What do Egyptians really want?

It’s been crazy in my adopted hometown Alexandria over these past two weeks. Life here reminds me of the theme of some of those post-Armageddon Hollywood movies where lawlessness reigns. I am still feeling like pinching myself when I watch my husband pick up his weapon — his late mother’s walking stick — to join the vigilantes below, who are doing a fine job of protecting our neighborhood against marauding thugs and recently-escaped prisoners who are often armed with guns stolen from torched police stations. Each night our guys sit around a fire made from old doors filched from a demolished apartment block, smoke cigarettes and drink sweet tea until some yells “haramia” (thieves) or blows a whistle when they grab their knives, batons, homemade swords and petrol bombs and run in search of infiltrators.

Their spirits are astonishingly high considering most haven’t enjoyed a proper night’s sleep for 10 days. They say they’re happy to continue for as long as it takes but as most of these people, who include a doctor, a high-ranking policeman, owners of small shops and company employees have had to return to work this week, that’s noble but not really feasible. So when will this standoff between the Egyptian government and the youth movement leading the opposition end? And more importantly what will be the outcome? In truth, nobody knows. Where is Paul the Octopus when he’s needed?

The situation is more complicated than just stalemate between President Hosni Mubarak who is digging in his heels and the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square who are just as stubborn as the only leader most of them have ever known. That may be the battle of wills most visible on our screens but there are many more taking place under the surface including a simmering class conflict. Egyptians have been split into pro-Mubarak and pro-democracy camps in the minds of most onlookers but it isn’t as simple as that. There are many schools of thought as to what happens next or should he stay or should he go? Most billionaires and wealthy businessmen — aside from well-known government cronies who have been lining their pockets at the expense of ordinary Egyptians — have done very well under President Mubarak. Under his watch, the country has remained peaceful and stable enjoying an economic growth of some six percent annually. These are the people who live in Cairo’s upmarket areas such as Zamalek, Garden City and Maadi or in New Cairo gated communities with swimming pools and golf courses. A few may pay lip service to “the revolution” but most maintain an “I’m all right Jack” attitude and would prefer to maintain the status quo.

At the other end of the spectrum are people living below the poverty line on less than $2 per day that make up 40 percent of Egypt’s population. Such people don’t have the luxury of hanging out in squares protesting. They live from hand to mouth and often have a couple of kids at home to feed. If chaos reigns indefinitely, preventing them from cleaning shoes on the pavement or selling corn-on-the-cob or sweet potatoes from a handcart, whatever their political leanings, they are going to revolt against what they believe are yuppie revolutionaries who can always fall back on mama and baba for survival. Like the super rich, many of the very poor would also like to retain the status quo at least until there is a better alternative on the horizon. The real revolutionaries are well-educated students, young professionals, academics, intellectuals and activists, who are split between a real need for an availability of jobs for college leavers and an idealism that has civil liberties and Western-style democratic freedoms at its core. Unfortunately, they have been naive in that, first, they haven’t designated one leader with the charisma to unite the nation behind them and the authority to conduct a dialogue with Vice President Omar Suleiman and, secondly, they have allowed ambitious individuals and a hotchpotch of opposition parties from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Communists to hang on to their coattails.

When reporters have asked some of them who they want sitting in Mubarak’s chair they’re often at a loss. As far as I can ascertain, they along with just about everyone else here, are united in their unenthusiastic attitude toward former IAEA head Mohammed El-Baradei who opportunistically flew in from Vienna and has since spent most of his time talking to high profile journalists in the leafy garden of his villa. When Arab League Chief Amr Moussa arrived in the square, he met with a lukewarm reception. Given his popularity a few decades ago on the street, this was surprising. As for Ghad Party founder Ayman Nour, he doesn’t have any real base and is thought of as Washington’s man. Of course, as we’ve heard over and over again, the hard-core demonstrators who have camped out night after night in Freedom Square, often cold and hungry with bandaged heads and backs pockmarked from shotgun pellets or rubber bullets, will accept nothing less than seeing President Mubarak walking off into the sunset. As much as I admire their courage and perseverance, I think they’re on the wrong track. As someone said on Al Jazeera I think, Mubarak’s departure is an event, what follows is the much more important narrative.

Whether the president hangs on until the nth minute of his term is neither here nor there in the great scheme of things because the real rulers of Egypt are military head honchos, which is why every government since the Free Officers’ coup against King Farouk in 1952 includes ex-Army and Air Force generals and 80 percent of the country’s present day governors are military men. The military is not going to relinquish its power even if its chiefs agree to accept a civilian president and a unity government filled with intellectuals, so-called wise men and technocrats. As things stand, both the government and the protesters are fiddling while Cairo and other cities burn in terms of security, the economy and international reputation. Both sides need to find a way to compromise. President Mubarak admits he’s an old soldier who has no intention of deserting his post and he is being supported by the military — and, I suspect, by the US behind the curtain. In that case, the revolutionaries should change their slogan to reflect their real goals — an end to emergency law, a clampdown on corruption from the top down, political and social freedom and elections that are transparent, fair and open to impartial monitoring. On that package I think all Egyptians, whether rich, poor or somewhere in between, can agree. – Arab News