The clean-up revolution

The masses streamed into Liberation Square hoping to impose real change in Egypt, but there vision of what comes next varies greatly.

Tahrir Square 521 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Tahrir Square 521
(photo credit: Associated Press)
ON THE FIRST DAY OF the “million-person demonstration” against Hosni Mubarak’s regime, as the masses began to flow into Tahrir Square in Cairo, in early February, Ibrahim sits down on one of the main approaches to the large squares. He is carrying a sign with a message very different from the hundreds of thousands of other signs in Egypt’s largest-ever democratic protest.
“Keep the Square Clean,” Ibrahim had written, by hand, on a sheet of white paper he had brought from home. And just so that it would be clear that he isn’t merely some naïve environmentalist, he waves his fingers in a victorious “V” to everyone who passes by.
There have been many dramatic, historic moments in Tahrir – or Liberation – Square, the main plaza in Cairo, named for the 1952 revolution by the “free officers” who put an end to the corrupt Egyptian monarchy. Now, nearly 60 years later, the square is the symbol of the popular revolution against the corruption of the party created by the “free officers” and their heirs. The revolution has turned against the first revolutionaries. Liberation Square has become Revolution Square.
There are many voices to this revolution, which was sparked in Tunisia, in January, and soon spread to Egypt, Jordan and Yemen – with reverberations felt elsewhere in the Middle East. But it has been primarily in Cairo, the teeming crossroads of every socioeconomic strata and political philosophy in the Arab world, that the upheaval is being felt most palpably. The varied voices calling for change have united under one broad banner – calling a start to true democracy and an end to Mubarak’s rule – but their visions of what comes next vary greatly. Convincing all of these voices shouting for change to face in one general direction and move forward may prove almost as complex as solving the mystery of the Sphinx.
Despite their diversity, there is a thin, yet very tangible connection binding the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who keep coming back, time and time again, to Tahrir Square.
From the outset, most of the demonstrators were held by a Sisyphean obsession to keep the square clean. Ibrahim isn’t the only one concerned about maintaining the cleanliness.
Hundreds of volunteers wearing plastic gloves walk among the crowds – even when it is difficult to move because the square is so crowded – picking up the litter that the other demonstrators leave behind.
“Keep Egypt Clean” has a double meaning.
“Do you have any garbage, or any Mubarak?” one of the clean-up brigade volunteers asks with a smile. The protest movement against Mubarak is not fighting solely for democracy. First and foremost, it is fighting for public cleanliness and honesty, in a state in which the average Egyptian feels trampled by the bureaucratic apparatus that demands money and bribes. “You can’t do anything without bribing at least one government clerk,” Ahmed, a merchant in a large Egyptian company complains to The Jerusalem Report. In his late 20s, he is financially well-set, yet clearly displeased by the quality of life that the Egyptian government has forced upon him.
Another reason motivates the Egyptians to come to the square with brooms or just torn pieces of cardboard, collecting dust, sand, filth and charred remnants from the nearby government buildings, burned by the demonstrators: the need to maintain world support and approval. The protesters – unlike Mubarak’s supporters, who have attacked the press – try to attract the international press’s attention in every way, in every language they can, carrying signs in English (including a large sign that calls for Mubarak to “GO TO HILL”), French, Spanish and Japanese – and even some in Hebrew, asking Mubarak to “Let us live.”
Ayoung woman, her head covered in a colorful scarf, carries a sign reading, “Yes We Can” – a riff on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008.
“We really can,” she says, smiling but refusing to give her name. Everyone here is afraid of the secret service and refuses to give their full name – although they willingly pose for each other’s cameras. They have earned, with the blood of their fellow demonstrators, and even if only for a brief while, the right to enjoy themselves and to speak their minds. They repeat constantly, “We want our dignity back.”
“The government is trying to present us as a crowd of barbarians,” says Yasser, a 37-yearold dentist. “That’s not who we are. We are cultured people, and our movement is headed by people who have received the Nobel Prize. We are a great nation with a long history, we are the cradle of civilization. Maybe that’s why the West is so afraid of what is happening here. It doesn’t suit their perceptions of the underdeveloped, failed Arab world.”
For the past few years, Yasser has been living in Kuwait, where he works in a public clinic and earns the equivalent of 12,000 Egyptian lira a month, or about $2,048. In Egypt, a dentist in the public sector earns about 300 Egyptian lira, about $51.22. “I have a good life there,” Yasser continues, “but I want to live well in my own country. And so, the minute I heard about the youth rebellion, I took the first plane back to Cairo. I stopped by my parents’ house, I put everything I need into a knapsack, I went to pray at the mosque, and then I came here. I’ve been here for a week. I won’t budge until Mubarak leaves the government and is put on trial.”
THE EGYPTIANS HAVE NEVER liked Hosni Mubarak. After the flamboyant, dramatic Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Mubarak seemed to be a dull, pale replacement. Maybe that’s the reason that they can never forgive him for lasting longer than any other leader in modern Egypt.
But the hatred towards Mubarak and his family has also revealed the uglier faces of the revolution – faces of hatred and incitement.
Mubarak was called pig and dog, portrayed in caricatures as Hitler and Nero, Rome’s pyromaniac ruler. They have called for his execution – or, alternatively, to send him back to “his masters in Tel Aviv.”
A few days into the demonstrations, a new slogan begins to appear on the walls of the charred government building: “This is the end of all the Jews.” And on one of the central bridges in Cairo: “Traitor Mubarak: Go to Israel.” In quieter moments the protesters argue about Israel’s role in the dramatic events. In the opinion of many, it is Israel that is organizing the gangs of looters and robbers who have broken into malls, stores, private homes, and even the national museum. Even though the government tried to shut it down, Al Jazeera continues its constant anti-Israel incitement. Experts, such as former Knesset member Azmi Bishara, and others provide commentary on the role of the “American Zionist Lobby” and its attempts to keep Mubarak in power. On the front page of one of the Egyptian opposition newspapers, a banner headline announces, “International Zionism is behind the civil war in Egypt.” A government newspaper reports on an “Israeli plot to take advantage of the unrest in Egypt in order to recapture the Sinai.”
And that was before the regime began to blame the “Israeli agents,” some of whom were reputed to be soldiers in elite units, for organizing the protests and the riots against Mubarak.
As the countdown towards the moments of truth for the “Egyptian Revolution of Rage” come closer, the atmosphere in Cairo becomes more extreme and Israel, accused of destabilizing Egypt and the entire Middle East, becomes part of the rhetoric. The opposition claims that Mubarak and his new deputy, Omer Sulieman, are American and Israeli agents. The regime loyalists use Israel to counter-attack their opponents.
“Muhammed Elbaradei?” scoffs a senior Egyptian journalist who refuses to be named.
“He’s merely an invention of the media. He has no political program and he has no position visa- vis Israel. In the eyes of the Egyptian intelligentsia, Israel is a national threat. Israel has more than 200 nuclear warheads. Did you ever hear Elbaradei say anything about that? Or about the liberation of the occupied territories?” Throughout his years as president, Mubarak made sure to keep the peace with Israel in the freezer and to avoid normalization, except with regard to security, and then only when it was convenient for him. In the eyes of the public, Sadat betrayed Egypt, but Mubarak brought Egypt back into the arms of the Arab nations.
And now, an entire generation of Egyptians has grown up without knowing either the pain of war or the joy of peace, raised on anti-Israel rhetoric in the media, the cinema, literature and every other field. They regard Mubarak as nothing more than a vassal of “international Zionism” and Israel. Mubarak is reaping from the attitude towards Israel that he sowed.
The anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic tones of the Egyptian revolution reach their peak after Mubarak’s speech in which he declared that he would end his term in the fall of 2011. The mood becomes violent. The demonstrators blame the Jews for “using Mubarak as part of their plan to control the Middle East.”
Mubarak’s supporters blame Israel for organizing the demonstrations. “The Israelis are such ingrates,” says Hassan, a young economics student who supports Mubarak, as he faces off the demonstrators. “Mubarak sent his tanks to the Gaza border to protect Netanyahu, and now Israel and the USA are trying to get rid of Mubarak and force a leader of their choice on the Egyptian people.”
Indeed, despite the occasional “Yes, We Can” sign, US President Barack Obama is also not a favorite of either of the two sides. “The Americans will just try to find a replacement for Mubarak that suits them,” says Yasser, the dentist. “They’re not interested in the Egyptians, only in themselves.”
“Obama should stop telling us what to do,” says Hassan, a student who says he is loyal to Mubarak. “He shouldn’t decide what is good or bad for Egypt. Mubarak brought stability and peace to this country. He’s a war hero. He told us he’s willing to change things, so we have to give him another, last chance to keep his promises. The Americans can’t tell us what to do – what nerve!” THE POPULAR UPRISING IN Egypt has different faces: the wealthy want democracy, the poor want social welfare. The secular are demanding civil rule, the religious are hoping for an Islamic state. The communists want social justice, while the Nasserites are dreaming about their lost nationalism.
All of these energies have flowed into Liberation Square, merging for a rare brief moment of national unity. It is doubtful if that unity will hold once the demonstrators reach their ostensible goal of liberation.
Yet the mutual respect that the demonstrators accord one another and the sense of solidarity that unites the economic classes and the political opinions are impressive. Muslim Brotherhood activists stand next to elderly women, as children hand out free drinks, vegetables, fruits and sweets.
Ahmed, 21, a business student, works in a real estate company. He is doing well financially, but he is not satisfied. He says he wants freedom and a higher standard of living. Ali, 29, a pudgy, short man who works in a telecommunications company, stands next to him. Their eyes are bloodshot; they have not slept for nights on end. They have been here since the “Day of Rage” – that first Friday, January 28, when there were widespread violent confrontations between the opponents of the regime and the police, during which the protesters took over the square.
They belong to the zealous demonstrators, those who do not leave the square even in the cold, dark nights, maintaining a constant vigil “until Mubarak is out,” they say – and, of course, in order to prevent the army from completely taking over the square, which has become the symbol of Egyptian democracy.
At one of the entrances to the square, the demonstrators manage to stop a row of tanks.
Some of them sit down on the road, others stand together to create a deep human blockade, calling out slogans against Mubarak and for solidarity between the army and the people. During the day, an ad hoc “ushers committee” of demonstrators helps the soldiers maintain order in the square and is also responsible for approving the people coming into the square. One of those ushers tries to convince the crowds to let the tanks in – “they have to do their work,” he explains. In another part of the square, demonstrators complain to the soldiers about a man whom they identify as a secret police agent who is trying to incite the crowd. The soldiers quickly remove the suspect from the square.
“The army is part of the people,” says Abdulla, a young student attempting to explain the strange symbiosis between the demonstrators against the regime and the soldiers, ostensibly the defenders of the regime. Abdullah makes no attempt to conceal the fact that he identifies strongly with the Muslim Brotherhood. “My uncle is an army officer,” he says, “He told us that the army is with the people.
But the army wants to find an honorable way out for Mubarak. After all, he is one of them. They don’t want to curse him, to humiliate him.”
Abdulla also spends his nights in the square, where the protesters light fires to keep warm and heat coffee as they argue about politics.
They sleep on mattresses, blankets and sofas dragged in from the nearby government building, on the cold grass, or in tents. Local residents and various organizations – among them, the Muslim Brotherhood – bring in food regularly.
“The Muslim Brotherhood has taken care of the people, and we the people will never forget it,” says Ali. “During the days of rioting and looting, as the police disappeared from the streets, the brotherhood organized neighborhood committees and kept order.”
Adnan, a Palestinian who left the Gaza Strip a year ago because life under Hamas was too difficult to bear, says that there is no reason to fear the Muslim Brotherhood. As a foreigner, he is careful not to get into trouble with the authorities, but he has been detained once by the secret police who suspected him of being an Islamic extremist because he wore a substantial beard. Now clean-shaven, he says he’s merely here to observe. “The Egyptians don’t want to be stuck in international isolation, the way we are in Gaza. And, by nature, they are not extremists,” he says. “People are afraid of Osama Bin Laden and his ilk, because those extremists make no distinctions between Jews, Christians, or Muslims – they kill them all.”
“This is not a revolution of hungry people,” says Ibrahim, 35, a well-dressed man who says he is a senior official in a large company.
“There are hungry and unemployed people here, too. But most of us are well-educated and employed. The government is presenting us as if we were some kind of threat, as if we were all members of the Muslim Brotherhood. I have a two-year-old son, and my pregnant wife is at home. I want a better future for my children. That’s why I’m here, and I’ll come very day until real change comes to Egypt.”