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Return to the Republic of Tahrir

November 23, 2011

Once again the people of Egypt surprise and humble me. I am in awe of their willingness to once again put their lives and bodies on the line, again and again, in pursuit of a vision of a better Egypt.

This is surreal to watch. I know these streets, Falaki and Mohamed Mahmoud and Talaat Harb. I walked them and ate in them every day for five years

There was a joke circulating after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. It went around as a tweet or e-mail message:

Dear Egypt: Congratulations. Don’t trust the military. Sincerely, Pakistan.

Of course,”the military” in Egypt is not a monolithic institution. The army the people trust is that of the soldiers themselves. Egypt’s army is a conscript army, made up of young men like their brothers and sons and cousins. Every young man is required to serve in the armed forces unless they are physically unfit or are the only male heir in a family. People thus imagine the soldiers as being people like themselves.

The generals are another matter. Being a general is a good gig in Egypt, or has been. You never have to fight a war, and there’s so much money floating around–especially $1.3 billion from the U.S., that its easy to end up with a little. The generals invest this in shopping malls, apartment buildings, tourist businesses and manufacturing companies.

Some of the generals are ideologues, certainly, and some almost certainly would love to replace Mubarak and wield power. Others would probably just like to see stability established so they can go back to their clubs and enjoy the fruits of their investments.

Overall though, the people of Egypt, elated with their success in ousting Mubarak, were willing to trust the military to serve as an interim government.

And they blew it. They failed to follow through on their promises, and have done miserably on everything from the economy to security.

And the people actually returned to Tahrir to tell them that their time in power is over.

Tantawi’s speech was reminiscent of Mubarak’s first speech–too little, too late, pretending that the situation is other than it is, as if his words coming authoritatively across the state-controlled airwaves will persuade injured, gassed protesters that it is so.

I don’t know what will happen next. I don’t know how long this can continue. I won’t pretend to be able to predict the next stage. But I remain mesmerized by the bravery and persistence of the Egyptians.

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