Egypt's Next Step 'I'll Be Happy When the Commotion Is Over'

Millions joined the protests in Egypt which led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. But millions didn't. Those who stayed away are worried about what the future might hold, and aren't sure it will be better.

A vendor plies his trade among military policemen on Cairo's Tahrir Square on Monday.
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A vendor plies his trade among military policemen on Cairo's Tahrir Square on Monday.

By in Cairo


Fifteen-year-old Mohammed is a street kid in Cairo. Monday morning found him in the Zamalek area of the city. The money he earns through begging is enough for bread and lentils, and sometimes glue to sniff. It makes life that much more bearable.

Mohammed smiles. "Friday was good", he said about the day Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was finally forced to step down. "People gave me quite a bit of money." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of worn bills. "Normally they only give me coins." It was a direct benefit of the revolt in Egypt.

A few doors down are the cafés where the Facebook generation gathers. Amira, 24, has arranged to meet three friends at the L'Aroma cafe. The young women protested for days on Tahrir Square; for President Hosni Mubarak to step down, for freedom and democracy in their country. They are the face of the revolution: young, modern, English-speakers who have traveled abroad. "Finally we can again be proud of our country," said Amira, as she fidgeted with her iPhone. The coffee on the glass table in front of her costs more than a beggar like Mohammed can earn in a week.

The Silent Masses

All eyes now, following the revolution, are on people like Amira. Of Mohammed, of the millions of people in the towns and countryside far away from tourist trail, the world takes hardly any notice. Egypt was a corrupt police state, against which several million people in Cairo and a few million more across the country took to the streets. But the nation as a whole boasts 84.5 million inhabitants. What about the rest? Where do the silent masses stand on the revolution?

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"Around a fifth of the population participated in the protests", Tariq al-Darawally says. "Half of all Egyptians supported the change, the other half have no opinion or are silent supporters of Mubarak." There are plenty in Egypt who benefitted from the corrupt system. And there are also millions who lack adequate education -- Egypt's illiteracy rate is around 50 percent.

Al-Darawally, in his mid-30s, took part in the protests almost by chance, and yet is a typical example of the Egyptian democracy movement in the country. He was born in Egypt and educated in the United States and currently lives in New York. "I was here visiting family when the protests began," he says. "Because I supported the demands of the activists, I extended my vacation for three weeks."

The sons and daughters of professors, doctors and lawyers were among the first who took to the streets -- materially well-off people who, thanks to their standing, were largely protected against arbitrary police excesses. "We want to finally be proud of our country," al-Darawally insists. "That has not been possible until now. Egypt has been badly run down for years." The entire political elite is corrupt, he says, "without exception. Now we finally have the chance to become a nation on the rise."

A Taste for Protest

The revolt by the country's youth was later joined by workers, employees and public servants who were unhappy with their living conditions. The realization that they could force the president from office through protest brought more and more people onto the streets. Now they are demonstrating for higher wages and are threatening to paralyze public life in the coming weeks. They used to be beaten and chased away by security forces. But now, they have developed a taste for protest.

Millions of Egyptians, however, did not join the struggle against the regime. "I couldn't care less about Mubarak," says Gadallah, a greengrocer in a poor district of Cairo. "Life was quiet, we lived here safely, we had an income. Who knows what will happen next? I'm not sure whether it will be any better."

Many have no opinion at all about the remarkable events that have shaken their country. "I'll be happy when the commotion is over," one woman in the Manial district said. "I have no idea what it is supposed to achieve."

It is also unclear how far the Islamization of the country will progress in the future. Essam al-Erian leans back in his worn desk chair and shakes his head. "No one needs to be afraid," he says. "Even we support a secular state."

Al-Erian is one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition movement in the country. It is thought that some 20 percent of the population supports the Islamic movement. Mubarak himself banned the Muslim Brotherhood and fortified his support from the West with warnings of a possible Islamic revolution. Al-Erian, however, insists that his group is moderate. "Our model is Turkey, not Iran," he says.

'We Have Our Dignity Back'

The Muslim Brotherhood has been prudent in recent weeks. It has refrained from attempting to adopt the protests and threw its support behind Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a man whose support in Egypt may be thin, but who is highly respected abroad. On Tahrir Square they provided First Aid and handed out water and dates.

But could the Islamization of Egypt already be well underway? Thirty years ago, very few university graduates wore the headscarf. Now, however, women without headscarves are the exception. Even the full face veil has become accepted in Egyptian society in recent years.

What direction Egypt ends up moving remains to be seen. The revolution -- strictly speaking, a military coup with popular support -- is only just beginning. And it is still uncertain whether the military will allow truly free elections or whether it will try to hold on to power.

But for many, the benefits are already clear. "We have endured Mubarak for 30 years, or have emigrated," says Amira, the student at the L'Aroma cafe. "We have let ourselves be intimidated and beaten. Now Mubarak is gone, the system is defeated. And we have our dignity back."

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