Friday of Victory: February 18, 2011
A sea of people and Egyptian flags packed Tahrir Square at noon on the
Friday of Victory. Islamic theologian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi was
giving the Friday sermon and leading the prayers. It was difficult to
hear anything he said from where I stood and the shear masses of
people made moving within the crowd difficult. (It’s hard to know if I
was in a crowd of millions but it sure felt like it.) The Egyptian
spirit for celebration isn’t over, even when the Facebook page
announcing the event
(http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=203161363032839) listed just
over 15,000 people attending. Tahrir Square has become an addictive
place to be. And on this day there were no checking ID cards; everyone
was just ushered in the square.
It has been exactly one week since Hosni Mubarak stepped down as
president and Egypt is doing just fine without him. He predicted that
“chaos” would befall the land if he departed abruptly. But if
anything, there is a renewed sense of hope and belonging that was
absent under Mubarak’s autocracy. Volunteer cleanup brigades have
formed, taking to the streets with brooms, shovels and garbage bags to
literary and figuratively clean up the country. The campaign began on
February 12 as youth cleaned statues, swept, and painted fences in
Tahrir Square and across the city. The message they wanted to send was
that this youth-led revolution was the start of a “new Egypt.” It was
truly impressive and inspiring to see. Two youth passing through the
crowds in Tahrir Square on this Friday of Victory with a garbage bag
asked if anyone wanted to make a donation to the National Democratic
Still, there is so much that needs to be done for Egypt to become a
true democracy. Top generals forming the Supreme Council of the Armed
Forces, which is running the country pending the transition to
civilian rule, has not earned a reputation for transparency. Emergency
law remains in effect. The apparatuses of the police state have not
been dismantled. The course and extent of constitutional reforms is
uncertain. And there is a worry that a rush to hold elections without
adequate preparation would bring back the old guard.
The day before, three former ministers (including the hated interior
minister Habib al-Adly) and iron and steel monopolist and leading NDP
powerbroker Ahmed Ezz were arrested pending a corruption
investigation. But these corruption allegations are only the tip of
the iceberg. Egyptians are demanding a public accounting of government
officials who have profited handsomely from graft and abuse of power,
including the former president himself.
Tahrir Square was a soapbox for anyone who could gather a crowd. A
woman railed against corrupt politicians who siphoned millions at the
public’s expense. “We want our money back!” she shouted, running
through a long list of government office holders. That was a refrain
echoed by scruffy man with a banner making his way through the crowds,
“I don’t want to keep eating plain bread. We want our money!”
A man stood out with his censure of the regime in street poetry
rhymes. Another man carried on someone’s shoulders called out slogans
that the crowd around him repeated in unison. Someone thought it was
amusing to hold a sign that read, “Please come back Mr. President. We
were only joking with you.”
Flags wave. Red, white, and black face paint decorates children’s
faces. A gigantic flag is lifted above the heads of the crowd. “Lift
your head up high! You’re Egyptian!”
Democracy does unleash people’s creative talent and encourages
independent initiative in a way that autocracy, with its forced
conformity, never can. So I have no doubt that for many, many Fridays
to come, Tahrir Square will hold true to its name, indeed becoming the
very symbol of liberation and a people’s revolution.
I decide to escape the pressing crowds and make my way across town to
the square in front of Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque in the upscale
neighborhood of Mohandiseen where a pro-Mubarak rally is taking place.
It is a few minutes past 4pm when I arrive to find a few thousand
people gathered around a makeshift stage waving flags and listening to
one speaker after another honor the conspicuously absent president. In
a Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=192354780783520
) set up to
promote the rally, created by “I am sorry Mr. President,” more than
68,000 people said they would be attending. This did not turn out to
be some hoped-for counter-revolution though. If 68,000 people were
planning to attend, they decided not to show up all at once.
But why sympathize with an undemocratic ruler who has been in power
for 30 years? Isn’t that long enough?
A common and often repeated explanation in the Stockholm syndrome,
where victims empathize with their captors, viewing them as a source
of protection and security. But that’s not entirely the whole story.
In any system that thrives on corruption, there are winners and
losers. The winners are the ones that know how to maneuver around the
system and use it to their advantage. In such a system, they feel
privileged since they have the connections and the knowhow to get
things done. Why would they want to change a status quo that has
worked to their benefit for so long? In addition to NDP loyalists who
benefited from party affiliation are the security apparatuses, which
were fused with the executive branch and the ruling party. Those
massive agencies of the state could always be counted on to rig
elections, keep tabs on the opposition, and silence dissent.
Orchestrating a pro-Mubarak rally serves their interests too.
But it is refreshing to see a vibrant arena for free speech in Egypt.
One can truly appreciate joining a rally without fearing being beaten
up by security forces.