Scenes From a Revolution

Mostafa Omar Feb 12, 2011

Crowds gathered outside the state television building to celebrate the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. PHOTO: ZumaWhen the announcement came that Hosni Mubarak was no longer president, I was in midtown Cairo. Suddenly, tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands–probably, around Cairo as a whole, millions–of people poured into the streets to join those who were already demonstrating.

Around Tahrir Square, I estimate around 2 million people were celebrating the downfall of Mubarak. It was so crowded that it took an hour to walk about 50 or 75 feet.

The atmosphere was indescribable. There are fireworks everywhere in Tahrir Square. It looked like an Egyptian wedding–except multiplied by a million. It’s not just young people involved in this movement, as the media have claimed. It’s all of Egypt–people of all ages dancing and singing, coming up with chants.

My companions and I talked to a number of people. I asked many if they ever had thought such a thing could happen. Some said no–at least not in their lifetime. Others said they knew it would happen, such was the hatred for the Mubarak dictatorship.

While people are celebrating Mubarak’s ouster, they are also watching the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has taken power. One man, a lawyer, said that perhaps people will go home tonight from Tahrir Square feeling victorious. But they will closely monitor what kind of steps the army will take in terms of constitutional and legislative change, he said.

When we asked what will happen if the army doesn’t fulfill its promises, he said, “Tahrir Square is not going anywhere–we have already won once. It will be easier for us to regroup and remobilize. We can take it back at any minute.”

Many others we spoke with also made it clear that the struggle won’t end with Mubarak’s ouster. There was a group of two accountants, two teachers and some university students from the Qalyubia governorate north of Cairo. They had been camping in Tahrir Square for a week. They all said this was the happiest day of their life. One of the accountants said, “We will not leave until the dictator goes on trial.”

There was also more fraternization with army officers and soldiers who came out of their tanks. At first, the officers didn’t want to let people on the tanks, but eventually they did.

One tank commander I saw, a first lieutenant, is a young man in his 20s. You could see in his eyes and on the face of the soldiers the tremendous amount of relief they felt that they did not have to fire on the protesters. For two weeks, they faced the possibility of having to fire on their brothers and sisters–something they did not want to do.

This commander picked up the Egyptian flag and kissed it. I think he was showing that he was glad that he was serving the whole nation, and not one person or the regime.

The chants in Tahrir Square following news of Mubarak’s ouster were amazing to hear. They reflected both a sense of accomplishment and also the anticipation of more struggle to come.

Instead of “The people want to bring down the regime,” the chant became “The people brought down the regime.” Instead of “The people want to bring down the president,” it became “The people want the president’s money.” There were a lot of chants for the martyrs: “Martyrs, rest in peace, your blood was not spilled in vain.” The big chant that many took up was “Freedom!”

There were also women’s contingents leading chants–reminding the ex-president’s wife how miserable and poor they were, and how much they struggled just to put food on the table.

They also chanted, “We want Egypt based on freedom and social justice.” So you can tell that people are not just concerned about free elections–there are wider and deeper questions on everyone’s mind that they see as linked to the democratic demands.

There is an internationalist feeling reflected in the chants as well. One of them went: “Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria.” In other words, people know the importance of the January revolution in Tunisia in inspiring further action in Egypt, and they are keeping a close eye on developments in Yemen, Jordan, Algeria and other countries. On February 12, there is a national day of protest in Algiers in solidarity with the revolution in Egypt and Tunisia.

Many people spoke about the need to prosecute Mubarak and his family. One young woman, an administrative clerk, told us that the rest of the regime should be on trial.

Many believe that to obtain justice, a continued mass movement is necessary. That’s the perspective of pharmacist Mohamed Rashin, the father of five college-educated children. “I feel I have been in limbo between earth and sky,” he said of the 18 days of struggle to oust the dictator. “I believe that we have the support of god, but I also believe in the power of the Egyptian people.”

We talked to a middle-aged man who said, “The Egyptian people are giants.” He added: “I love the American people, but I hate the American government. We are against any U.S. or foreign intervention. We will stay in Tahrir Square, because this is not about Mubarak. We have other demands–for political freedom, the end of the emergency laws. Demands that have to be met.”

From the victory chants, you can tell that in the back of their minds, people are still thinking about what happens next. They say, “We brought down the regime,” but what a lot of people really mean by that is: “We have broken part of the regime, so it’s possible to go after the rest.” The vast majority knows that it isn’t about bringing down one person–that Mubarak represented the whole social and economic system.

And while there’s a massive celebration, many people are concerned about reports that the U.S. Sixth Fleet is on its way to Suez Canal. The sentiment is that we won’t stay silent if there is any foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs.

If there is widespread agreement in the revolutionary movement that the struggle must continue, there are differences on how far to go.On the left, for example, the April 6 Youth Movement and the Revolutionary Socialists play a key role in leading chants. The chants aren’t just propaganda–they are agitational, with obvious organizational consequences. Thousands of young people are rallying around the April 6 Youth Movement and the Youth Coalition for the Revolution of Anger.

Before the vice president’s speech, we met Mohammad Abdel Aziz, one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement and a leader of the January 25 Youth Movement–the groups that helped to organize much of the activity in Tahrir Square, and one of the most radical. As he said:

It is very important that if we bring down Mubarak today, it will not be the end, but the beginning of the revolution. The regime is not just one person, but an entire ruling elite around Mubarak. Our revolution started as a youth revolution, but now it has developed into a people’s revolution.

One key focus of the next few days will be on working-class struggles. The strikes were one of the two decisive factors in forcing Mubarak out.

In the previous 48 hours before Mubarak’s resignation, a growing number of workers had gone on strike. By Friday, there was the expectation that the strikes would spread the next day, Saturday–a workday in Egypt. The country was becoming ungovernable–not just politically, but also economically.

The second crucial development was that on Friday, there were masses of people surrounding the presidential palace in Alexandria, and more and more people were pouring toward the presidential palace in Cairo, which was a no-go zone as far as the army was concerned.

When the army didn’t fire on people, protesters were further emboldened. By 4 or 5 p.m., with large numbers of protesters also outside the state television building, the army was in no position to fire on people. And at the presidential palace, the tanks turned their barrels away from the people.

At this point, people want a role for the armed forces in ensuring that the remnants of the old regime will be dismantled and figuring out a transition. But they don’t want a military dictatorship. And the army is issuing statements that it will protect the freedoms of the people and the wealth of the country, a hint that the army will pursue those who are trying to smuggle money out of the country and pursue those who are corrupt–that was an announcement on state TV.

There will be mass pressure on the army to live up to those promises. Before Mubarak stepped down, we talked to a young man in Tahrir Square and asked him who he wanted to replace Mubarak. He said, “I want someone who is as poor as I am, who has eaten beans all his life”–the staple of the poor in Egypt–“so he will be able to understand the anger of the people.”

You get the feeling from experiences like talking to him that this isn’t just a movement for democracy. It’s a movement for social justice and the redistribution of wealth.

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