In Egypt, joy and elation 30 years in the making

There was disappointment and sadness hours earlier. Some people, thousands in fact, had already camped outside the presidential palace to force the president to leave. Others vowed to continue to stay in the square of the Egyptian capital, braving the cold, and sometimes the rains, until the man who had ruled them with an iron fist for 30 years left office and was brought to justice. Some lost faith. Others mumbled words about their burning desire to change their country.

Tempers flew, some people cursed the president and others called him names. A short time later, the vice president, a close friend of the president and a loyalist, was on TV. He was grim-faced and seemed to speak against his will. But no force in the world would have been able to prevent this moment from happening. Nobody could stop this flow of feelings for change in a country whose political waters had suffered more than their fill of stagnation.

“The president has decided to step down and hand his powers over to the military,” vice president Omar Suleiman announced.

It took him seconds to say these words. But those seconds made tens of millions of people happy.

No sooner had Suleiman finished his short, and poignantly said, sentence, than all corners of this populous county burst into all sorts of mixed feelings. Extreme joy, elation, jubilation and sometimes sadness filled hearts after the announcement.

“Is that true?” asked one of the tearful demonstrators.

“I can’t believe it,” said another. “Our country is finally free.”

Suddenly, all of Egypt turned into a celebration. Car horns blared, fireworks rose in the sky and the Egyptian flag flew everywhere. Everybody in this country took it personally; everybody called a relative or a friend to say congratulations. It was an unbelievable moment: it was the moment of change for Egypt and possibly the whole Arab world.

Finally, on Feb. 11, Hosni Mubarak had made the decision his country’s men and women had eagerly awaited for years: He let loose his grip on Egypt. It took him too long to set his people free, but for most Egyptians, “It is better late than never.”

Even as the days pass, the overwhelmingly festive atmosphere Mubarak unleashed with his departure continues to make itself strongly felt in every aspect of the life here. Everybody is talking about the “black days” of his rule; everybody is talking about the freedom the people of Egypt will enjoy in the absence of his police state, even though nothing of this has materialized yet.

Joy, however, was coupled with fear of what the future might hold for this country.

“True, Mubarak has already left, but he left Egypt for the military,” said Salah Ahmed, an Egyptian political analyst. “I haven’t known of a military that took over anywhere and left soon,” he added.

Others shared those fears, even as former army officers jumped to assure everybody that Egypt’s strong military, which has been ruling here since the military coup of 1952, has no political aspirations. A short time later, however, the military itself gave nobody the benefit of the doubt.

In several statements so far, the military has been keen to assure everybody that it recognizes the “legitimate aspirations of the people of Egypt.” In its fifth statement, made Feb. 13, the military said it will hold elections in six months. It also dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution, complying with important demands of the revolutionaries.

Despite this, ordinary Egyptians are happy to see their army’s tanks and soldiers camped on their streets and squares.

“They’re the best people in this country,” said Asmaa Youssef, a college student, as she passed by an army tank in Tahrir Square. “The army is our last line of defense.”

Fully covered Youssef is a devout Muslim. Despite this, she still dreads what might happen in Egypt next. She says she is not afraid of the military, but does not trust the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s popular Islamist organization, with its dreams of applying Islamic law here.

Some people see threats in the fact that the Brotherhood’s following on the streets and the fact that it is already an organization might qualify it to win any free elections in Egypt. These fears have been echoed in Israel, the United States and other nations, where leaders see a takeover by the Brotherhood as “catastrophic.” But the Brotherhood has been keen to assure everybody that it is not seeking power.

“We won’t field a candidate in the presidential elections,” a recent statement issued by the Brotherhood said. “We won’t even seek majority in parliament.”

For the moment, however, most Egyptians are not ready to give in to any fears. They want to enjoy their first taste of freedom, regardless of what might happen next.

Nothing, they say, can be worse than Mubarak.

Al-Qotb (“The Writer”) is a pseudonym for The Jewish Journal’s Cairo correspondent.