No Longer About Bread—Egyptians Want Mubarak's Head

No Longer About Bread—Egyptians Want Mubarak's Head

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The last time Egyptians took to the streets was spring 2008, to protest the rise in food prices, especially bread or aish, also the Arabic word for life. For Egyptians, the two are synonymous. A dozen died, becoming “bread martyrs.”

Before then, Egyptians rioted in 1977.  Again, over bread. Their popular slogan: "The people are famished." About 800 perished before the army crushed the protests.

On Jan. 25, 2011, Egyptians took to the streets once again. Not for bread, but for Mubarak’s head.

How to make sense of last week’s violence? Is this a secular revolution? Tunisia, the sequel? The Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic revolution?

Clearly, it is a People’s Revolution, powered by general disenchantment over 30 years of stagnation; youthful vigor aided by technology and inspired by their Tunisian neighbor.

From my Egyptian friends’ Facebook pages:

**Mr. Mohammed Abdul Quddus, the chairman of the Freedoms Committee at the Press Syndicate, is arrested in front of the Journalists Syndicate. Like an injured deer, he is being hauled away by five plainclothes police who drag [him by] his arms and legs. The most common response: “Hosny, Allah is my best protector.” Uttered when one has no recourse, this phrase invokes God’s name against the perpetrator of injustice. It is an ancient rebuke.

**Hey, youth, we want to demonstrate Friday after prayers of 100,000 mosques, 100,000 manifestations of the fall of governance. Spread the idea. I cannot stand by myself…

The revolution will not be televised: So goes a 1970 song, but it will be Tweeted and Facebooked. Already, 90,000 Facebook fans have joined the “Day of Revolution.” In light of the Tunisian violence leading their President to retreat to Saudi Arabia, Egyptians have been inspired to do likewise. As they should be.

According to Egypt's Interior Ministry, more than 10,000 protesters gathered last Tuesday in Midan Tahrir, aptly named Liberation Square, in honor of the 1952 Egyptian Revolution that overthrew King Farouk. (He, too, was condemned for corruption.) Yes, Egyptians know some things about freedom. For the last six decades, they have enjoyed little to none under their military dictators.

Their grievances? Rampant corruption, injustice and high unemployment—the usual complaints in an Arab country.

Are these the last days of Hosni Mubarak’s regime? Don’t bet on it. While Tunisia’s demonstrations were spontaneous, Egypt’s were planned online, but they are no less legitimate.

I used to live in downtown Cairo for a year and a half, teaching English and learning Arabic. I was a tutor and tutee. Observer and participant. Active and passive. I used to traverse the square daily on my way to Arabic classes across the Nile.

Shortly after I arrived, the popular movie was Hiya Fawda, or It is Chaos. A dramatic film about corruption and police brutality, it resonated with the Egyptian audience. Now, life imitates art.

An entire generation of Egyptians has grown up under the System (Al-Nazam) or Pharaoh, as Mubarak is sometimes called. (His other moniker is La Vache Qui Rit, or the Laughing Cow, after a popular French cheese.) The Tyrant (Al-Taaghera) is 82 and ailing but wants another term. In 1999, Mubarak received 94 percent of the popular vote; in 2005, 88.6 percent. This never ceases to make me nervous.

Ayman Nour, Mubarak's token opponent, garnered only 12 percent.  In the tradition of dictatorships, he has already groomed his son, Gamal, to succeed him. While a small window exists in Egypt for political discussions, it is often shuttered when a sandstorm gathers.

The Cairo of my memories is at odds with the TV images. Whereas you see blood streaming down beaten heads, I recall warm smiles uttering the ubiquitous phrase, “Welcome to Egypt!” Whereas the Internet has been shut down, I recall a city that boasted of WiFi in nearly every major café. Smoke a sheesha while you surf the web!  And whereas I recall young people in downtown celebrating soccer matches, now they shout “Freedom!” in the streets.

What led to all this?

In a sense, Egyptians have worn masks to cover their troubles. Talk to any vendor or cab driver and you are greeted by sunshine. Probe a bit deeper and you get the unadulterated truth. A family of seven surviving on 500 LE ($90) a month. A brother taken away by the police. A reporter jailed for writing about the Tyrant’s health.

Egypt’s premier statesman, Saad Zaghloul, is famous for a particular phrase: “There’s no benefit.” In other words, there’s nothing you can do. It is this sense of resignation that best characterizes Egyptians under Pharaoh’s rule. Sadly, it was also the first phrase I learned on arriving in Cairo.

The story was the same everywhere. Pessimism seemed to pervade the young and old, professional and blue-collar, educated and illiterate.

Egyptian youth, like their counterparts in Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria and other Arab countries, are ruled by corrupt governments, and have few economic opportunities. Even the very educated are unemployed after graduation. My friend Yehia, a lawyer and Arabic-English translator, only worked part-time at the court. Outside the court, he studied translation and helped me hone my Arabic. He is fortunate. His father, a businessman, owns several grocery stores.

In Cairo, working at McDonald’s is considered a good job because of its high wages, relative to other service jobs. In fact, a common ad reads: "Speak both Arabic and English? Have a college degree and experience? Please apply inside."
Those who do not toil at the golden arches lead tourists in the shadows of the pyramids or on the feluccas of the Nile.

Another friend of mine, Hazem, yearns to leave Cairo. At 22, he is approaching graduation. Fluent in English, he speaks it faster than most Americans. In one evening walk along the dusty streets of downtown, he lamented, “I want to leave Egypt. There’s no hope. No opportunities here.” In a sea of pessimism, Hazem was one of the few optimistic beacons.

He had a curious mixture of street smarts and book smarts that would make him quite successful given the right opportunity. Ahmed, his older brother, already had married a Western woman and moved to Germany the previous year. Inspired by Ahmed’s success, Hazem began German lessons.

Egyptian wages are so meager that professionals often work multiple jobs: A university professor or a government bureaucrat by day, taxi drivers by night. Once, I even met a police officer moonlighting as a cab driver. One could easily meet all of Cairo’s professionals by simply taking a taxi ride. Or by talking to doormen. 

Regib, my doorman, graduated from Cairo University in 1980 with an English-translation degree. However, he could never find anything else worthy of his degree. Mahmoud, the other doorman, actually worked two full-time jobs to support his family.

Two Ramadans have passed since I traded the Nile for the Mississippi. I wonder about my Egyptian brothers. What has become of Hazem? Can he go to Germany? What of Yehia? Is he still translating? His morning commute runs through Midan Tahrir. Has he made any detours?

2011 is not 1977. The people are not agitating for more bread. They are hungry for something even more basic, but equally important—freedom. Whether the Tyrant relinquishes power is anyone’s guess. But he should remember the lessons of 1977 and 2008. Freedom, like hunger for bread, is a frequent re-occurrence.

California native Andy Lei lived in Cairo from fall 2007 to summer 2009 studying Arabic, teaching English to Sudanese refugees and working at an English-language magazine. He is a first-year graduate student at the Hubert Humphrey School, University of Minnesota, focusing on global policy.