There are some concerns that the army, now in control of Egypt, may not bring all the changes sought by those who led the protests that helped overthrow President Hosni Mubarak. Yet Sharon Otterman, who recently reported from Cairo for the New York Times, says there is still an "afterglow" and feeling of empowerment among the city’s young people, and a new exercise of media freedoms after Mubarak’s fall. In regards to Egypt’s army, she says: "It’s hard to overstate how much the average Egyptian loves the army right now. They see the army as the force that came in and stopped a massacre from happening." Still, Otterman says, concerns remain over the level of security, and suspicions persist over decision-making in the post-Mubarak government.
You were a Fulbright Scholar in Egypt from 2005 to 2007. You returned as a reporter after Mubarak abdicated power on February 15. Did you note a difference in the thinking of the people you knew in Cairo?
Yes, absolutely. I arrived in Egypt for this visit about ten days after Mubarak stepped down. There is an afterglow among the people, especially the youth of Cairo. A lot of the people I knew as a Fulbright scholar were activists, even back then. But when they would take to the streets, they would be easily overwhelmed by security forces. Some were actually threatened and detained.
They are feeling so empowered now. Many of the young people whose parents had dismissed their activism as useless and their work on the computer as a waste of time now look at them with new respect. They say, "You’ve accomplished something that we ourselves couldn’t do." There is a handing of the baton to the younger generation. It’s very moving to the people involved.
What I’ve been reading, however, is that after the army took over the government in February there has been some unhappiness in the way things are going. Are there concerns that the army may try to retain too much of the old regime.
Yes, in talking about the euphoria and sense of elation, I don’t want to minimize the other feelings people are having. Maybe the best way to sum it up is that this is an extremely emotional time for the Egyptians. There are frustrations and fears that things will basically stay the same with some window dressing. But in terms of the army, it’s hard to overstate how much the average Egyptian loves the army right now. They see the army as the force that came in and stopped a massacre from happening.
This is a country where it was illegal to have more than five people gathered together without a permit. Now there is this huge outpouring of public expression that’s going on
Maybe the best way to describe it is that Tahrir Square, which was just a busy traffic circle before, has become the most vibrant town square that you could imagine. On the average Friday now, you’ll have various groups setting up sound stages, and then standing up and saying things that they would have been arrested or detained for before. You’ll have people chanting for Mubarak to be tried in a court; you’ll have former victims of state security standing up and talking about their experiences through a loudspeaker. This is a country where it was illegal to have more than five people gathered together without a permit. Now there is this huge outpouring of public expression that’s going on. They feel the army is more or less protecting them.
The army has now changed the cabinet, and there is a new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, seems to be much more acceptable (BBC) to the public.
The consultative process that the army is using to appoint new people is a bit opaque. It does involve some of the young protesters who led the movement. Essam Sharaf is a candidate they had approved. He is a former transportation minister who is said to have stepped down from his post several years ago because of disagreements with Mubarak, which gives him credibility. He was also one of the few people from that strata of government who actually came to Tahrir during the revolution. He was really welcomed by the protestors on Friday in Tahrir Square the day after he was named prime minister. Writing about Egypt now, one tends to overwork the word "unprecedented." But never before did a prime minister stand before the public in an exposed gathering like that in Egypt’s history. That was a very moving experience for all to watch.
How did this happen?
Sharaf was named on Thursday [March 3] and then word came down via Facebook that he might actually take his oath of office in the square in front of the protesters. He stood before them, and there were maybe ten thousand people there at the time. They were chanting his name and saying "hold your head high, we are Egyptians." Then they went right into their demands. If you can imagine ten thousand people shouting the same thing in unison, it was almost like a dialogue was going on between him and the protestors.
He would say, "I return here because I get my accountability from you, my authority from you." They chanted back to him. "The people want to topple the state security services." Their main goal right now is to get rid of the internal police force, whose main job was to root out opposition to the government, often brutally.
The army has indicated it wants to keep the security force against terrorists, right?
Yes, that’s what the new Interior Minister Mansour el-Essawy says, who was appointed this weekend replacing the old minister, Habib el-Adly, who is already on trial. Right now, the new interior minister has said, No. 1, that he is going to try to start putting police back on the streets this week [and] No. 2, that he will try to convert the state security organization into an anti-terror organization. That is probably what its’ role was supposed to be originally, related to the emergency law and the state’s battle against Islamic extremists.
Is there any anarchy with the police off the streets?
You have some police on the streets, but it’s about half of what it normally would be. The police were part of the problem in the eyes of many people. But on the other hand, there is lot of discussion going on about security because there have been some very disturbing and serious crimes recorded in recent days. Nobody knows if these crimes are real or if this is this an effort by the state security to persuade people that they need more police on the streets. For example, [it was] reported that a school bus full of children was held up by thugs. It was so unbelievable that many felt that maybe they were being intimidated into a state of fear to accept the police back in full force. Nobody knows. This also underscores that it’s a time of rumors in Egypt. The military is not really releasing a lot of information. For example, the whereabouts of Mubarak are unknown, the whereabouts of the vice president, Omar Suleiman, appointed by Mubarak just before he fell, are unknown. There is a lot of suspicion about who is really running things along with the army.
What about the Egyptian press; have they become more open?
The realignment of the press behind at least the spirit of the revolution was almost immediate. It was like a switch went off.
It was a networked revolution that had multiple points of social authority. As of yet there is no one figure out of the revolution itself that is emerging.
There has long been a strong current of independent media that were very brave in Egypt. They have been doing investigations. For example, there is now a travel ban on Mubarak and he’s being investigated for some secret accounts (AhramOnline) held by his family. That investigation was generated by an independent newspaper that got hold of these files and brought them to the prosecutors. The big state newspapers reported the independent newspaper’s allegations as a huge banner headline that day.
The state newspapers used to answer to the ministry of information, but the army did not appoint a new minister of information. I think the military is running the information sector now more directly. I have a feeling you wouldn’t see in a state newspaper anything negative about the military. You will see negative things about the old government.
Is there much anti-Americanism around?
One of the most important things about this revolution at this time is the indigenous nature of it, the huge swelling of Egyptian pride. In that sense, there is not much discussion about other nations’ involvement.
This gets to the Israeli concern. Is there any likelihood that Egypt might do anything to break the peace treaty or to make life easy for Hamas?
At the very least, the people want a more sympathetic attitude to their brethren, which is how they see Palestinians. In terms of revoking the peace treaty, that’s not something that I heard any talk about. We can expect a tougher line and a much more pro-Arab discourse, but in terms of a drastic move which would realign the politics of the region, it’s not my sense. My sense is that the discourse is going to be tougher on the perceived crimes of Israel, and that Egyptians are going to try to reach out more and have a policy that is more Palestinian-friendly than it has been.
Is there anybody out there who would be a popular favorite to replace Mubarak as president?
Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League and a former foreign minister, is a person who comes up the most often as a personality that is deeply respected, in part because of his more independent stance on the Israeli-Arab issue. The presidential elections are roughly six months away. It has been talked about before, but this revolution was unique in that it was without a leader. There was no center, and it’s partially why it succeeded. There is nobody that state security could come after who they could take out and end it. It was a networked revolution that had multiple points of social authority. As of yet, there is no one figure out of the revolution itself who is emerging. We know the old names: Amr Moussa, Mohamed ElBaradei, but there could be a new name in the six-plus months before they will hold elections.