Egyptians dream of future freedom and opportunity

The demonstration felt like a street party. Egyptians handed out candy and dates, banged drums and joined hands to dance through Cairo's main square.

What once was unimaginable seemed within grasp — an Egypt not ruled by President Hosni Mubarak.

The thoughts of many on Tuesday were already turning to the future.

They said they hope Egypt will emerge from the conflict between the people and the president with a freely elected government, jobs for masses of idle youth, police who need not be feared and a society that cares for the poor and vulnerable.

"I want to feel like I have rights. I want to know that this is my country. ... I want to work hard," said Ola Hashem, a 30-year-old information technology specialist. "Mubarak said we weren't ready for democracy. We are."

Some saw a European-style Cairo with clean streets and order without an emergency law that leaves government opponents vulnerable to police beatings and long disappearances.

Others saw an Egypt that regains its cultural and political leadership of the Arab world, and one that provides top education and doesn't lose its brightest minds to better lives and jobs abroad.

The crowd in the square seemed to be trying to will that vision into existence, taking care of one another by handing out food and offering respectful greetings. Coptic Christians mingled with devout Muslims. There were older gentlemen in suits and impoverished men in soiled galabiyas, middle-class professionals and students in trendy clothes with national flags wrapped over their shoulders.

Yasser Yassin, a 36-year-old graphic designer who uses a wheelchair as a result of meningitis, said he hoped for better public transport, especially for the disabled.

"We need a leader who is a scholar, someone who knows how to use a computer, someone who understands modern technology," he said. "We have enough brains and qualifications to fix this country in a year."

Fruit seller Mohammed Ali, 35, had a tale remarkably similar to that of the young man who lit himself on fire in Tunisia, igniting the protests that toppled that country's longtime leader and helping inspire Egypt's uprising.

He complained that municipal authorities confiscate his produce because he can't get a permit to sell his fruit on the street.

"I want to be able to put out a fruit stand without harassment. I want to feed my family in peace," said the man, wearing a scarf around his head, his teeth stained by tobacco.

Some were already seeing changes.

School principal Yusra Mahmoud, a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement, said she was now unafraid to publicly declare her affiliation and eager to see the group contest a free election.

"I don't need the Muslim Brotherhood to take leadership of the country, but they deserve a chance to try," she said.

There were also hopes for improvements beyond Cairo.

A farmer from deep in the Nile Delta, to the north of the capital, told of failing to find a job for 15 years, even after studying communications at college. Now, his farm is his only source of income.

"The people of Cairo have their demands, but those of us who live in the provinces are suffering even more," said Ramadan Doki. "We are very poor, our water is dirty, fertilizers are expensive and we get no government support. Any life after Mubarak is going to be better."

Tahrir Square was also a scene of national catharsis, with people from all over the country mobbing journalists to recall — sometimes in tears — the hardships under three decades of Mubarak rule.

An effigy of the president dangled on a noose hung from a set of traffic lights. A man held a portrait of a younger Mubarak defaced with a Hitler mustache, attracting crowds to photograph him.

The sight of Egyptians mocking the president in the heart of Cairo was unthinkable a week ago.

"I'm sick of censoring myself," said journalist Asmaa Afifi, who marched for the first time Tuesday with her husband and their 5-month-old daughter, whom she had tucked in a baby carrier she was wearing.

She added that she hoped in a future Egypt her daughter's ability to get a good education and good job would not depend on "wasta," which translates roughly as connections or influence — a requirement that many Egyptians bemoan.

Even if Mubarak steps down as many expect, what lies ahead is far from clear.

No replacement has emerged that would satisfy both his loyalists and the protesters, and Egypt's economy has been badly damaged by the crisis, at least for the short term.

Forty percent of the population lives at or under the $2 a day poverty line.

Even smart, educated young people are often shut out of good jobs, left with little to do but while away the hours in cafes.

One of them, 26-year-old Khaled Nour, studied education but has to eke out an existence by giving private English lessons and peddling clothes and perfume on the streets.

Better education, he said, is the best tool for making Egypt strong again.

"It won't change overnight. It will take some time, and during this time I will still lead a hard life," he said.

"But I'm very happy."


Associated Press writer Hadeel Al-Shalchi contributed to this report.