In the years to come, what will they say about what happened in January 2011? Will they say this month began a revolution that ousted dictators and forced Western governments to stop supporting authoritarian regimes?
On the streets of Cairo over the weekend, protesters said this is exactly what they want to happen. With remarkable unity, protesters said they would continue demonstrating until President Hosni Mubarak steps down. Going into the second week of turmoil, however, the economic consequences of social upheaval are already apparent, and many fear that when the streets of Egypt are quiet again, financial difficulties will continue to roar.
“Do you think we are going to do it?” my friend Mohammad asked as we joined a group of protesters in Tahrir Square on Saturday night, long after the government-imposed curfew. He wanted to know if outsiders think Egyptians will succeed in overthrowing their government. His voice was hoarse because Mohammad spent 14 hours on the streets chanting the day before.
Others were more confident. “We are controlling the country,” said Ahmed Moraud, a 40-year-old social studies teacher who, on Sunday, had not left the protest site at Tahrir Square in three days. “We defeated the police,” he added. Moraud said he was happy because he would never again teach his students government-imposed lessons that hail Mubarak.
Moraud, like many protesters said the fight would be long and hard, but they expect to continue to protest until their demands are met or the revolution is physically crushed. With growing numbers of dead and wounded in Egypt, both scenarios are still on the table.
Either outcome, however, could result in massive suffering for a country in which almost half the people live on less than $2 a day. The cost of instability is already apparent in every corner of Cairo as businesses are closed, gas stations threaten to run dry, and the Internet remains off. People are not going to work, or buying anything they don’t absolutely need.
According to Beirut-based economist Marcus Marktanner, a successful revolution could mean an even bleaker short-term future for Egyptians. Between revolution and rebuilding, he says, there will be an unknown amount of time of economic hardship while new governmental systems form.
In many parts of Cairo, shops have been closed since the revolt began. In other urban centers, curfews send storeowners home as early as 3pm while protesters remain steadfastly in the streets, demanding the collapse of the regime. Many protesters say they will not go to work until their demands are met, regardless of the hardship that ensues. And while the unrest includes activists of every age, gender, and socio-economic status, a quick glance at the crowds reveals an overwhelming number of working-age men.
“We will never go to our work, our homes,” said Abdul Halim, an auditor, as he sat on the grass at a protest on Sunday afternoon. “We will stay, and we will turn back again.”
Other friends told me the uprising was like a big vacation because their companies could do nothing without the Internet. But when the banks did not open on Sunday (the first day of the Egyptian work-week), the holiday did not seem so promising—even for well-off. Many people began to wonder how long it would be before the ATMs ran out of money. “I have money,” said my friend Mohammad, while we were trying to figure out where to buy food around 8pm on Sunday night—four hours after the curfew. Mohammad said a fancy hotel may have food, but it wasn’t worth giving up the cash—just in case. “You don’t know what will happen,” he added.
Back in Beirut, economist Marktanner compared the beginning of 2011 to 1989. He was in Germany as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled. From an economic standpoint, he said, the circumstances match. It’s not extreme poverty that has caused the turmoil, he said. It’s relative poverty. In the 1980s, West Berlin boomed, while East Berlin suffered.
In recent decades, Egypt and Tunisia have grown substantially, propped up by Western governments. Most of the people, however, have not profited much from this growth. “You see one fraction of the society getting really rich and well off, and others not,” he said. “They suddenly realize: ‘I can gain a lot from redistribution and from changing the political regime.’”
Marktanner said this could explain why countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan are rising up against their governments, while other, poorer countries in the region like Syria and Libya remain quiet. “They are all frustrated, but they don’t have an incentive to take their anger to the streets and revolt against the regime because they are all the same,” he said. “They would not see any benefit from redistribution.”
In Cairo, protesters railed against Egyptian elites, saying they are all related to President Mubarak. Nader Zurkani, an interior designer, was also in his third day in Tahrir Square, told me that Egyptian people are fed up with the way business is done in Egypt. To make it big, he said, you have to partner with the Mubarak family. “Their greed has no limits,” he added.
When asked if he fears economic chaos during the interim if Mubarak steps down, Zurkani said it could not be worse than the current situation. But Marktanner warns that when one government comes down, it takes time to organize a new system. Depending on who ends up in control, international aid could rescue Egypt from financial disaster. But it is impossible to know how long it will take for average people to feel any benefit from restructuring the economy.
“This is the Valley of Tears,” he said. We don’t know how long it takes. You have to tear down a house and rebuild. The bigger the house, the longer it takes to rebuild.”
Some protesters dismissed the point when I brought it up. They said they have high hopes that a new government will be an improvement, because it will be chosen by the people and short-term consequences are not their concern at the moment. Poverty and hardship may have sparked the revolution, they added, but it is not what is sustaining it. In the past week, protesters have fought gunfire, arrests, beatings and exhaustion. “This is not about unemployment,” one activist told me as a crowd marched by her chanting: “The Army and the people are one to get Mubarak out of the country.”
“Thirty years is enough,” added 24-year-old Tariq Salema, before rejoining the protests. “We need new blood. We need a democratic government.”
And as Egyptians continue to march into the unknown, some are calling the uprising, “The Camel Intifada,” born out of 30 years of frustration with the Mubarak regime. Camels, they say, have long memories. They may behave passively when kicked, but they eventually come back with a vengeance.
“If somebody kills a camel, or spits on a camel, everybody knows the camel will keep this in mind for even 50 years,” said German journalist Michael Miller at the protests on Sunday.
While he spoke, his friends, Egyptian lawyers, nodded and said, “Yes, yes, yes.”
“Once he has a chance to get the enemy,” Miller continued, referring to the camel, “or the person who was spitting on him, he will get him.”
Heather Murdock has reported for The Washington Times, Time.com, CBS Evening News, Voice of America, The New Statesman, GlobalPost, Time Magazine, CBS Radio, JO Magazine (Jordan), Yemen Today Magazine, the Yemen Times and NOW Lebanon. Currently based in Egypt and Lebanon, she has also worked in Ethiopia, Yemen and the U.S. and has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Connecticut. Last summer, she won the 2010 Associated Press Managing Editors “International Perspective” award for stories from Yemen for The Washington Times.