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What comes after revolution?

Egypt, February 18, 2011

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    In Tahrir Square during the "Day of Victory." Photo: sarah_in_tarhir_square.jpg

I just got back from the “Day of Victory” in Tahrir Square, during which upwards of one million elated Egyptians flooded into central Cairo to bask in the glory of their successful revolution. Today’s event marked a crescendo in the celebrations that have taken place throughout the week since Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president. It hasn’t all been about flag-waving and chanting, though.

Young protesters put down their signs and picked up brooms and paint brushes, demonstrating their newfound pride and sense of civic responsibility by organizing themselves in street crews, clearing garbage, sweeping sidewalks and repainting curbs and iron fences. There has been time for mourning, too. A steady stream of people continues to make the pilgrimage to Tahrir each day to visit the large hunk of marble that serves as a memorial to those who lost their lives during the protests. The mourners stand in silence, staring at photos of the young faces. Some pray. Others take pictures.

Meanwhile, several unions have gone on strike and sent groups marching down the streets with placards to demand higher pay and better working conditions. One person explained her take on the strikes: now that Egyptians have found their voice, they are using it—it is as if these workers think that if they don’t demand their rights now, they will lose their chance. For its part, the military has begun to issue decrees, laying out a timeline for revising parts of the Constitution and working toward elections in six months.

While all of this has been going on, I have been on a listening tour, hearing Egyptians reflect on the events in Tahrir and what comes next.

People’s musings have simultaneously moved and fascinated me. Most everyone I speak with expresses an almost child-like sense of wonder that they actually succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak. They acknowledge that when they went out into the streets in the beginning, they were demanding relatively limited reforms, but as the situation unfolded, they felt emboldened and became clearer and more determined about the results they wanted.

Tarmeen, a young professional, beamed as she spoke of recent events, “In the beginning, we didn’t know if we should call it a revolution. But when it was announced Mubarak was stepping down, I told my colleague, ‘Yes, now we can call it a revolution.’ I still can’t believe it. Everyone thought our generation—they call us the 80s Generation—they thought we were lazy and spoiled. But I guess we aren’t really that way. Now I am proud to be part of the 80s generation.”

Some members of the older generation are equally surprised and impressed by what the youth activists managed to accomplish. Nadia, a seasoned human rights activist acknowledged that “the young generation took us by surprise with their commitment. We thought that generation was dormant. They surprised us all. We are very proud of them. We are happy to see there is a generation coming that is reliable.”

The events of the past month played out so rapidly that many people are still trying to process what happened. When I ask what comes next and if there is any kind of assistance the Egyptian people might need, I keep receiving the same response: I don’t know.” Karim, a highly educated and experienced development worker observed, “In Tahrir Square, there was collective will, but not collective thought. People would stand in groups of two or three and share ideas. Other people would come up and listen to them, take those ideas, and move on to the next group. As they went around, they were putting together their own ideas about what they thought. We need time to do the same thing now. People were unified in saying ‘no,’ but now we have to say what we want. We don’t know what we want yet. We need space and time for dialogue, to figure out what we think.”

Nadia was inclined to defer to the youth. “We have to follow them and what they want now,” she said. But she also expressed some anxiety, which is undoubtedly shared by others of her generation. “The only thing that scares me is their enthusiasm. They want everything to happen quickly. That is the difference between generations. We do things slowly and we think about consequences. They move quickly and they don’t think about consequences.”

In some ways, what Egyptians need most now, is the one thing they don’t have: time. The pressure to create immediate but lasting change in the government and its relationship to the people will be enormous. Equally critical is the need to quickly get the economy back on track and to tackle long-term economic issues such as rampant unemployment and poverty. Egyptians now face the challenge of finding a way to sustain the passion and determination that carried them through the revolution, while also summoning enough patience and pragmatism to keep expectations in check and morale boosted as they forge through the difficult months and years ahead.