Originally appeared in The Atlantic.
CAIRO, Egypt — Hosni Mubarak with donkey ears, Hosni Mubarak with a Hitler mustache, Hosni Mubarak as Colonel Sanders — once the protesters started heaping on the scorn, they couldn’t stop. It was a long time coming.
The only prior time I had heard anyone in Egypt express public contempt for Mubarak was in 2003, before a prosperous and well-educated audience at the American University in Cairo. Edward Said, the distinguished Palestinian-American literary critic, had just given a stirring lecture on the difficulty of life under a repressive regime, namely (of course) Israel. During the question and answer session, an American study-abroad student took the microphone to ask a question that sent such a frisson through the crowd that I doubt I am the only one who remembers it more or less verbatim. “Here in Egypt,” he said, “we’re living under a military dictatorship, and it looks like Hosni Mubarak wants to pass the leadership on to his son Gamal.” How, he asked, could Egyptians fight back against repression?
The fear that passed through the crowd was audible, visible, palpable, and immediate. Someone yelped when the name “Gamal” was mentioned, and a professor rushed to cut off the microphone. Dissidents, including the university’s own Saad Eddin Ibrahim, had been imprisoned for asking such questions. After several seconds of extreme distress — followed by a round of light applause from students — Said responded wanly, saying that all political regimes were inherently coercive, and yes, it’s difficult, isn’t it? At this point, the distressed yelps came from the students, who seemed to faint a little inside when they realized that if even Edward Said (beloved in Cairo, and with terminal leukemia, having little to lose) was too craven to support regime change, then no one would.
This weekend, men and women from that prosperous, educated class hit the streets, tidying up after the demonstrations and violence that had marred and hallowed Tahrir Square during the last two and a half weeks. One of the familiar characters of Egyptian domestic life is the zabbal, or garbage-man (usually a Coptic Christian, whose faith permits him to feed organic waste to Cairo’s pigs). I lived in Cairo for two years, and no zabbal of mine ever picked up the trash in stiletto heels, or while moonlighting from his day job as a dermatologist. But in Tahrir Square this weekend, one saw miraculous things, and these were among them.
The Tahrir clean-up started before the party had even ended. Cairenes from all demographics, including the wealthy and educated, showed up in force, bearing cans of paint and push-brooms. The task was hardly thankless; some pinned signs to themselves and grinned with self-congratulation at stooping to filthy work for a country they loved. It was also totally impractical; as of late Saturday, the square still brimmed with massive crowds. Imagine trying to tidy up a Rolling Stones concert during the third verse of “Satisfaction.” Two weeks earlier, the protesters had formed human chains to prevent vandals from looting the Egyptian Museum. Now they formed human chains because they had just swept and painted the curb, and weren’t about to let anyone track dust onto it.
As of Sunday, the square was nearly emptied and cars were driving through all but a few of the streets. In the last day or so, the military has moved in to remove the bitter-enders, the protesters who cheered Mubarak’s downfall but refused to leave until democracy, rather than a fragile military rule, had arrived. Their worry is entirely sensible: the Egyptian military never renounced Mubarak (who was, after all, one of their own); and although it pledges elections, it hasn’t loosened the infamous Emergency Law or, for that matter, dismissed the government Mubarak hastily appointed two weeks ago.
There have been two groups of protesters in the square: the radicals, and the tourists. The radicals shed blood and risked everything to get rid of Mubarak, and the tourists supported them but didn’t show up until the danger had passed. During the heady early days of the protests, none of the radicals indicated that they would be satisfied with anything less than democracy and the most severe justice for Mubarak and his people. Already, we’ve witnessed the gratifying spectacle of ex-Mubarak ministers’ being denied permission to leave the country and, presumably, flee to luxurious exile. Early in the protests, Amr Bargisi warned in The Wall Street Journal that the protesters would commence a reign of terror if they won. “The next step,” he said the protesters promised, “will be to knock on the doors of suburban villas and ask the owners: Where did you get the money to afford these?”
Where, then, are the Arab Jacobins, and should we fear them? The presence of elites out there, shoveling garbage with the common man, must be met with some ambivalence, I suppose: some among them are, for the moment, supporters of the revolution, and others could potentially be its victims. So far, the protesters have shown little appetite for gore and have cleared no space for a guillotine in Tahrir Square. Perhaps it is the military’s role to stifle and suppress the most eager of these protesters and to allow the villa owners, many of whom have military connections, to prepare themselves for justice. The radical wing of protesters has shown little flexibility about anything so far, and eventually it will demand, in a word, satisfaction.