After Egypt’s revolution, malaise spreads
By Ernesto Londono,
KAFR EL-MESELHA, EGYPT — The main road in this dusty town on the Nile River Delta no longer bears the name of its most famous son. Hosni Mubarak Road is now simply Road No. 16.
Gone too are the once ubiquitous mosaics and framed photos of the ousted Egyptian president.
While millions of Egyptians celebrated Mubarak’s downfall three months ago as the rebirth of a nation, the mood in this village 45 miles north of Cairo was markedly subdued. Many here warned at the time that the revolutionaries were reckless enthusiasts without a morning-after plan. Mubarak, they argued, had kept the nation safe for three decades, and he deserved a dignified exit.
Instead, Egypt’s top prosecutor said Tuesday that the former president will stand trial on charges of corruption and conspiring in the deadly shootings of protesters — charges that could carry the death penalty.
But as Egypt confronts a surge in crime, an anemic economy, an outbreak of deadly religious violence and other aftershocks of the revolution, many here are feeling vindicated.
“The old days were better,” said Sabeen Mursi, 30, sitting in front of a wooden cart of fruit and vegetables that attracted few customers. “Even though there was no money, people would take care of each other. We would all find something to eat at the end of the day. Today, no one cares about one another.”
That sense of malaise is spreading throughout the country, even to supporters of the revolution in Cairo. And as similar uprisings in other autocratic states in the region flail, Egypt’s experience may serve as a cautionary tale.
Perhaps the most worrisome effect of Egypt’s revolution is the toll it has taken on the economy, which was softening even before demonstrators first took to the streets in January.
Egypt’s interim military leaders are scrambling to negotiate deals with foreign governments and world bodies to keep the country afloat as the budget deficit grows and the economy remains stagnant. The World Bank said Tuesday that it will provide up to $4.5 billion to help Egypt modernize.
Mursi said she barely pulls in enough money to eat these days, and she worries about the spike in prices for staples such as tomatoes and rice.
Ahmed Farid, a shopkeeper in this flat village surrounded by citrus trees and farmlands, said the economic slump is driving people over the edge. “We can’t find fuel,” he said. “Things are being stolen every day.”
In the new Egypt, there are knife fights at the pump over scarce gasoline, as well as armed robberies — a level of crime and violence unheard of when Mubarak’s feared security forces kept tight control.
Reverence for Mubarak is not universal in his home town, which the former president left after high school and seldom visited.
Hassam Atyia Suleiman, 58, a guidance counselor employed by the Ministry of Education, said even Mubarak’s supporters, himself among them, had become disenchanted with the regime in recent years as Egypt’s middle class shrank while the country’s elite became wealthier.
“The government started to abuse the riches of the nation,” Suleiman said on a recent morning, sitting on a small wooden chair outside his home. “The situation became unsustainable in the last few years.”
As he watched from afar, two women selling vegetables under the sun bickered over Mubarak’s legacy.
“May God help him through these hard times,” one woman said.
“You want Hosni back,” the other replied indignantly. “Damn you. Suffice it to say we got rid of a corrupt regime.”
But as the glow of the largely peaceful revolution fades, Suleiman said, Egypt appears to be entering a precarious phase.
“This is a group of youth that doesn’t have a leader,” he said. “We think there should be a leader so we know what this revolution wants.”
The young generation that led the revolution gave Mubarak too little credit for keeping them safe, said Metwaly Ibrahim El-Manakhly, 53, a truck driver here. His two brothers were killed in Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel. “This is something today’s youth never saw.”
While those young people may still be celebrating, he said, they might come to regret toppling the president.
“They will one day bear the cost, because if there is a war, it is them who will be on the front lines, not me,” Manakhly said.
But the split that the revolution has most exacerbated has resulted in deadly street clashes between Coptic Christians and hard-line Muslims.
And along with the crime and the financial strains, that division is fueling a sense of gloom far beyond the pockets where support for Mubarak was always strong.
Suheir Tawfiq, a Christian housewife in Cairo, said she and her family were among the millions who cheered in the capital when Mubarak stepped down.
“Now, not really,” she said as she walked to collect her pension. “Psychologically we’re in a bad place. The churches being destroyed, the beatings, our kids being killed.”
The elation turned into gloom for Marwa Yehi, a 30-year-old office worker, when her car was stolen in a normally safe Cairo neighborhood a few weeks ago.
She found little sympathy when she reported the theft at a nearby police station, where she was asked to come back three days in a row because no officers were on duty. When an investigator finally filled out a report, he told her not to hold out too much hope.
“We have no authority over people,” Yehi said the officer told her. “The people control us now. We no longer control the streets.”
In Mubarak’s home town, Mursi, the produce vendor, sat on the curb cradling her young daughter, seeing the streets as a gauge of how much life has changed. People used to stay out late when the sense of security was strong, she recalled. “Now the streets are empty after sundown.”