Revolutionary equality where there was no rich and no poor


NEW EGYPT:The thousands who have been campaigning for freedom are unlikely to settle for another three decades of army rule, writes MICHAEL JANSEN

THE NEW Egypt born yesterday co-exists with a collection of all- too-familiar autocratic Egypts divided by class and fortune, by power and powerlessness.

There is the Egypt of the rich who keep to themselves in well- guarded gated compounds; the Egypt of the upper class who jog and play tennis at the colonial-era Gezira Club in Cairo; the Egypts of the struggling middle-class who dwell in crumbling flats, of the lower middle-class who live on the brink of poverty and of urban slum folk squatting in broken hovels and cemeteries.

“Peasants in Upper Egypt still live as they did at the time of the pharaohs,” observes Youssef Zaki, physician and anthropologist.

We were having coffee in the garden of the palace – now hotel – built by Khedive Ismail to house Empress Eugenie of France during celebrations for the opening of the Suez canal in 1869.

Educated by French religious and the holder of several advanced degrees, Zaki has family connections to the liberal Wafd, the country’s first party established in 1918 to challenge British rule.

The new Wafd, he says sadly, is a “cartoon party” like the other opposition groups that co-operated with the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak.

“My father knew de Valera,” he says. “My father, Hamid Zaki, was minister of economy in 1950 to ’51 and spoke to the Irish parliament about fighting for freedom from Britain.”

The Egypt that has been emerging since January 25th is still fighting for freedom from the still-strong grip of Mubarak’s 30-year military rule.

Tahrir (Liberation) Square at the heart of Cairo is the beach- head, bastion and beacon of the uprising sparked by tens of thousands of young Egyptians, a fraction of the 80 million who have access to the internet, Facebook and twitter.

Word of mouth mobilised millions.

For 18 momentous days, Egyptians dwelt in this new Egypt in hope and without fear. Numbers in the square rose throughout the day and fell at night, but even when day-trippers had gone home, Tahrir was the most densely populated place on the face of the earth.

While Tahrir remains the capital of the new Egypt, its citizens, of every class and colour, are found in Aswan, Alexandria, and Suez.

With every demonstration, more people joined the country- wide democracy camp. It had two primary demands: an immediate end to the reign of Mubarak (82) and democracy now. The first demand has been realised, the second is for the future – perhaps.

The democracy demonstrators of Tahrir Square, a microcosm of Egypt, have achieved unity of purpose as well as a kind of temporary revolutionary equality where there were no rich and no poor.

One young demonstrator had used a piece of cardboard to make a new identity card for the people of the free republic. “Name: Citizen; Religion: Egyptian; Place of Birth: Tahrir Square; Date: 25th of January 2011; Occupation: Revolutionary.”

Several thousand men, women and children camped out in the square under tarps and in tents or wrapped in grimy blankets. Conditions were hard, basic, insanitary, but the campers were determined to stay put and stay on. The demonstrators were friendly, cheerful, generous and brave. More than 300 people died and 5,000 were injured during the demonstrations. Large portraits of the dead were displayed prominently and the wounded wore their bandages proudly. Detained activists released by the authorities received ecstatic welcomes from the throng in the square.

Young women circulated freely in Tahrir. They did not fear the sexual harassment common on the streets of the capital. “Everyone is focused on the struggle for Egypt,” said the father of a 22-year-old woman who considered Tahrir “the safest spot in Egypt”. Tahriris welcomed foreigners, crowded around to tell their stories and put forward their demands.

Visitors dodged tight wedges of men and women marching from place to place addressing Mubarak and his entourage: “Leave, leave, leave!”

“I compare this experience to the pilgrimage” to Mecca, an academic observed. “The people circling are like those who circle the Kaaba” – the black cubic building at the core of the mosque in the holy city. “I am inspired, I feel cleansed from within,” he added. “Many others say the same.”

His wife dismissed offers of democracy-building aid put forward by western officials. “Can’t they see, we already have democracy. This is democracy. We can be a model for others.”

The square was surrounded by tanks, armour-plated troop carriers and soldiers, representing Mubarak’s repressive, undemocratic Egypt.

People filed into Tahrir through choke points where volunteers from the democracy camp checked for weapons. By the time Mubarak resigned, plainclothes elements, who used to threaten demonstrators and journalists, had disappeared from the streets around Tahrir.

The atmosphere yesterday was electric, cheerful and celebratory – even though Mubarak had only resigned in the evening. The democratic demonstrators had been confident they would win the protracted tussle with him.

Outside Tahrir, the daily routine had resumed. Banks and shops had reopened, civil servants and police patrolmen had returned to their jobs and traffic snarls had once again taken hold of the streets of Cairo.

Mubarak is gone, the army’s supreme council pushed him out, but his appointee vice-president Omar Suleiman is still there. Nevertheless, nothing is the same as it was before January 25th.

Even though Mubarak’s 1981 emergency law prevails, freedom is on the march.

The thousands of democracy demonstrators who have campaigned for freedom over the past 18 days are unlikely to settle for another three decades of army rule.