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The Party’s Over: Post-revolution, Egyptians Struggle to Find Their Future

Streets of Cairo. Photo by Jana Mills via Flickr Creative Commons.

CAIRO, EGYPT — What a difference seven months make.  The Cairo I left on Feb. 12 — the morning after Egypt’s longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak abandoned the presidency — was like a college town the morning after a Grateful Dead concert, or a household suffering from a collective hangover on New Year’s Day.  The streets were nearly deserted, and the few brave souls who had ventured out looked dazed.

Yesterday, Sept. 3,  was a “morning after” of sorts, too. It was Cairenes’ first day back at work after the month-long fast of Ramadan and a five-day Eid holiday weekend.  But on this morning after, the Egyptian capital was its old vibrant, dirty, chaotic, improvisational self.  Traffic clogged the streets and the bridges over the Nile, as cars jockeyed for advantage and position. (Traffic lanes seem an alien concept here). Pedestrians crossed willy-nilly through the traffic. Office workers lucky enough to have jobs elbowed past each other to work.  Shops were open, hawking everything from shoes to computer equipment.

And as evening fell last night at the Lion Bridge, which had brought tens of thousands of daily demonstrators to Tahrir Square during the 18-day uprising, kids clambered up on the 10-foot-high lions, cart vendors roasted corn at their feet, dateless young men perched precariously on the bridge railing and couples embraced. “You would never have seen this before Tahrir,” a friend said as we drove across the bridge. Tahrir Square itself was making a pretense of being its pre-uprising normal, with traffic flowing through and not a tent camp or protestor in sight, demanding Mubarak’s ouster. But there was one tell-tale sign of the Revolution’s aftermath: uniformed riot police shoulder-to-shoulder around the square’s grassy central circle, their body shields at the ready beside them.

Those riot police enforcing “order” in Tahrir Square are a symbol of what’s changed since early summer. There is now real tension between the young activists who sparked the uprising that drove Mubarak from office, and the military leadership that protected them and  told Mubarak when the game was up.  Its Supreme Council took control with an implicit deal: we’ll keep order and set up a framework for electing a new civilian leadership, and then retire. The deal was simple in concept, but it’s been uncomfortably bumpy in execution.  As the months wore on amid wrangling over the ground rules for elections and writing a constitution, the young activists have grown impatient over what’s not been done. There has been no end to military trials for civilians, nor the emergency  law that  justified these extra-legal courts, and many people arrested by the old regime’s security apparatus during the protests haven’t been released.  The military has grown impatient with the activists in return.  At first they tolerated the protestors’ return to the Square in the spring and in early July, and satisfied some of their demands — like replacing the Cabinet and putting Mubarak on trial. But on the first day of Ramadan, troops moved into the square and forcibly cleared it out.

Ahmed El Sheikh and Margaret Warner in Maadi suburb of Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Ghada Mashamoun.

“The Revolution was a great time. We were all so united,” 21-year-old Islam Dardeery told me last night. A recent college graduate with a degree in economics, he can’t find a job.  “But now there are lots of conflicts and some behavior (like police bribes) have gone back to what they were. Worst of all, nothing is clear.  We have no president, and we don’t know what will happen.”

I was sitting in the Grand Café on the Corniche road alongside the Nile with Dardeery and two of his young friends, all veterans — though not leaders — of the Tahrir Square uprising. His friend, 23-year-old college student Ahmed El Sheikh,  chimed in, “After Mubarak left, we thought it would be awesome, in six months everything would change. Instead we have this instability — and no president.”

Their distrust of the military was palpable  “The military keeps saying we are going to do this and do that, and it doesn’t happen,” said 23-year-old human resources specialist Sara Mahmoud. “We don’t have a clear picture of where we’re going. Anyone who has money in the bank is going to keep it there; nobody is going to invest in this situation to help the economy.”

Sara Mahmoud and Islam Dardeery in Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Ghada Mashamoun.

This state of affairs comes as no surprise to the longstanding liberal opposition, rendered nearly toothless during the Mubarak regime.  One of those is Wael Nawara, former general secretary of the El Ghad (Tomorrow) party, whom we spoke with mid-way through the uprising and frequently thereafter. He’s now joined a political bloc with some of the younger activists. “I told you the last we talked, the night Mubarak left, that this revolution would have to be sustained over a long period of time” he said. “We’ll have to maintain momentum for several years — beyond the election, and even the new constitution — to achieve the demands of the revolution. The young people need to understand that, and join the effort.”

Gameela Ismail, who during the Revolution had urged the demonstrators in the Square to keep up the pressure on Mubarak is still urging the activists to take a long view. “These are predictable phases that we have to pass through, to take the revolution to the very end,” she said. “It’s  not enough to have gotten rid of Mubarak, and then expect everything to change.” The biggest challenge the activist forces face, she said, “is broader Egyptian society itself, how to keep them on our side so they don’t turn against us during this long period.” There’s a real danger, she said. “No one expected change to take so long. People in the countryside and even the cities are starting to lose hope. They are thinking the revolution failed.  Our biggest challenge is to keep their morale during the struggle ahead.”

It’s been a promising beginning for our return to Egypt to assess the state of the revolution, seven months after the dramatic events that drove Mubarak from office. And as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 nears, we’re also looking at the enduring appeal of anti-U.S. sentiment and terrorism in Egypt,  which was the  20th century incubator of Islamic jihadism and the birthplace of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the new chief of al-Qaida.

They are complicated stories to report and tell. But after just 48 hours here, one thing is clear – most Egyptians feel uncomfortable being leaderless. Countless Cairenes have told us what young Ahmed el Sheikh said: We don’t have a president, we don’t know who’s leading the Revolution ranks, we don’t know who’s in charge. There’s no daddy figure to rely on, or blame when things go wrong. “This is the hardest part, we have no authority to protect us or unite us,” Gameela Ismail said. “We now have to face all this and deal with it ourselves. For thousands of years, we Egyptians have had someone to rule over us. We are used to Pharoanic rule. It’s the culture we have gotten used to. Now the public wants to know who the “leader” of the revolution is, so that they can blame him if things go wrong.”

That’s the most profound aspect of the 21st century Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath. After thousands of years of being led, Egyptians must now figure how how to lead themselves.

Watch for Warner’s reports from Egypt on-air and online this week and next. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.

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