by Rose Aslan, guest contributor
Women hold an Egyptian flag with a sign that reads, “A Request from 80 million: Leave, Leave You Pharaoh.” (photo: Darkroom Productions/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, now the most famous square in the world, got its name after the revolution of 1919, when both Muslim and Christian Egyptians marched in the streets of Cairo to demand their freedom from the British. It didn’t officially receive its name until the revolution of 1952 that led to the fall of the Egyptian monarchy.
Aptly named, the Egyptian people freed themselves from Hosni Mubarak by standing their ground in Liberation Square. Yesterday, the news spread like wildfire throughout Egypt, and within seconds the entire world was celebrating the successful revolution and courage of the Egyptian people to free their country from Pharaoh. So, now what?
Now the hard work begins. The real revolution must start from inside Egyptians themselves. Here might be a good time to mention the oft-quoted Qur’anic verse:
“Truly, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (Quran 13:11)
Muslim scholars constantly quote this verse to drive the point home that our external circumstances cannot change unless we purify ourselves and live wholesome and moral lives. Egyptians have taken it upon themselves to change their political condition (all on their own, no thanks to America!), and they have heroically rid their country of an evil dictator. They now must act to rid their country of the many socio-economic problems that have plagued the country for decades. I hate to be a pessimist, but whoever takes over Egypt once elections take place will have a huge task at hand and will only succeed if Egyptians are able to maintain the enthusiasm and spirit of cooperation and responsibility that we have seen in the past two weeks in Tahrir Square.
Corruption is so rampant in Egypt that people think nothing of paying a bribe to the police to avoid receiving a moving violation or sneaking a few extra pounds to a government employee to move their paperwork a bit quicker. Bribes are part of daily life in Egypt, and, in most cases, you can’t get anything done without greasing someone else’s palm. People have forgotten how to follow the rules and have gotten so used to playing the game that they don’t know what the rules are. You would be at a loss to find someone who can tell you who has the right-of-way at a stop sign (since they don’t stop at them anyway!); the only rule in driving in Cairo is there are no rules.
Ministers and other cronies of Mubarak have been pocketing the majority of Egypt’s wealth while many Egyptians scrape by on less than a dollar a day. Poverty and illiteracy are rampant throughout the country. According to UNICEF, the literacy rate in Egypt is only 72 percent, with women faring much worse than men. Forty-five percent of all women over the age of 15 are illiterate, and 85 percent of rural households run by women are illiterate.
The public school system is a mess, classrooms are overflowing, and teachers do a half-baked job teaching since they don’t make a living wage. They make their real income after school when they tutor the same students they see in the morning at their homes for excessive rates. The teachers have no other way to support their families and children need to pay for their lessons in order to pass exams that will determine their future.
Out of 18 million residents in greater Cairo, nearly a million souls — primarily migrant workers who came to the city looking for ways to support their family — inhabit al-Arafa, the "city of the dead" in Cairo. They hang their laundry from tombstones, and their homes lack running water and electricity. Cairo is overrun by other shantytowns, entire neighborhoods of unzoned residential neighborhoods that do not exist on the map, that lack basic infrastructure to support its burgeoning population.
The UNDP Human Development Index ranks Egypt 101 out of 177 countries: the gross national income per capita in 2008 is only $2,015, while 21.6 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line of $2 per day and more than 12 percent of children under than age of five suffer from malnutrition.
While there are reports of discrimination against religious minorities in Egypt, most ordinary Egyptians, no matter their religious identity, have little hope of social mobility if they are born into the wrong class. If you don’t have a wasta, someone with connections, you have little chance of finding a good job, even if you receive straight As in school and university. A successful college graduate without connections couldn’t hope for more than a low-paying and mindless job in a government office, that is, if they are lucky to get a job at all.
In the streets, women of all ages and religious preferences are constantly harassed, including those who wear the face veil. Men, both young and old, seem to think it is their God-given right to grope women’s bodies and make explicit gestures and cat-calls at them. It’s gotten so bad that a group of internet-savvy young people got together and designed an interactive map to collect data on the rate of sexual harassment in the country. People think nothing of throwing their wrappers on the sidewalk or out of the bus window. While they keep their homes immaculate, the streets of Cairo and other cities are filthy.
We have seen a glimpse of Egypt’s potential at Tahrir Square. People have been treating each other with kindness and respect, reclaiming the dignity that the regime has stolen from them. Men and women from all socio-economic backgrounds organized clean-ups to keep the area tidy, set up mobile clinics to care for the injured and sick, passed around food, and made new friends. Women were able to move freely through the crowds without being harassed. Christians and Muslims held hands and prayed together. In the early morning after Mubarak’s resignation, the youth swiftly organized groups to begin a clean-up of the entire downtown area where the protests took place. Now that’s inspiring, how many revolutionaries have you seen doing that?
Egyptians are resilient and courageous, and they could bring their beloved country to a new standard if they manage to keep up the momentum of change. Today, let’s celebrate a huge milestone in Egyptian history, but then let us prepare ourselves for the long process that lies ahead.
About the bottom image: Volunteers clean one of the iconic lion statues at the Qasr el-Nil bridge leading to Tahrir Square on February 12, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Rose Aslan is a doctoral student in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lived for more than five years in Egypt and received her MA in Arabic Studies from the American University in Cairo.
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