x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Five months after winning freedom, Egyptians seem unclear what to do with it

Egypt has been swept by revolutionary fervour, patriotism and an ongoing, though undeclared, competition for who loves Egypt the most. But while the country is long on slogans, it is short on action to put right decades of authoritarian rule, corruption and gross human rights abuses.

An Egyptian man waves two national flags during a protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Sunday, vowing to keep up their sit-in which began on July 8, despite a series of concessions by the Egyptian prime minister. Mohammed Hossam / AFP Photo
An Egyptian man waves two national flags during a protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Sunday, vowing to keep up their sit-in which began on July 8, despite a series of concessions by the Egyptian prime minister. Mohammed Hossam / AFP Photo

The street signs plead with people not to give bribes, litter the streets or harass women. The stickers on the back windows of cars ask motorists to be civil and observe traffic rules. Pavements are painted in the national flag's black, red and white, and everyone, or almost everyone, is professing undying love for the country.

Five months after the removal of Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising, Egypt is swept by revolutionary fervour, patriotism and an ongoing, though undeclared, competition for who loves Egypt the most.

But while the country is long on slogans, it is short on action to put right decades of authoritarian rule, corruption and gross human rights abuses.

Even the large property developers whose shady, Mubarak-era land deals have come under scrutiny are now caught up in the revolutionary spirit sweeping the country. Their billboards, shouting "revolution-friendly" themes, line the motorways leading to the suburbs and gated communities they built outside Cairo for the rich and powerful.

The ads state the high percentage of the land they have already built on, an apparent bid to counter charges that they purchased state land on the cheap to hoard and later sell at much higher prices. Others state the number of people they have in their employment, an attempt to portray themselves as good for the economy.

The revolutionary fervour has caught on elsewhere. Commercials for a soft drink depict young Egyptians on an overcast day that is transformed when rays of sunlight start shining through the clouds - the revolution - and everyone ending up with a bottle in their hands.

A similar theme is used for a mobile telephone company owned by a wealthy businessman who has been spared in the continuing onslaught against many of the elite and is now into party politics.

But perhaps the revolution is getting the most praise on Egypt's rapidly multiplying television talk shows. With an army of self-declared experts growing as fast as the number of shows, the airwaves are filled with lavish praise of the revolution, the revolutionaries and the generals who took over on February 11.

What is not heard often is that, in reality, the January 25-February 11 revolution may have toppled Mubarak's 29-year regime but did little to uproot the pillars on which it had stood or improve the lot of Egyptians, nearly half of whom live on the equivalent of Dh7 a day.

The streets of Cairo, a city of 18 million people, have become more congested than anyone who lives there remembers. Double and triple parking is now common. Street vendors hog space on pavements, even in upmarket districts of the city. Smaller numbers of police on the streets have fuelled the free-for-all climate in a city used to the heavy and menacing presence of a mostly corrupt police force. Crime has dramatically risen since the revolution erupted, with violent offences such as armed robberies up as much as threefold. Burglary has been on the rise, as well as kidnapping and sexual assault.

Food prices have gone up dramatically too. Shortages of diesel have led to long queues outside petrol stations, and fist fights. Squatters have taken over thousands of state-built apartments and farmlands have been built up in violation of the law.

The religious harmony that protesters claimed existed during the 18-day revolution has been shattered. Dozens of people have been killed or wounded and at least three churches burnt to the ground in sectarian clashes the like of which had not been seen in Egypt in decades.

Rights activists say at least 10,000 Egyptians have been detained and tried before military tribunals since Mubarak was forced from power, an astounding number that has drawn parallels between the rule of the generals and the worst injustices of Mubarak's days.

Most of those tried by the tribunals were charged with thuggery, breaking the now-lifted curfew, damaging public property, theft or weapons possession. The trials last three days on average and, according to rights activists, lack genuine due process.

The freedoms that came with the removal of Mubarak are unprecedented in Egypt, a country that has been ruled by military men since army officers seized power in a coup in 1952. But, in many ways, those freedoms have not been constructively used.

Newspapers, including state-owned ones, are filled with inaccurate reporting. Imaginary charges against figures of the Mubarak regime find their way into print. Allegations that former regime stalwarts were leading luxurious lives in jail were debunked as soon as they were published. Long-time political rivals wage smear campaigns on the air waves or in the newspapers, with everyone claiming a role in the revolution or professing greater love for the country.

The renowned poet Farouk Gueida, who has been dabbling in political writing lately after decades as the literary editor of Al Ahram, wrote a front-page article that relied on unsourced claims that many artefacts from Cairo's Islamic museum had gone missing and had possibly been stolen after the facility's lengthy restoration. As it turned out, Gueida had based his article solely on a letter from a disgruntled museum employee and the "missing" artefacts were safely stored in warehouses.

Other examples abound, from fictional reports on Mubarak's health to the sighting of his jailed son and one-time heir apparent Gamal free on the streets of Cairo, driving a saloon car with a security detail behind him.

The notion that the revolution has toppled Mubarak but left his regime almost intact sent hundreds of thousands of Egyptians back to the streets on Friday, demanding retribution for those responsible for the killing of nearly 900 people during the uprising, quicker trials for corrupt Mubarak-era figures and immediate action to remedy economic woes.

By Sunday, the protesters in Cairo and a string of other cities were staging sit-ins that organisers say will not end before the revolution's objectives are met.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae