Egypt Will Rely on its People Power

CAIRO – Egyptians speak of their recent revolution in the past tense, as if January 25 marks its completion and not its beginning. This quiet confidence befits the character — if not the recent history — of Egypt. What’s emerging here may be “people power” at its finest.

Eighteen days of virulent protests drove President Hosni Mubarak from power on February 11, but that heroic unity produced no unifying hero.

Egypt has no equivalent of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian vendor who set himself on fire when police confiscated his vegetable cart. There is no image of a Boris Yeltsin, confronting an oppressing tank, or a George Washington, standing in a ship crossing the Delaware River.

The graffiti on a highway overpass between Cairo and its airport tells the story. It uses the entire span for its message: “It is possible to to stop saying I and make it we instead.” Elsewhere: “We did this revolution. It is ours.”

Mubarak’s name has disappeared from every commemorative site, by whatever means necessary. Place names have been changed. Where Mubarak’s name is at the head of a plaque, the stone has been carefully chipped to remove the offense, retaining the rest. Spray painted “X” or strategically placed “January 25” stickers sometimes do the trick. Ridding themselves of Mubarak has been a careful operation, surgical in its precision.

Saber Elhadry quotes a German proverb to describe the mood: “Better to end with a horror than to have a horror without end.” Egypt is ready to move on.

When it was announced that President Obama would speak directly to the Arab world, I scouted a people-watching location in Cairo.

Gad is a local chain of everyday eateries. (They have McDonald’s here, but it’s for special occasions. You can order dinner for four at Gad for what a single Quarter Pounder costs.) I watched Obama’s speech from this restaurant. Or, more precisely, I watched the people not watching the speech.

The owner was watching — he changed channel once and adjusted the volume twice, including down to a whisper to answer his cell phone. But the restaurant’s workers and customers were not “glued to the tube.” They were doing their jobs, eating their meals, conversing with one another — busy living their lives.

I read several news accounts expressing disappointment that the Arab audiences were not transfixed by this direct appeal. (The speech was given at noon in Washington, which was dinnertime here.) Those reporters saw what I saw, but I interpret it differently.

In American parlance, looking to a strong leader for everyday guidance and inspiration is “so January 24.”

Ibrahim El-Gazar is looking ahead. He emphasizes his points by pressing his fingers against his thumb. Digits are important to him. He’s an accountant. He believes the next step is most important, a step announced only this week. Mubarak will stand trial. “It must be fair. And then it must be done.” End of story. No remainder.

Elhadry is more specific. Did Mubarak conspire to pit Egypt’s Muslim majority against its Coptic Christians? Mubarak’s Interior Minister has been implicated, but the president’s role is at the heart of this scandal. Turning Egyptians against Egyptians is unforgivable.

“It is all one God,” Elhadry exudes, extending his arms in a circle. “We are one people.”

The Koran supports his conviction: “O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.”

“I hope our next president stays for only one term or two,” Elhadry confides, “so he does not become another Mubarak, so he does not get used to having power and using it against his own people.”

Elections are scheduled for later this year and no one knows who that next president might be. Political parties usually take longer than this to form, let alone the election campaigns they cohere. The political calendar is worrisome to many.

But El-Gazar sits serenely in his mother-in-law’s flat, with seven children under 10 — all siblings or cousins — chasing around three small rooms. He has done the math and he’s confident. “What we have in our favor is our closeness.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs here. Egyptians protesters have planned a “Second Revolution” demonstration today in Tahrir Square. Kahle will be there.