A year ago today, tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square and celebrated a previously unimaginable achievement: the toppling of Hosni Mubarak.
But one year later, Egypt is far from stable and far from the democratic utopia many activists imagined. Is the nation better off?
Reporting from Cairo, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson says small groups of protesters now march around Tahrir Square demanding a quicker transition to democracy. They stand in stark contrast to the jubilant masses who came out to celebrate Mubarak's departure.
Tour guide Mohamed Gad el-Karim says Egyptians are worse off. The 22-year-old blames the ruling generals for mismanaging the country and accuses them of caring more about Mubarak, whose trial has dragged on for six months. He says the former president should be in prison, not the luxury hospital outside Cairo where he is being held.
Karim's sentiment is a common one in Egypt. It's what led university professors, students and union leaders to launch a nationwide strike on this anniversary, vowing to bring the country to a standstill unless the generals hand over power to civilian leaders.
That doesn't sit well with Sekina Hassan, a 50-year-old homemaker who watched the protesters parade around Tahrir Square. The strike and continuing protests are destructive, she says, adding that Egyptians will lose their country if it keeps up.
The ruling military council is sending the same message. In a statement read on state-run television, the council called the unrest a conspiracy meant to topple the state and spread chaos.
Meanwhile, Egypt's top military ruler met Saturday with U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The visit was kept low key as tensions are rising between the two governments. At issue is the recent crackdown on American and other pro-democracy groups and human rights organizations.
So far, 43 people, including 19 Americans, are accused of operating illegally in the country and spurring unrest. They are awaiting trial.
A Better Egypt Ahead
The question of whether Egypt is better off after Mubarak's ouster remains difficult to answer, but for Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, the answer is unquestionably yes.
Shehata tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that under Mubarak, Egypt was turned into a "family business," in which he planned to hand over power to his younger son, Gamal.
"Political and economic corruption were rampant," Shehata says. "Police repression was the norm [and] elections were regularly fraudulent. There was no sense of vision for the future or even [the] possibility that things could improve."
With ongoing protests and violence escalating (dozens of people were recently killed), some would argue that Mubarak did bring a certain level of stability, but Shehata calls that stability a mirage.
"It wasn't a real stability based on popular sovereignty, a government that represented its people, civil and political rights [and] rule of law," he says. "It was repression."
Mubarak has left, but Shehata says there is still "Mubarakism" — many of the military generals he appointed are still running the show.
"This is what happens during transitions," he says. "Mubarak was in power since 1981; of course it's not going to be an easy or smooth or overnight transition. Unfortunately that's the reality of the situation."
Despite the tremendous difficulties Egypt now faces, Shehata says, things are much better and there is the possibility of forward progress.
An Imperfect Revolution
Raghida Dergham, a columnist and senior diplomatic correspondent for pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, believes the jury is still out on whether Egypt is in a better place.
Dergham tells NPR's Raz that Egyptians she's talked to are uncertain about the future.
"They feel there is instability, there is poverty [and] there is lack of real revolution in terms of the control of the military council," she says. "They feel, in addition to that, that there is an attempt by the Islamists to also have a monopoly on the political process."
The trouble right now, she says, is that the non-Islamist moderates do not know how to play politics with the army or with the Islamists. She says they are being further undercut by the West, including the U.S. and the Obama administration.
"You don't protect your interests by putting a distance with the moderates," she says. "These were the backbone of what America stands for. Don't undercut the moderates [or] it will really come back to haunt us."
Given all of this, she says, what people seem to miss most is the "glue" of the country Mubarak represented, even though they might not miss the dictatorship and his plans to hand over the country to his son.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
One year ago on this day...
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
RAZ: ...tens of thousands gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square celebrated a previously unimaginable achievement: the people of Egypt toppled their leader, Hosni Mubarak. But one year on, Egypt is far from a stable place and far from the democratic utopia many of those activists imagined.
That's our cover story today: Egypt 12 months later. Is it better off without Mubarak? We'll ask experts Samer Shehata and Raghida Dergham that question.
But first to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who reports that the protesters are back in Tahrir Square to mark the anniversary.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Small groups of protesters marched around Tahrir Square demanding a quicker transition to democracy. They stood in stark contrast to the jubilant masses a year ago who came out to celebrate Mubarak's departure. Tour guide Mohamed Gad el-Karim reflected on how people here feel a year later.
MOHAMED GAD EL-KARIM: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: The 22-year-old says Egyptians are worst off. He blames the ruling generals for mismanaging the country and accuses them of caring more about Mubarak, whose trial has dragged on for six months. He says the former president should be in prison, not the luxury hospital outside Cairo where he is under detention.
His sentiment is a common one here in Egypt. It's what led university professors and students as well as union leaders to launch a nationwide strike on this anniversary, vowing to bring the country to a standstill unless the generals hand over power to civilian leaders.
That doesn't sit well with Sekina Hassan. The 50-year-old homemaker frowned as she watches protesters parade around Tahrir Square.
SEKINA HASSAN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: The strike and continuing protests are destructive, she says, adding Egyptians will lose their country if it keeps up. It's the same message the ruling military council is sending Egyptians.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: In a statement read on state-run television, the council called the unrest a conspiracy meant to topple the state and spread chaos.
Meanwhile, Egypt's top military ruler met today with U.S. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The visit was kept low key as tensions are rising between the two governments. At issue is the recent crackdown on American and other pro-democracy groups and human rights organizations. Forty-three people, including 19 Americans, are accused of operating illegally in the country and spurring unrest. They are awaiting trial. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.
RAZ: Joining me now from Georgetown University is Samer Shehata. He is assistant professor of Arab politics in the School of Foreign Service. Samer, welcome to the program.
SAMER SHEHATA: Thanks for having me.
RAZ: And joining us from our studios in New York is Raghida Dergham. She's a columnist and senior diplomatic correspondent for Al-Hayat. Welcome.
RAGHIDA DERGHAM: Thank you.
RAZ: Let me ask both of you this very simple question: Is Egypt better off today without Hosni Mubarak at the helm? Samer, first to you.
SHEHATA: Unquestionably, yes. Egypt under Mr. Mubarak was turned into a family business with an attempt to inherit power to his younger son, Gamal Mubarak. Political and economic corruption were rampant. Police repression was the norm, elections were regularly fraudulent, and there was no sense of vision for the future or even possibility that things could improve. And I think despite the tremendous difficulties that Egypt is facing now - and certainly it is not close to being a democratic country for the moment - things are much better. And there is the possibility of forward progress.
DERGHAM: Notwithstanding what Samer said, I do believe that the jury is still out. I know that when speaking to Egyptians, they do not feel so squarely. They feel there is instability, there is poverty and there is a lack real revolution in terms of the control of the military council. And they feel, in addition to that, there is an attempt to buy the Islamists to also have monopoly on the political process.
So given all of this together, I think they sort of miss the glue of the country that Mubarak represented. They certainly don't miss the imposition and the dictatorship and the plans to give the country to his son. So with all the misgivings they have, they are very reluctant, and I feel that they are very scared to think that they'd be better off - they hope so. Definitely, democracy is a very precious component of what they have wanted.
But I think even then, there is not that much freedom of expression. And take a look at the situation of women, they are much more frightened than they ever were.
RAZ: Samer, let me ask you this. Now, a year on since Mubarak's ouster, some have argued that for better or worse, he brought stability. Egypt was a stable place. People felt secure. We have all seen that the terrible violence in the country over the past year and certainly in recent weeks with dozens of people killed in protests. I mean, is there something to this idea that, you know, he did bring a kind of stability that maybe was worth keeping?
SHEHATA: Well, no. I mean, it was a mirage of stability. There's no question about that. I mean, it wasn't a real stability based on popular sovereignty, a government that represented its people, civil and political rights, rule of law. And so, no, it was repression. Mubarak left, but we still have Mubarakism. Military generals who are there running the show were all appointed by Mubarak.
And many people believe that these incidents are, in some ways, orchestrated by either ex-regime individuals or people in the Interior Ministry who do not want Egypt's revolution to move forward, so that it is thoroughgoing and produces a democratic Egypt than a fundamental change. So there's no justification, of course, for any of the incidents of violence or the instability. And there has been a deterioration in security.
And more correctly, there's also been an increase in the perception of insecurity. But this is what happens during transitions. Mr. Mubarak was in power since 1981; of course, it's not going to be an easy or smooth or overnight transition. Unfortunately, that's the reality of the situation.
DERGHAM: Mubarak ran an authoritarian state, but it was not a dictatorship like that of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya or Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It is only fair to make that distinction. I think many Egyptians kept rather unsettled with the way that Mubarak and his sons are being treated not because of any love for them, but because they feel that the man did not do that much harm to the country, that they - he was, after all, you know, a nationalist Egyptian despite all his mistakes.
Now, the problem is right now, yes, of course, the army together with the Islamists, they are practically accomplices. And the trouble is that the modernists and non-Islamists, they don't know how to play politics with the army or with the Islamists. So they want to fight it all at the same time, and they are not doing well.
In fact, they are being undercut, in my view, further by the West, the Western countries, including the United States, including the Obama administration. They felt, OK, they won. Now, I want to make sure that I protect my interests. Good enough. But you don't protect your interests by putting a distance with the moderates, because these were the backbone of what America stands for. Don't undercut the moderates, it will really come back to haunt us. There will be the legacy, the good old legacy of America: go halfway and they'll drop you.
RAZ: Mm. Raghida Dergham is a columnist and senior diplomatic correspondent for the pan-Arab newspaper, Al-Hayat. Raghida, thanks so much.
DERGHAM: Thank you.
RAZ: We also spoke with Samer Shehata. He is an assistant professor of Arab politics in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Samer, thanks so much.
SHEHATA: You're welcome.
RAZ: A year ago, the celebrations of Mubarak's ouster stretched far beyond the Nile Delta all the way to New York City.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
RAZ: Crowds paraded in the streets of the Queens neighborhood known as Little Egypt. NPR's Joel Rose was there. And this week, he went back to Little Egypt and found a somewhat more subdued scene.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: A year ago, the Al Khayam Hookah Lounge on Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens, was jammed with Egyptian expatriates watching history unfold live on television.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION)
ROSE: Now the TVs are tuned to soccer, only a handful of men sit smoking tobacco and reading the newspaper. Farris Abdelhalim(ph) is one of them. He says it will take more than a year to recover from three decades of misrule.
FARRIS ABDELHALIM: Our revolution, that will take time. And it's so early that to say that the revolution a success or the revolution is dead.
DR. MOHAMMED ABDULLAH: I think the feelings of the people in the neighborhood will be very similar to the feeling of the people in Egypt, which is a mix of frustration and hope.
ROSE: Mohammed Abdullah(ph) is a doctor with an office on Steinway Street. Since the revolution, he's gone back to Egypt to visit his family. While Hosni Mubarak may have left power, Abdullah thinks many of the people who worked for him did not.
ABDULLAH: The regime itself is not completely removed. The head of the system and the regime was taken out, but the rest is still there. To clean up, you need some time.
ROSE: A few doors down, Ali El Sayed pulled sizzling lamb shanks out of the oven. His tiny restaurant, the Kabab Cafe, has been a landmark on Steinway Street for 25 years.
ALI EL SAYED: People are still very tense. We were all confused, which - I really don't blame them at all (unintelligible). You cannot just change a nation in one year.
ROSE: El Sayed wants to visit his aging father in his hometown of Alexandria, but he hasn't gone because his father says it's still too dangerous.
SAYED: I'm unhappy that I'm not there to witness history because I would like at least to see what's going on, but I don't want to go there to be unhappy and come back unhappy or not come back.
ROSE: Still, El Sayed believes that security in Egypt will improve as democracy takes hold in the coming year.
SAYED: I hope we would have an elected president, like now we have an elected parliament. And I hope the military would leave, go back to their camps, doing their jobs. No matter what's going to happen, if they go in this direction, it will be fine.
ROSE: Everyone I spoke to for this story agrees that Egypt is moving in the right direction, but they don't seem as sure as they did a year ago when the whole neighborhood was dancing in the street. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.