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Middle East
Egyptian minds are opened
Upheaval has opened the door to political and economic reform, but its most lasting effect may be psychological.
Last Modified: 13 Feb 2011 02:52
What is being suggested in Cairo now is nothing short of a mental house-clearing [Evan Hill]

CAIRO, EGYPT -- When Egypt awoke on Saturday morning after an all-night, nationwide party, it was for many citizens the first day in living memory without Hosni Mubarak as president.
 
In 18 days, revolution uprooted a regime that had ruled the country with ruthless tenacity for 30 years.

While the upheaval has opened the door to political and economic reform, its most lasting effect may be the opening of the Egyptian mind.

With the army on the streets and the old order in flames, the wall of cynical humour and pessimism erected by Egyptians as psychic protection against the crushing weight of their corrupt government seemed to split apart and crumble.

Suddenly, anything was possible.
 
Later in the evening, a fight erupted between protesters and army officers attempting to restore traffic near Tahrir Square, the heart of the revolution. Old fears returned.

But for a time on Saturday, the Tahrir Square reality – the universe where Egyptians banded together, separated their rubbish into organic and non-organic bins, and outlasted the "pharaoh" – became the new normal.

'We have no excuse now'

As dawn broke, all-volunteer teams of street sweepers wearing rubber gloves and cotton masks struck out along Cairo's decrepit boulevards, sweeping dust and debris into trash bags.

Where once it was commonplace to see Cairenes chuck wrappers and used food cartons with abandon, it was now impossible to drop a cigarette butt without a stern reprimand.

In and around Tahrir Square, civilians painted over and scrubbed away anti-government graffiti that peppered every surface, from the walls of the old campus of the American University in Cairo to the armour of parked tanks.

In Abdel Moneim Riad Square, near the Egyptian museum, where pro- and anti-government crowds had hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at each other in deadly combat on February 2, men and women now formed human chains to prevent passersby from smudging the curbs they had just painted in thick black-and-white stripes.

But the effort goes beyond rubbish pick-ups and street sweeping.

What is being suggested in Cairo now is nothing short of a mental house-clearing - a complete overhaul in the way the average Egyptian has learned to do business in a society that has been smothered beneath nepotism and emergency law for decades.

One flyer being distributed on Saturday put it this way:

"Today this country is your country. Do not litter. Don't drive through traffic lights. Don't bribe. Don't forge paperwork. Don't drive the wrong way. Don't drive quickly to be cool while putting lives at risk. Don't enter through the exit door at the metro. Don't harass women. Don't say, 'It's not my problem.' Consider God in your work. We have no excuse anymore."

Young Egyptians who had been visiting Tahrir Square for days - or living in it – now left to buy cleaning supplies and paint thinner and set off to tidy the streets between the square and the nearby parliament building, where protesters had been camping for two days.

The sense of newfound pride was contagious.

The barricades make an appearance

At the southwest corner of Tahrir Square, facing the approach from the parliament building on Kasr al-Aini Street, the feel-good mood came to a crashing halt after the sun set.

The army had been working all day to remove barricades along side streets, and suddenly traffic began flowing toward the square.

Drivers honked their horns in celebration, but the protesters reacted quickly and angrily.

Filling the air with the grind of metal on concrete, they threw up the barricades that they had taken down just a day earlier.

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Barriers pilfered from traffic police, sheet-metal walls ripped out of a nearby construction site, and tipped-over phone booths all rolled back into place.

Angry men stared out from behind their defence as crowds encircled soldiers in the nearby intersection.

One officer argued with the protesters. "The government has granted all your demands," he said.

His tone was that anyone left in the square must have ulterior motives, and anyone who doesn't want this country to get back on its feet is a traitor.

Division set in among the protesters. Some argued in favour of the army, some argued that the occupation of Tahrir Square should continue.

The latter group pointed out that the 30-year-old emergency national security laws in place since the assassination of Anwar Sadat, Mubarak's predecessor, were still effective.

Alaa el-Din, a resident of Giza from the outskirts of Cairo, wearing a white galabeya, prayer cap and headwrap, said he loved the army but wanted democracy and freedom.

"Our demands have been 90 per cent met, but 10 per cent remain," he said. "We reject the new government."

El-Din was referring to the Egyptian cabinet and parliament, both of which have, in Egypt's short post-Mubarak life, largely remained unchanged, and which the army has signaled may remain until new elections can be held.

In addition to the dissolution of the government and the end of emergency law, many protesters also continue to demand the release of all political prisoners.

The fate of hundreds of demonstrators arrested since the revolution began on January 25 remains unclear.

Sayed, a man who was arguing with el-Din, argued that such demands could not be met "all at once".

He worried that division in Egyptian society would expose it to the risk of US invasion, and mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan.

Elsewhere, tension rose between the protesters and army.

'We're in charge'

The hardcore of Tahrir Square, those who have camped and fought in its 55,000 square metres for more than two weeks, have grown accustomed to their own civilian government.

That does not please the army.

In the intersection near the barricade on Kasr al-Aini Street, an officer approached a civilian who had taken over traffic police duties, angrily demanding to know what he was doing.

The civilian explained that he had been nominated to manage the intersection. The officer told him: "There are no more neighbourhood checkpoints or civilian brigades, we're in charge now."

Suddenly, a squad of soldiers in ballistic helmets and camouflage pushed their way into a small side path between the barricade and the fenced-off pavement – where negotiations between the army and civilians were being held – and began to dismantle the barricade.

They quickly knocked down the metal walls and dragged the debris to the side, motioning urgently for the traffic to begin passing through.

The protesters reacted immediately, swelling into the street to prevent the cars from moving forward.

In the glow of headlights, they shook their fingers at the drivers and laid their hands on the cars' hoods.

The soldiers approached to move the protesters out of the way, and a shoving match ensued – a rare physical confrontation between the army and the protesters, who have throughout the revolution chanted: "The people and the army, hand in hand!"

The confrontation simmered down without violence or an arrest. The army officers stood their men to the side as the protesters conferred.

One man kissed a lower-ranking soldier on the cheek.

Officers diverted oncoming traffic away from the square, where hundreds of thousands of people continued to celebrate and wave Egyptian flags, oblivious to the conflict a few hundred metres away.

Questions asked

In the discussions around the ruined barricade, it became clear that protesters were anything but united, and certainly confused about the future of a country where every familiar – and threatening – institution appeared to be falling, one by one.

A tall young man advocating for a continued demonstration in Tahrir Square was badly outnumbered by those who insisted the job was done.
 
"Is the army going to stay until the elections?" the young man asked.

"If they don't, who will protect us?" another responded.

Inside the square, the celebration continued; on its fringes, the questions hung in the air.

With reporting by Lara el-Gibaly.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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