Egyptian revolution, Part 2: Now, to build a nation
Egypt must shift the passion of a revolution to the hard task of birthing a free nation. As national elections loom, the question persists: Will the military relinquish control?
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Well, no one with formal power. Men like Sheikh Kamal Fayoumi are. Mr. Fayoumi, a fiery labor organizer and preacher who blends socialism and Islam in his sermons, has worked at another local factory, Misr Spinning and Weaving, the Middle East's largest textile firm, since 1984.Skip to next paragraph
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The factory, with more than 10,000 workers, has been a flash point for unrest for years. On April 6, 2008, la-borers at the plant went on strike, which brought a massive police crackdown, including the jailing of Fayoumi. The town erupted in riots. "I've been struggling against the government of Mubarak and the gang of businessmen around him for years," says Fayoumi, sitting in his family's spare four-room apartment in Mahalla. "Our economic problems dragged me into politics without [my] even noticing it."
Now, he's trying to organize a powerful independent union in the area and seeking to influence politics. "The demands of the revolution stem from the Quran – justice, compassion, and mercy are the central tenets," he says. "There isn't any justice without economic justice."
Strikers have won a string of victories this year, particularly at government factories, alarming Egypt's military rulers who are worried about more unrest. But while dozens of labor stoppages have ended with promises of higher wages, it's not clear where the money is going to come from to fulfill the pledges.
Egypt's coffers are threadbare. Foreign exchange reserves have fallen 30 percent, to $24 billion, since the start of the year. Egypt is the world's largest importer of wheat; and subsidies on bread, rice, sugar, and cooking fuel cost the government about $3 billion annually. Last year, the nation spent $11 billion on gasoline and fuel subsidies. Cutting government assistance now – particularly food subsidies – could undermine social stability. But they are getting increasingly difficult for Cairo to afford.
Back in Minya al-Qamh, the economy is on everyone's mind, too. A general feeling prevails among a crowd sipping tea at rickety tables, outside the tent where presidential candidate Aboul Fotouh is speaking, that much of Egypt's economic woes stem from corruption. Many are hopeful it will end soon.
As for Aboul Fotouh, he confines himself largely to platitudes, calling for better education and more social justice. He brushes aside concerns that Islamists are going to come to power and cancel future elections. "Anyone who doubts our intentions, watch us respect the people," he says.
He appeals for patience on the economy. "There's been so much damage done – it's going to take us 20 years to rebuild this country."
Then he is gone. After he leaves, just as after Mubarak left, the same corrupt cops appear on the streets of Minya al-Qamh, the same Mubarak apparatchiks – Egyptians call them the felool ("remnants") – retain their positions on the beat.
Across the city, public services remain slipshod. Garbage still piles up in vacant lots and irrigation canals. The roads are still pitted with holes, if they're paved at all. Hundreds of towns like Minya al-Qamh, with dun-colored apartment blocks crumbling from age, are scattered across Egypt. And they've been an afterthought to Egypt's rulers in Cairo for generations.
Is change coming? Mubarak's fall certainly unleashed political passions and a sense of optimism. But it hasn't translated into concrete improvements. Not yet. If change doesn't come soon, millions of Egyptians may be tempted to follow the warning of Ahmed Waheed, the rapper at the Aboul Fotouh rally, when he says: "We need results. We need our rights to be respected. If we don't get all that, we know the way back to Tahrir Square."
(This story was corrected after publishing to show the correct date for the founding of Egypt's April 6 Youth Movement).