.”

In fact, to navigate across the square one needed to follow the right current of people if one hoped to reach friends with whom to share the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If not, people would scream “mabrouk [congratulations]” to each other over the phone in disbelief and with hysterical laughter.

We came from a generation, like more than a third of all Egyptians, for whom Hosni Mubarak as President was a natural, permanent state of affairs – as engrained in our psyche as the national anthem we had to sing in school every morning.

His fall as a result of a popular uprising was something many dared to dream of, but never quite believed, even after the ousting of Tunisia’s President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali less than a month ago.

We are used to our leaders either dying of natural causes, being overthrown in palace coups or being assassinated.

People’s sense of achievement and pride in being able to take control of Egypt’s future reverberated across the square. “Put your head up high, you are Egyptian,” was sung over and over again and was complimented by laughter, ululations, songs of praise, drums and the waving of Egyptian flags.

While regular Egyptians were very much at the heart of the scene in Tahrir Square on the actual “Friday of Departure”, members of the military were taking part in the national party: letting mothers take pictures of their children on top of tanks and awkwardly acquiescing to civilians hugging them or even carrying them on their shoulders.

Nonetheless, one could see that not all those in the square were fully consumed by the celebratory fever.

The sweet potato seller seemed more concerned about making enough profit to provide for his family than joining the party. Despite the magnitude of Hosni Mubarak’s departure, harsh realities do remain for many Egyptians struggling daily to make ends meet.

The mood was soured a bit by an incident that was common for downtown Cairo, but unexpected on such a special day.

It became clear that 18 days of change had not been enough to convince some Egyptian men that sexually harassing women in the street is not acceptable.

Bad habits die hard, and a long road lies ahead in ensuring that Egyptian women who were very much part of the uprising can also be an equal part of the construction of the new Egypt.

The manifestation of the sense of civic duty and ownership in the country continued the day after.

Troops of volunteers were cleaning up the debris and rubbish of the square and repainting the pavements – quite a sight when one is used to Egyptians throwing tissues and cigarette butts out of their car windows.

One commentator said he wished Cairo’s local government would preserve the square’s cleanliness.

While some were busy dismantling and cleaning up Tahrir Square, others were visiting it as one would visit a museum: bringing their whole families to watch and taking pictures to immortalize the place where history was made before it returns to normal.

On Sunday, the beginning of the working week, there were indeed signs of a return to normal life.

For the first time since the protests started on 25 January, cars reappeared on the square, trying to reclaim the space.

While the masses of protesters had trickled out of the square, diehard protesters clung to every centimetre of Tahrir.

We overheard ongoing debates about the pertinence of a protest that seemed to have achieved its main goal, with some saying that it was time to go home and resume daily life and others arguing the job was unfinished.

In fact, patches of protesters of another kind had sprung up across Cairo including state employees claiming their share of the change.

In hospitals, banks and insurance companies, employees gathered to demand better pay and working conditions.

Even policemen chanted in front of the Ministry of Interior that the “police and the people were one”.
Apparently when the army fired shots into the air to deter them from getting any closer, they chanted “[ the protest is] peaceful, peaceful” – a slogan used by protesters not long ago to persuade the police to avoid using excessive force – unfortunately in vain for the hundreds killed and thousands injured on the road to change.

The future of Egypt remains uncertain with so many questions unanswered: Who governs the country now? Who will draft a new constitution after its suspension along with the parliament by the Supreme Military Council? When will the curfew be over? When will the state of emergency be lifted? When will elections be held? When will the figures of the old political system face trials for the crimes committed? When will those detained arbitrarily be released? Will regular Egyptians now be able to live in dignity, with jobs that meet their aspirations and houses where they can live safely?

While these questions naturally raise anxiety, most Egyptians are holding on to optimistic feelings that the country is heading in the right direction – one where human rights, the rule of law, prosperity and people’s will are respected.

For too long people looked up to their leadership to realize their aspirations. But with the change brought since the 25th of January, the rules of the game have changed and people now have the opportunity to re-build their country and shape their future.

For more information on the events in Egypt and the Middle East, visit Amnesty USA’s Middle East Uprising page.