A defaced picture of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak outside on trial in Cairo, June 2, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
I arrived in Cairo over the weekend in time for the announcement that Mubarak had been sentenced to life in prison.
It’s been a year since I was last in the city and I was glad to see that many aspects of daily life appeared close to normal. Shops were open and people were in the streets - just as they were before the revolution. And because the Egyptian pound never collapsed things cost roughly what they used to.
The crowds began gathering in Tahrir sometime in the late afternoon. Many felt that Mubarak’s sentence was far too lenient. Moreover, he had been acquitted of the corruption charges, as had his sons and senior ministers and advisors.
I wasn’t ready to join the growing protest in Tahrir - the streets were hot and congested - but I wanted to get some views of people on what was happening. I found a nearby coffee shop where older men with menial jobs sat and smoked nargeelah. I ordered a tea and listened for a few minutes.
Most of the men expressed some ambivalence about the sentence. Almost all recognized that Mubarak should have been prosecuted but a few insisted that he built Egypt - he made it what it is. One man was particularly adamant that the former dictator deserved different treatment although he didn’t specify what.
Those were the only dissenting voices I heard.
Once I’d finished my tea I began walking to Tahrir, half an hour away and past the renovated and busy liquor store around the corner. I took the route past Maspero - the state-run television building - which was surrounded by tanks a year ago. Today, the barbed wire still stood but the imposition was much less ominous. Hummus vendors and small unattended children overran the portion of the Nile river bank where the megalith hunkered.
I caught up to a protest which had just left Maspero. My thought was that it must have formed there since the broadcast building was a symbol of the old Egypt. Our procession was led by men carrying Egyptian flags and April 6 banners. They chanted things like, “We will die like them to gain justice for them.” Many women were in the crowd which reminded me of the earliest days of the revolution.
After a while I broke from the now enormous march and pushed ahead into Tahrir where thousands of people had congregated. Some chanted, but not everyone. People in groups of five or six stood and sipped tea or ate popcorn sold by mobile street vendors. There were many women there as well.
I registered a change in the square. It was (and is) a potent public symbol but it had also transformed into a benign public commons. Ideas were being debated and opinions shared. Most encouraging, there were calls for the reform of the judicial process.
The line that’s emerged in the past 48 hours is that the Mubarak sentence has strengthened Morsi’s campaign for president. I think maybe there’s truth in that, especially after Ayman Nour - a leading liberal figure here - responded to the verdict by lending his support to the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. The runoff election is still two weeks off. I don’t know if the memory of the trial will carry the same potent charge in people’s minds then so it’s hard to tell if Morsi will actually benefit.
There are also many things that few people know now. Like, what role did the ruling generals have in the outcome of the Mubarak trial? Did they engineer the acquittal on corruption charges because of the implications for themselves? How much power are they willing to cede? Will they continue to exist beyond the law?
Yesterday demonstrated one thing clearly to me. The Egyptians fought hard for their revolution and they refuse to relinquish the gains they have made. When there’s a need, the people still show up in numbers. The Generals must know that.
But will they know it in two weeks?