CAIRO - Business was fairly slow for the revolution's souvenir sellers in Cairo's Tahrir Square last Friday. Only a few thousand remained at center stage, cheering a woman who spoke about prosecuting the members of the old regime to the full extent of the law. A poster showed former President Hosni Mubarak with a noose around his neck. Another speaker, young and dynamic, doing his best to energize the thinning crowd, called out passionately: "Israel, leave Egypt alone."
A souvenir seller who asked us where we were from suggested that we adopt a more agreeable identity. The next day, at the Museum of Modern Art near the Opera House, the usher stared at the writing on my new hat. "Hold your head high, you're Egyptian. Young revolutionaries, January 25, 2011," it said. "Are you really from Israel? I thought you people were loyal to Hosni Mubarak," the usher asked.
No, Israel and the Palestinians are not the Egyptians' top priority. The headlines discuss prosecuting the people who robbed the public coffers. U.S. President Barack Obama's declaration about the 1967 lines as a basis for permanent borders between quarreling neighbors was received with indifference, almost ignored. The winning number is $1 billion - the amount of debt relief the American president has pledged; he has promised a billion more to help dig Egypt's national purse out of its deep hole.
By cautious estimates, 30 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line ($2 a day ). The museum's cavernous halls were empty of tourists, and 80 percent of tourist hotel rooms were empty. Before the revolution, the occupancy rate was 80 percent at this time of year, a hotel manager told us.
At the end of last week we met with about a dozen Egyptians - government officials and elevator operators, members of the old regime and young revolutionaries, professors and taxi drivers. None of them dared predict where Egypt was headed. You don't have to be the president of the United States to realize that "it will be years before this story reaches its end. Along the way, there will be good days, and bad days," as Obama said in his foreign policy speech last week.
We asked them: Will the coming days in Egypt be good for Israel or will the new era bring an evil south wind to the cloudy relations between the two countries? Everyone's reply was that Egypt's domestic troubles will top the country's agenda for years to come. Whatever the makeup of Egypt's new government, the peace treaty with Israel has survived two wars with Lebanon and two intifadas in the territories. It will survive the Egyptian revolution.
But four months ago our interlocutors would have recommended a mental hospital for anyone who said Egypt's former interior minister Habib el-Adly, the terror of the Egyptian people, would be behind bars. And perhaps for that very reason, no one is willing to predict what might happen in Tahrir Square if, the day after the expected recognition of Palestine by the United Nations in September, tens of thousands of Palestinians head from Manara Square in Ramallah toward Zion Square in Jerusalem.
The economic crisis and the energy of the protests have already begun to fuel solidarity with the Palestinian freedom fighters. The young revolutionaries and their spin-offs poured out their wrath on Mubarak last week in a march to the besieged embassy of Israel, the friend of their hated enemy. Two columnists in the Egyptian newspapers Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Akhbar Al-Youm claimed at the end of the week that Israel was trying to impede the revolution and even that Israel had a hand in the clashes between the Copts and the extremist Salafis.
Khiyat, Amar and Mohammed, activists in the Cairo Liberal Forum, one of dozens of groups that have sprung up since the January revolution, propose a different kind of relations between Israel and the new Egypt. These young Egyptians invite Israeli society to a discourse of reconciliation under their three banners: democracy, economy and peace. If Israelis give up the old pattern of relations with Egypt - a manipulative, visionless alliance - the cold peace could turn into good neighborliness. If we grab the banner of occupied Palestine from the religious extremists and warmongers in Tahrir Square, we may be able to rescue the banner of peace with Egypt from its position at quarter mast.
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