- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

CAIRO | Joyous over the success of their “Nile Revolution” last week, Egyptians are still celebrating — and protesting — as they look forward to a future of democracy, freedom of expression and a government free of corruption.

But, considering Egypt’s long-standing problems of poverty, unemployment and high food prices, and its now devastated post-demonstration economy, no one knows when that future will begin.

“It won’t take one week or two weeks. Maybe after six months,” said Mohammad Ataya, who reopened his Tahrir Square store Wednesday after having protested during the 18-day uprising that ended with President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation Friday.

Former protesters are waiting cautiously to see whether the army — now Egypt’s governing body — will fulfill its promises of social justice while other discontented groups are emerging in force and the economy stagnates.

“This is one of the few times of my life that I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow,” said Hossam El Shafeey, an engineer. “I don’t even have an imaginary scenario in my mind.”

Meanwhile, Egyptian-inspired revolts continued to spread across the Arab world Wednesday:

• In Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi, riot police clashed with opponents of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The regime tried to appease the protesters by doubling the salaries of government workers and releasing Islamic militants who had opposed Mr. Gadhafi.

• Protesters in Bahrain demanded political reforms in a third consecutive day of demonstrations in the central square of the capital, Manama.

• About 2,000 protesters gathered outside government buildings in southern Iraq, one of the most dramatic scenes since Iraqis began demonstrating against dysfunctional government.

• Demonstrators in Yemen called for an end to their president’s 30-year rule, and one protester died in a clash with police in the southern part of the country.

Egypt’s ruling military council said Wednesday that the emergency laws that allowed police to round up opposition to the Mubarak regime will be lifted before elections are held, a key promise to protesters.

Despite pleas from the army for workers to get off of the streets and return to their jobs, labor strikes that began before Mr. Mubarak resigned have continued across the country.

On Wednesday, workers protested outside Cairo International Airport, and 12,000 textile workers struck at a plant in the city of Mahalla el-Kubra, according to the Wall Street Journal.

On Monday, workers in industries including transportation and theater walked off their jobs, demanding better salaries and working conditions. In Cairo, hundreds of angry transit workers gathered outside the state media building, saying they work full time for as little as $50 a month.

In nearby Tahrir Square, hundreds of police officers marched, chanting “We are all Egyptians” in an attempt to draw support from the crowds lingering in the square.

The Egyptian police force under Mr. Mubarak was notoriously brutal. After the Jan. 25 clashes with protesters, the police vanished from the streets. Now officers can be seen infrequently in public, mostly directing traffic.

Uniformed and plainclothes policemen at the protests blamed former Minister Habib El-Adly for the violence that killed more than 350 people and injured thousands during the revolution. Mr. El-Adly was fired from his post in the early days of the protests and now is banned from travel and under investigation on suspicion of corruption.

Taking a page from the protests that brought down the regime, police said they would continue demonstrating until the minister was held accountable and they are promised a living wage. Police officers now can serve for as many as 10 years and still make less than $100 a month.

“We want our rights and increased salaries so we can better serve the people,” said Officer Hassan Darwish.

A group of about 20 activists followed the police. “You are thieves and killers,” they chanted, occasionally engaging in arguments with the officers.

Egyptian minority groups that participated in the uprising also are asserting themselves. Nubians from southern Egypt say they are glad Mr. Mubarak resigned, but that they do not trust the army to safeguard their rights.

Nubian activist Mohamad Khalil said he plans to campaign for the right to teach the Nubian language in schools, for compensation for lands lost to government projects, and for the right to form viable political parties.

These social justice issues may have been part of the broader goals of the revolution, he said, but they will not come to his people if they sit back and allow leaders to act unchecked.

“I’m still afraid of the military rule,” he said. “I think after five years there will be freedom of expression and an increase in wages and greater freedom of opinion.”

Meanwhile, Egypt has lost $1.5 billion in tourism revenue this year, its banks and stock market remain closed, and the Egyptian pound has hit a six-year low. Many companies have stopped business in Egypt, and foreign investment has dwindled.

Economist Marcus Marktanner said there is no way to tell how long it will take the Egyptian economy to recover. He said he expects unemployment to rise as the government reorders itself.

Egypt has a huge public sector which is largely inefficient and very costly,” he said. “Even if you have nothing but the best intentions and you want to create social safety nets and help the poor, the question is: ‘Where does the money come from?’”

Yet many Egyptians are confident that the economy will strengthen because rooting out corruption is a top priority. Unconfirmed reports say Mr. Mubarak alone has as much as $70 billion stashed in overseas accounts. After his resignation, many protesters chanted, “We want our money back.”

Organizers of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations have called for more than 1 million people to gather in Tahrir Square each Friday until all their demands are met. But some Egyptians say the protests need to stop before life can return to normal.

“We don’t want to make any problems for the other shops,” said shopkeeper Mr. Ataya, who will not attend Friday’s rally. “We made a revolution, OK, and the government gave me what I want. Now I want to work.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.