On February 11, as news of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation spread like wildfire throughout Egypt, the entire world soon began celebrating the successful revolution won through the courage of the Egyptian people. Despite a defiant speech the day before, Mubarak‘s Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that he had stepped down from his presidency, charging the high council of the armed forces to manage the country.
Tahrir (Liberation) Square, now the most famous square in the world, got its name after the revolution of 1919, when both Muslim and Christian Egyptians marched in the streets of Cairo to demand their freedom from the British. It didn’t officially receive its name until the revolution of 1952 that led to the fall of the Egyptian monarchy. Aptly named, Liberation Square was where the Egyptian people freed themselves from their modern-day Pharaoh by standing their ground. Tahrir has become the source of an inspiring new social movement across the Arab world, one that led to the downfall of Mubarak’s corrupt regime.
But now the hard works begins, and the real revolution must start from inside by Egyptians themselves. Here might be a good time time to mention the oft-quoted Qur’anic verse, “Truly, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (Quran 13:11). Muslim scholars constantly quote this verse to drive the point home that our external circumstances cannot change unless we purify ourselves and live wholesome and moral lives. Egyptians have taken it upon themselves to change their political condition (all on their own, without help from the West), and they have heroically rid their country of a dictator. They now must act to rid their country of the many socio-economic problems that has plagued the country for decades. Whoever takes over Egypt once elections take place will have a huge task at hand and will only succeed if Egyptians are able to maintain the enthusiasm and spirit of cooperation and responsibility that we have seen in the past two weeks in Tahrir Square.
Corruption is so rampant in Egypt that people think nothing of paying a bribe to the police to avoid receiving a moving violation or a sneaking few extra pounds to the government employee to move their paperwork a bit quicker (one portrayal of this can be seen in the 2007 movie This is Chaos, by director Youssef Chahine, which depicts a corrupt police officer who exploits his authority to serve to his own interests). Bribes are part of daily life in Egypt and, in most cases, you can’t get anything done without greasing someone else’s palm. People have forgotten how to follow the rules and have gotten so used to playing the game that they don’t know what the rules are anymore. You would be at a loss to find someone who can tell you who has the right of way at a stop sign (since they don’t stop there anyway). The only rule in driving in Cairo is there are no rules.
Ministers and other cronies of Mubarak have been pocketing the majority of the Egypt’s wealth while many Egyptians scrape by on less than a dollar a day. Poverty and illiteracy is rampant throughout the country. According UNICEF, the literacy rate in Egypt is only 72%, with women faring much worse than men. The overall situation of women is even worse: 45% of all women over the age of 15 are illiterate and 85% of rural households run by women are illiterate.
The public school system is a mess, classrooms are overflowing and teachers do a half-baked job teaching, since they don’t make a living wage. They make their real income after school when they tutor the same students they see in the morning at their homes for excessive rates. The teachers have no other way to support their families and their own children need to pay for their lessons in order to pass exams that will determine their future.
Out of 18 millions residents in Greater Cairo, nearly a million souls inhabit the City of the Dead, a vast cemetery where inhabited also by primarily migrant workers who come to Cairo looking for ways to support their family. They hang their laundry from tombstones and their homes lack running water and electricity. Cairo is overrun by other shantytowns, entire neighborhoods of unzoned residential slums that do not exist on the map and lack basic infrastructure to support its burgeoning population. The UNDP Human Development Index ranks Egypt 111 out of 177 countries: the gross national income per capita in 2008 is only about $2,000, while 23% of the population lives below the national poverty line and more than 12% of children under than age of five suffer from malnutrition.
While there are reports of discrimination against religious minorities in Egypt, most ordinary Egyptians, no matter their religious identity, have little hope of social mobility if they are born into the wrong class. If you don’t have a wasta, or someone with connections, you have little chance of finding a good job, even if you receive straight A’s in school and university. A successful college graduate without connections couldn’t hope for more than a low-paying and mindless job in a government office. That is, if they are lucky to get a job at all.
In the streets, women of all ages and religious preferences are constantly harassed, including those who wear the face veil. Men, both young and old, seem to think it is their God-given right to grope women’s bodies or make explicit gestures and cat-calls at them. It’s gotten so bad that a group of internet-savvy young people got together and designed an interactive map to collect data on the rate of sexual harassment in the country. People think nothing of throwing their wrappers on the sidewalk or out of the bus window and while they keep their homes immaculate, the streets of Cairo and other cities are filthy.
But we have now seen a glimpse of Egypt’s potential at Tahrir Square, where people have been treating each other with kindness and respect, reclaiming the dignity that the regime had stolen from them. Men and women from all socio-economic backgrounds organized clean-ups to keep the area tidy, set up mobile clinics to care for the injured and sick, passed around food, and made new friends. Women were able to move freely through the crowds without being harassed and Christians and Muslims held hands and prayed together. In the early morning after Mubarak’s resignation, the youth swiftly organized groups to begin a clean-up of the entire downtown area where the protests took place. How many revolutionaries have you seen doing that?
Egyptians are resilient and courageous, and they could bring their beloved country to a new standard if they manage to keep up the momentum of change. Today we celebrate a huge milestone in Egyptian history, but tomorrow, let’s prepare ourselves for the long process that lies ahead.
(Photo: Joseph Hill)
Rose Aslan is a doctoral student studying Islam and Muslims in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She lived for more than five years in Egypt and received her master’s degree in Arabic Studies from the American University in Cairo.