These days there is an air about Cairo that is exciting to be around. People fill the street-side cafes, sipping tea, smoking shisha, and playing towla (backgammon). People are warm and inviting. They smile with a genuine satisfaction. When you cross the street, you are likely to have an Egyptian man escort you pass crazy drivers and give you a big “Welcome to Egypt” when you arrive safely on the other side.
People ask where you are from with genuine interest. They are proud of their country right now and want to make sure you are experiencing the best of it, even if that means grabbing you by the hand and personally showing you famous monuments and attractions.
I feel fortunate to be here at such a time of re-birth and national pride. I haven’t experienced anything like this in our travels. It’s not frequently that a democracy is ‘born’ (and through non-violence no less). And it can’t be certain that a free democracy is inevitable as Egypt is still in purgatory between the revolution and elections next spring. If you ask people on the ground about presidential contenders, there is no strong figure that stands out that they wish to elect, though the mood is optimistic and you’ll hear “Anything is better than Mubarak!”
You gotta fight to party!
On our second night in Cairo, we were sitting at a packed outdoor cafe (alongside dozens like it, lining an alleyway). A football match was playing on TV screens up and down the street. After the match, all the cafe owners scrambled to move the tables and chairs inside. As it was 1am, we assumed it was closing time. But we soon overheard shouting and asked a local what was going on. The military was trying to issue a curfew and began marching down the street, instructing shop owners to move tables and chairs inside. This was met with angry shouts from patrons and soon a demonstration was forming – pushing the military back and out of the alley! Hundreds of bystanders became demonstrators (including us) and chants and shouts had a mix of anger and smiles. Citizens pushed out the men in uniform sporting face masks and machine guns. Finally congregating in a square which became ground for a larger demonstration with more people, megaphones, and cameras (tons of cameras)
There is a feeling (both noticeable and verbally *said*) that the “people” control the military and the police. When asked if demonstrations ever get out of hand or violent, one youthful group replied “No, we wouldn’t let that happen, we would step in to stop it.” When we replied, ‘isn’t that the police’s job?‘ they said “The country belongs to the people and the military works for us.”
In addition to freedom, there is this sense of “ownership” that the people have over their country (that should permeate through any democracy), but I have never felt such a deep sense of ownership like I felt in Cairo. It’s amazing and we’re fortunate to be here right now, because as somebody from a country spouting to be the greatest democracy in the world – i’ve never come across this level of democratic emotion and I don’t think it can last forever.
The Pincer Movement
On our last night, we learned about the two phased approach of demonstrations that were going on during the revolution. The first is what we all watched on our TVs, hundreds of thousands of people in Tahrir square, protesting peacefully in the wake of violent lashes from Mubarak. However, there was a second movement happening off the screen. The military and police fully encircled the square for days so that supplies, like basic food, water, blankets, etc. could not be easily be brought in – and thereby weaken the protesters. Also, as with any volatile movement, there was the risk of looting through Cairo as many shop owners were in the square. So bands of youths came together to be interim village police and protect the community. They would form groups on each block to make sure nobody was looting nor causing trouble – as the police were hoping to encourage this behavior and have the people take themselves down.
It’s an amazing feeling on the ground right now. Egypt is safe, welcoming, friendly, and undergoing a transformation that you may only get to see once in a lifetime!