Egypt: waiting for change

By Melinda Holmes
Special to the News

CAIRO, EGYPT — Realization dawned slowly as I stared from across the room at the large brown eyes of my Egyptian friend growing steadily wider. The gravely voice coming from the old television next to me on Feb. 11 spoke deliberately, with a measure befitting an aging politician. My urgent pleas for translation were answered first by a roar of screams and shouts erupting from the people as they streamed out of their houses and shops and into the street: Mubarak had stepped down!

Leaping into the arms of my two revolutionary sidekicks, bonded now for life over what we experienced together during those 18 days, a grin spread

DANCING MUBARAK OUT — Bridgton native Melinda Holmes, at left wearing scarf, and her Egyptian friends celebrate in the streets of downtown Cairo on Feb. 11.

over my face that would stay plastered there until sleep brought the muscles of my face some relief. We couldn't put our jackets on fast enough, running down the stairs two to three steps at a time, we burst out onto the street joining the jubilant crowds. There was no discussion, at this point it was innate, restraining ourselves from breaking into a run, we made our way to Tahrir. Every ounce of apprehension and debate had vanished, it was clear that not a single person was sorry to see him go. My friends hugged and kissed those we met in the street, arms raised in victory, voices raised in celebration.

Joy, relief and pride

The now familiar checkpoints at the square's entrance were in force, though the woman patting me down was shaking with excitement. I couldn't help but embrace her in my sheer joy at witnessing this moment, in my relief and pride that this moment had arrived, achieved honorably and independently by the people of Egypt. The famous festival atmosphere of Tahrir was no longer ironic. The people were already packed in like sardines, chains of friends pressed one behind the other snaked their way through the human sea. To the steady beating of drums, circles of young men danced around the musicians, accelerating until they could no longer hold on, breaking into joyous leaps and shouts.

After a while we extracted ourselves and in a side street near Talat Harb Square, merely two blocks away, we stumbled into the midst of a dance party. There we were, singing along in unison to the kind of songs that everyone knows the words to, dancing in the street by the sparkling light of fireworks and the sudden flames of lit aerosol (a typical form of celebratory flash here). In a country normally overcome by propriety regarding public physical displays, here the static bodies of men and women alike could not contain their joy and so movement flowed to the beat of familiar rhythms, painting new memories of these streets over the recently emblazoned images of destruction and despair.

Finally sitting at a cafe which had expanded to occupy half of the street, we reveled in the victory: no small feat, yet worth more as a symbol of what can be achieved than as a proportion of the work needed to build a democratic Egypt. And beyond democracy there are other real social changes being called for, changes vital to ensure the rights which have been so nobly defended over these days, for even this momentous evening did not pass without indignities. The oppression of the regime was replaced this night with the knowledge that the war was not won; Mubarak was only the first battle.

What is normal now?

More than a month later, the sentiment holds true. The Egyptian people craved a return to normal life. What is normal life? Work can be considered this, after all making a living is just that. In this sense much is the same, people tend their shops, go to their offices, the shoe-shiners are present on every corner crouching between street vendors. Flag sales have skyrocketed, the new hot item, along with head bands in red, white and black, 25 January I.D. badges fashioned after the notorious Tahrir Youth's. The people own this revolution through and through, not only its roots, its perseverance and its achievements, but its images and words, which captured so powerfully the imagination of the world. Yet where do these impressions lead us now? Normal life is a fiction, something soft to hold onto in the middle of a dark, cold night. Everything has changed. Egyptians are empowered now, Egyptians are citizens now. How to exercise these newly claimed rights? What to do with new found freedoms? And how to decide all of this while protecting one's livelihood and family in the face of thuggery and a crumbled security apparatus?

Dangers in waiting

I said shortly after Mubarak left that it seemed everything was waiting: waiting for the army to move, waiting for the protesters to move, waiting for the new Egypt to take shape, waiting for Gaddafi to leave Libya. There are dangers in waiting; the danger that nothing happens and the danger that whomever does move can affect the changes they want in no time. The problem is that time passes quickly while a whole country is glued to the television listening to the rambles of an outmoded dictator and worrying about hundreds of thousands of people fleeing across its borders.

With Tahrir emptied (forcibly I must note) after yielding the ouster of another round of ministers and a vote scheduled for Saturday on constitutional amendments, it could seem from afar like Egyptian democracy is riding on a swift current, however emerging from the raging rapids of tear gas and Molotovs, banners and beatings, I would liken the moment now, more to, say, drifting around the murky bends of the Old Saco, than floating freely on the wide thoroughfare of the Nile.

(A few notes by the writer including corrections to the Feb. 17 article:

I am a child of Maine who grew up in Bridgton and fell in love with Egypt while traveling here three years ago. I moved here in November 2010 to study Arabic while in the process of applying to graduate schools for Fall 2011. I am interested in studying some combination of international law, international relations, human rights, community development, and migration studies. I am a graduate of the USM Geography-Anthropology department and North Atlantic Regional High School, where I accredited my home school work after attaining most of my secondary education at Lake Region High School. Eager to engage in interesting work relevant to my future studies, I found an internship at an NGO providing legal aid for refugee resettlement and became part of a project that has launched me into all kinds of new dimensions, especially during and since the revolution.

My love of Egypt stems from its amazing culture and the warmth of its people, something that was demonstrated even on the worst days of the revolution. I live in downtown Cairo, about three blocks from Tahrir square. I witnessed some of the heaviest fighting of this revolution, I was trapped inside my building, I was incapacitated by tear gas, I faced suspicion in the streets during the days of anti-foreign propaganda, yet these are not the experiences that have left lasting impressions on me. The people shared what little they had willingly, in fact tripping over themselves to offer it, be it a sip of water, a date, a bottle of juice or a cigarette. At the same time they were fighting, determined to achieve a real freedom for Egyptians, something that I have always been very aware of having in our country, felt grateful for and privileged because of, though it should be a right of all people.)

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