Exhilarated by the Hope in Cairo
Published: January 31, 2011
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Nicholas D. Kristof
As I stand in Tahrir Square on Monday trying to interview protesters, dozens of people surging around me and pleading for the United States to back their call for democracy, the yearning and hopefulness of these Egyptians taking huge risks is intoxicating.
When I lived in Cairo many years ago studying Arabic, Tahrir Square, also called Liberation Square, always frankly carried a hint of menace. It was cacophonous and dirty, full of crazed motorists in dilapidated cars. That was way back at a time when the then-new Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, talked a good game about introducing democracy.
Now the manic drivers are gone, replaced by cheering throngs waving banners clamoring for the democracy they never got — and by volunteers who scrupulously pick up litter, establish order and hand out drinks and food.
“I’m going home right now to get food and drinks for the demonstrators,” one middle-age man, Waheed Hussein, told me as he hopped into his car near Tahrir Square shortly after curfew fell. While talking to me, he allowed a hitchhiker to jump in, and then the hitchhiker decided to bring back supplies as well. With great pride, the two new friends explained to me that this would be their contribution to the birth of an authentic Egyptian democracy.
In short, Tahrir Square has lost its menace and suddenly become the most exhilarating place in the world.
Yet one thing nags at me. These pro-democracy protesters say overwhelmingly that America is on the side of President Mubarak and not with them. They feel that way partly because American policy statements seem so nervous, so carefully calculated — and partly because these protesters were attacked with tear gas shells marked “made in U.S.A.”
The upshot is that this pro-democracy movement, full of courage and idealism and speaking the language of 1776, wasn’t inspired by us. No, the Egyptians said they feel inspired by Tunisia — and a bit stymied by America.
Everywhere I go, Egyptians insist to me that Americans shouldn’t perceive their movement as a threat. And I find it sad that Egyptians are lecturing Americans on the virtues of democracy.
“We need your support,” pleaded Dr. Mahmood Hussein, a physiology professor. “We need freedom.”
Ahmed Muhammad, a medical student, told me: “Egyptian people will not forget what Obama does today. If he supports the Egyptian dictator, the Egyptian people will never forget that. Not for 30 years.”
The movement is snowballing. Protesters scorn what they see as baby steps toward reform by Mr. Mubarak, when they insist that he must make a giant leap — away from Egypt.
As I see it, Mr. Mubarak’s only chance to stay in power is if he orders a violent crackdown, and if the Army obeys him. Neither is inevitable, but both, sadly, may still be possible. The mood was just as thrilling at Tiananmen before the soldiers opened fire in 1989.
It’s troubling that Mr. Mubarak still seems to be digging in. State television doesn’t even show images of Tahrir Square, and it emphasizes the chaos of recent days — perhaps trying to create a pretext for a crackdown.
And, yes, there is a measure of chaos. In my old neighborhood of Bab el-Luq, as in much of Cairo, young men stand at every intersection all night to man checkpoints aimed at stopping looters and criminals. The young men are armed with clubs, machetes and, occasionally, guns, and they carefully checked my ID. I passed through dozens of these checkpoints.
None of these armed men asked for money or were hostile; indeed, when they found out that I was an American journalist, they were as friendly as a gang of young men holding machetes and clubs can be. But it’s still true that armed roadblocks every 100 yards is not a sign of normal city life.
All of this presents the White House with a conundrum. It’s difficult to abandon a longtime ally like Mr. Mubarak, even if he has been corrupt and oppressive. But our messaging isn’t working, and many Egyptian pro-democracy advocates said they feel betrayed that Americans are obsessing on what might go wrong for the price of oil, for Israel, for the Suez Canal — instead of focusing on the prospect of freedom and democracy for the Egyptian people.
Maybe I’m too caught up in the giddiness of Tahrir Square, but I think the protesters have a point. Our equivocation isn’t working. It’s increasingly clear that stability will come to Egypt only after Mr. Mubarak steps down. It’s in our interest, as well as Egypt’s, that he resign and leave the country. And we also owe it to the brave men and women of Tahrir Square — and to our own history and values — to make one thing very clear: We stand with the peaceful throngs pleading for democracy, not with those who menace them.