Ask just about anyone who’s been to Egypt, and one of the first words they’ll use to describe Cairo is "dirty." The streets of Egypt’s capital are notoriously strewn with trash, dust and pollution. Visitors to the country frequently complain about how little Egyptians seem to care about the appearance of the city that was once known as "the Paris of the Mediterranean." Now that Hosni Mubarak has resigned, that attitude may be changing.
As I watched for updates over Facebook and wrote to friends still in Cairo the day after Mubarak left the presidential post he’d held for 30 years, a dominant theme emerged. Everyone was talking about the clean-up efforts occurring around downtown Cairo.
My classmate Yasmeen Mekawy returned to Cairo on Saturday morning and went straight to Tahrir Square, the focal point of the protests over the last two weeks. "The first thing I noticed," she said, "was that there were youth all over the square and surrounding streets cleaning up".
Mekawy posted pictures on Facebook that showed young people bringing brooms and dustpans to the square. She photographed them dragging full plastic rubbish bags across the square to load them into lorries. In one picture, a group of them are sitting on top of a lorry full of rubbish flashing the victory sign.
These youth were not just conducting a superficial pick-up. Mekawy’s pictures also show them rinsing the streets with water. She told me that they were "even mopping up the disgusting sludge of the alleyways."
An American friend of mine is doing an internship with an NGO in Cairo. She lives on Mohammad Mahmoud Street near the Interior Ministry, where the worst of the violence and vandalism happened on 28 and 29 January. On the day after Mubarak’s resignation, she reported on Facebook, "This afternoon they are repainting walls along my street, formerly covered in angry graffiti and scorch marks from the clashes here, with murals of love, hope and freedom. ‘Yesterday we were demonstrators, today we build Egypt,’ signs read."
This new sense of civic responsibility among Egyptian youth didn’t start after the fall of Mubarak. It was evident two weeks ago, in the earliest days of the protests. When I was on Tahrir Square on Monday 31 January, there were already piles of rubbish in bags on the edges of the square. I saw many young men and women walking around with plastic bags, collecting rubbish. On Tuesday 1 February, when I returned to Tahrir Square to witness the March of Millions, I heard several Egyptians scold each other for littering, something I had never heard before.
This clean-up is symptomatic of a broader change in Egyptian consciousness. I’ve only been in Cairo since June, but what I’ve seen in the last month represents an entirely new Egyptian people. For the first time, I see Egyptians who are hopeful about the future. Egyptians have always been proud of their culture, but for the first time in decades they’re also proud of their country.
With that pride comes a sense of responsibility. Egyptians are not only holding their government to account for its actions. They are also holding themselves responsible for making Egypt a better place.
It’s not all over yet, though. Without any indication from the Supreme Military Council about when they’ll lift the Emergency Laws, some pro-democracy activists are not yet ready to stop the protests. Mekawy was on Tahrir Square again on Sunday, and reports that "the atmosphere there has definitely changed from yesterday. It’s less celebratory, more tense. There are a lot of groups discussing politics and arguing and making speeches."
But one thing has definitely changed. A month ago, Egyptians didn’t stand around talking about politics in public, but now they believe they have a say in the political future of their country.
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