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Story Publication logo February 12, 2011

After the Fall: Cairo's Cheerful Clean-up


Image by Ellen Knickmeyer. Tunisia, 2011.

Ellen Knickmeyer has been traveling the Arab world from the first weeks of the revolutions to tell...

Media file: Egypt_protests_baby_9839.jpg
A child joins the protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Image by Ellen Knickmeyer. Egypt, 2011.

Leaving Tahrir Square on Friday night after the overjoyed street party that welcomed President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, 22-year-old Amira Baroudi ran into some young men on the square's edge. We're going to be cleaning up tomorrow morning, if you want to help, the young men were telling departing celebrants.

So, waking up Saturday morning, Baroundi logged on Facebook, went to the page of the opposition group of mostly young people who launched the revolutions, and got her directions: If you want to help today, buy a broom, grab some garbage bags. Meet at the Cairo Opera House at 11 a.m., or if that's too early for you, another group's joining up at 1 p.m.

The result Saturday morning: An army of young people, hundreds if not thousands of them, wielding push brooms and scrub brushes on the very streets and bridges where hundreds of thousands people fought and won Egypt's revolution. Picking up cigarette butts, piling garbage bags high above the shell of at least one car burned in the protests, scrubbing street railings by hand, they tidied up after the rebellion even as Egyptian families by the hundreds and thousands came to Tahrir to celebrate for a second day. Mubarak, Egypt's military-backed leader for nearly 30 years, left office Friday under pressure of 18 days of popular protests in Cairo and elsewhere in the country.

Baroudi came out "because I believe in what we're doing," she said. She stood in rubber gloves near the entrance to Tahrir Square, at Cairo's Qasr el-Nil over the Nile River. Built under Egypt's last king, Fouad, Qasr al-Nil is where generations of Cairenes have come to stroll with friends or hold hands with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Both ends of the bridge are guarded by twin sets of massive metal lions, bearing mighty ruffled manes, that stare out at Cairo from on top high concrete pillars.

On Saturday, as Baroudi watched, the lions were getting a scrubbing. Two protest supporters had climbed up a pillar at one end of the bridge. They were soaping up the limbs and paws of one lion, like the Munchkins giving the Tin Man a fresh new sheen in the Wizard's workshop in the Wizard of Oz. A third protester sat on the same lion's head, dozens of feet above the bridge's hard surface, ostentatiously and dangerously sweeping the lion's majestic head.

"We are cleaning everything. To build a new Eygpt, to make it clean," opposition supporter Ahmed Mohamady said at a pillar on the other end of the bridge. With a scrub brush and a plastic jug of some caustic chemical, Mohamady and other demonstrators were trying to clean off graffiti that featured messages such as "Mubarak's a crook."

Egypt's opposition activists remained impressively on-message Saturday, even after having won, if not their fight, one of the biggest battles in it. Many of the leaders of the opposition are people in their 20s and 30s who – like Ahmed Maher, a student who is one of the group's chiefs --tried and failed in the past to launch protests against Mubarak's three-decade rule, and were beaten and jailed for it.

In this uprising, though, Saturday's clean-up campaign after the wild party of revolution showed the opposition movement gifted at sending the right message of responsibility to the public, and adept at using social media - as well as more prosaic foot-power, for the majority of Egyptians who are not online - to get the marching orders out to supporters.

The opposition movement's rallying cries on Facebook and elsewhere have moved Baroudi and hundreds of thousands of others. She responded, coming to three rallies and Saturday's clean-up, even though "I don't even know who the leaders are," she admitted.

The clean-up day, and the continuing street party at Tahrir, also sent a message to Egypt's new and little-known military rulers: Egypt's democracy activists haven't disbanded and gone home.

Saturday's gathering was the 19th day of public rallies by opposition activists. This time, though, the mood as light as a street carnival. Street venders hawked Egyptian flags, headbands in the colors of Egypt's flags, and lanyards. Men had set up tables in Tahrir and sat waiting with paintbrush and paint cans, painting the Egyptian flag on the faces of children and adults for a small charge.

Families filled the square. Some carried children who, exhausted by the night and day of celebrations, slumped over their parent's shoulders, resigned in the realization that their excited parents would not be taking them home anytime soon.

On top of the tanks that still lined the square, soldiers patiently pulled up children, kissed them for their parent's cameras, and handed them back down. On another tank, another soldier scolded away a young woman in tight jeans who had been doing diva twirls for her friends' cameras beside the gun turret. Knots of people surrounded men who were dancing, women who were speaking.

Circling the square, taking in the sights, families stopped before banks of signs lining the square. The signs showed photos of some of the estimated 300 people killed in Egypt's uprising. Most of the dead displayed on the signs were young, and some were shown in studio portraits taken while they were still alive. Most, though, were shown after death, after fatal beatings or gunfire. Blood covered their faces and chests, caked black on their skins. Eyes were closed in puffy, battered faces.

Hushed before the photos, Cairo's celebrating men and women took in the names that were written alongside the photo. They whispered to a child, wife or husband, took a photo with a cell phone, and moved on to the dancers and speakers.


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