I arrived at a nearly empty Cairo airport one day after President Hosni Mubarak resigned, an act deemed unthinkable only 18 days ago. Over one 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, myself, 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 regime, 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 Gucci 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 gone and the army had superseded Suleiman's new powers.
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 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.
A 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 regime, 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.