In Mubarak's home town, angst and sorrow

Ruling council says it will run the country for six months or until elections are held; tensions flare as military evicts protesters in Tahrir Square.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 9:48 PM

KAFR EL-MESELHA, EGYPT - Travelers entering this Nile Delta town pass under a banner proclaiming "The Egyptian People Sacrifice Ourselves for You, Mubarak." This banner is new, and unlike those in Cairo, it has not been defaced.

Surrounded by citrus trees and farmland, this dusty, conservative village is where Hosni Mubarak was born in 1928. Even now, the mood here is sharply at odds with the jubilation that has swept through much of Egypt since Friday, when a popular uprising succeeded in forcing Mubarak to step down as president.

What is most evident here is a sense of loss and indignation. Beyond the blow to hometown pride, the dizzying pace of change in the Egyptian capital to the south has plainly left many here unnerved, in a region that has been a pillar of Egypt's old order and a birthplace of many top military officers.

"We didn't want him to go that way," said Hossam Habasha, 53. "Even if he was sick and had problems, we could have tolerated him for a bit longer. He served us for 30 years. If you have a cat and he gets sick, you take care of him until he dies."

The movement that led to Mubarak's ouster was driven by young, reform-minded Egyptians eager for higher wages and a meritocratic system. But conversations here suggest that, at least for now, that movement is seen as a threat by some older Egyptians, particularly those from rural areas like this one, who credit the president with having kept the country stable and its people safe.

The rift could pose a challenge for Egypt's new military leaders as they weigh how far and how fast to embrace the demands for change being pressed by pro-democracy demonstrators.

"He did a lot of good things for Egypt," Habaa Saeed, 31, said of Mubarak. "People are afraid of saying that now. They are afraid of being beat up by the revolutionaries. With the streets empty of soldiers and police, who knows what could happen?"

Not visible anywhere in Kafr el-Meselha is the kind of vitriolic anti-government graffiti that has become so ubiquitous in Cairo and the coastal city of Alexandria since the demonstrations began.

The town has not been entirely immune to discontent. Images of the throngs protesting in Cairo did inspire some young residents to take to the streets. "Police intervened with tear gas and people began throwing stones," said university student Ali Amr, 19, who was among those swept up in the movement.

But Habasha, a government worker, said many parents watched in horror as their children joined the protests.

"We were all safe during his rule," he said. "We're middle-class people. We don't have big dreams. We just want our kids to grow up with dignity and safety. The youth felt differently. They don't have that sense of loyalty."

"We lived in peace for 30 years," said Nadia Abdul Hamed, 53, as she shopped for groceries along an unpaved road Sunday morning. "We're all sad. I have cried for hours. Until now, every time I think about it, I cry."

On the day last week when the crisis reached its apex, residents say, virtually everyone in Kafr el-Meselha was sitting in front of the television to hear what Mubarak would say in his address to the nation Thursday night. While crowds in Cairo called for blood, the streets of Kafr el-Meselha were silent. Many residents said they saw Mubarak as an ailing father who had been dragged into disgrace by corrupt ministers and cronies from the ruling National Democratic Party.

"His speech on Thursday touched the hearts of many Egyptians," Amr, the university student, said. "They felt he was feeling down, no longer in full control of his faculties."

"I know nothing about this revolution, I'm an old man. I go to bed early," Said al-Arabi, 64, said as he sold baked sweet potatoes from a rusty cart.

But this much he said he knew for sure: The president was an honorable, decent man.

"He's not involved with the people around him who were corrupt," Arabi said. "Thirty years we've been with him and now we're without a president. What did our president do wrong? Nothing."

Customer Sheri Mustafa, 40, scoffed as he grabbed a sweet potato wrapped in newspaper, a sign that the pro-Mubarak sentiment in Kafr el-Meselha was not universal.

"Maybe he likes the president because he finds food to eat," Mustafa said. "We rarely eat meat. When you go to the butcher here, you never see a line because people don't have money for it."

When Mubarak's handpicked vice president, Omar Suleiman, announced Friday evening that the president was ceding authority to the military, there were no celebrations in Kafr el-Meselha, residents said - just stunned silence.

Merchants closed shops early. Many wept.

"All of us cried," Saeed Sad said. "The streets were empty. I felt so sad for the president. I think many Egyptians felt the same way."

Special correspondent Ekram Ibrahim contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company