The New Egyptian Normal


I landed in Cairo at midday, full of excitement. I’d been reading on Facebook about the new spirit of Cairo’s youth, cleaning streets and painting murals of love and freedom — and I couldn’t wait to see it myself. 

As I waited for my bags to arrive at baggage claim, I could hear the airport employees on strike in the Arrivals Hall. Like other workers who’ve been striking all week, they want a living wage. "We won’t go to him," they were shouting. "He must come to us!" I was grinning ear-to-ear. A month ago, few Egyptians demanded their rights like this.

Then, immediately upon exiting customs, I was met by that first welcoming refrain: "Taxi? I give you good price!" Naturally, then, they asked for 110 pounds, when I’d paid 60 pounds when I landed in Cairo three weeks ago. The drivers insisted it was the "fixed price."

Outside the Arrivals Hall on the curb, I got some offers of 80 pounds, and as I was trying to get them down to 60 or 70, I heard a voice say, "I’ll take you for 50!" I agreed.

The driver was in his 20s, clean-cut with a late model taxi. This was his first day back at work, he said, after camping out on Tahrir Square for three weeks. He told me that when he heard that I was going to a neighborhood adjacent to Tahrir Square, he wanted to take me so that he could see the place of his struggle and his victory.

"Did you come from America today?" he asked. I said that I had come from Jordan, and he said, "Did they hear about us there? What do they think about what we’ve done in Jordan?"

"They’re so proud of you," I said. As Jordanian bloggers Naseem Tarawneh and Christine Makhmara explain, Egypt is more than just the Arab world’s most populous nation. They call her "the Mother of the World," and Arabs have long drawn inspiration from Cairo.

"Our country is in its youth," said the taxi driver when I commented on how Egyptians finally have hope for their future.

I asked him what he thought about the military being in control. "At every level of the military," he said, "they are good men." He pointed out that it was the police who had injured and killed protesters, not the army. It was the police who were corrupt and oppressive, not the army. It was the police who caused trouble.

He mentioned the now-iconic image of men steadfastly bowing and prostrating in prayer on Kasr al-Nil Bridge as the police bombarded them with water cannons. "That’s the kind of people we are," he said, peaceful people dedicated to a cause.

We drove past the synagogue in downtown Cairo, and he pointed out that it had been untouched. All the windows are intact, and there’s no graffiti on its walls. "There were no police there," he said, "but no one damaged it. No temple or church was damaged. We’re all one people."

As we came onto Tahrir Square, there were vendors selling Egyptian flags and red, white and black striped ribbons. Groups of people were clustered on the islands between streams of traffic, smiling and looking more relaxed than I remember them being before the protests began.

Later in the afternoon, I saw young people all around Tahrir Square and the side streets with brushes and cans of paint: green for touching up fences and bridges, and black and white for repainting kerbs. I even saw them stopping traffic to repaint the Tahrir Street crosswalk that probably hasn’t been white for years.

I could see for myself that the shops and restaurants around Tahrir Square were largely undamaged. The only real difference from a month ago was that it was the military police in red berets and vests directing traffic, instead of the black uniforms of the usual traffic police.

"Bravo on you!" I said, and I paid my taxi driver 70 pounds anyway. He and the others on Tahrir Square deserve 10 times more than that for what they’ve done in the last three weeks. We can’t know yet what the end result of the Egyptian demonstrations will be, but there’s a new excitement and sense of possibility across Cairo.


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