By Marwa Awad and Andrew Hammond / Reuters
CAIRO: For a country with 5,000 years of history, Egypt’s fall into a deep social, economic and political malaise during the three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule had a particularly bitter sting to it.
Egyptians like to call their country “umm Al-dunya,” or mother of the world, and for much of their history they had reasonable claim to the title.
But while many trace the deterioration of the Mubarak years to past events such the 1967 defeat to Israel or even the 1952 military coup that brought the monarchy to an end, Egypt seemed in recent years to have sunk further into poverty, brutality, exploitation, loss of direction and media deception.
Following their success in crushing an Islamist militant insurgency in the 1990s, Mubarak’s security apparatus stretched their tentacles into every aspect of life.
Rights groups said thousands of detainees filled Egypt’s jails but no one knew, or knows still, the exact figure.
Mubarak pushed economic liberalization policies that drew crony capitalists into the bosom of the state but left millions of Egyptians on the sidelines. As the middle class was emaciated, the rich opted for walled communities in the desert around Cairo and the poor got poorer in the city’s slum belts.
Egypt went from being one of the first democracies in the region, albeit in the colonial era, then leader of the non-aligned movement in the 1950s and -60s, to a model police state that stifled creativity and independence at every turn.
During the revolution that began on Jan. 25 Egyptians regained their pride.
“Raise your head, you’re an Egyptian!” was one of the refrains heard among the hundreds of thousands thronging the streets on Friday night after Mubarak was forced by his army to resign in the face of a growing movement of civil disobedience.
People plastered their cars with “We love Egypt!” and wrapped themselves in the national colors as the streets filled with Egyptian flags.
Barrier of fear
Egyptians didn’t just turf an unpopular ruler out of office, they faced off with one of the apparatus of a brutal police state that had the power to detain anyone for any reason for any amount of time through the use of emergency laws.
In the process they tore down the stereotypes of a nation ready to bow to authority regardless of the humiliations heaped upon it by autocratic rules.
A barrier of fear was first crossed, perhaps on Jan. 25 when the uprising began, or perhaps three days later when all over the country ordinary people battled with police and state security forces determined to break their will and teach them a lesson for their insolence.
“It’s unreal to see this, people who were so downtrodden do this after 30 years of injustice, corruption and despotism,” said George Ishaq, leader of the Kefaya movement that began the popular agitation against Mubarak’s rule in 2005. “This man was an ignorant despot.”
Opposition politician Ayman Nour – a man who paid the price for challenging Mubarak’s supremacy – said it was the greatest day in Egypt’s modern history.
“This nation has been born again. These people have been born again, and this is a new Egypt,” he told Al Jazeera.
Nour dared to stand against Mubarak in Egypt’s first and to date only presidential election 2005. He came a distant second but was still thrown in jail on charges, widely seen as trumped up, of forging signatures.
“The revolution has empowered people who feel a great weight has been lifted,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egyptian political analyst at the Brookings Centre in Doha.
Protesters in Tahrir Square saw the commune they built up at the symbolic heart of Cairo as an act of regaining control of their destiny.
They established committees to oversee security, food and medical treatment in what became a liberated zone where Cairenes and Egyptians from beyond came to register their rejection of the established order where Mubarak’s mantra of security first trumped everything.
“We formed committees on the spot to serve each other. We cleaned and swept the streets of Tahrir, we treated the ill and fed the hungry. We were a self-sufficient state within a dysfunctional one,” said activist Ahmed Adam.
In the joy of the moment, individual Egyptians had the sense they had personally stood up to the Pharaoh. “I am Egyptian, I have toppled Hosni,” people were chanting on the streets.