A small piece of evidence to counter my pessimism about Egypt came right after Mubarak’s departure, when ordinary Egyptians organized themselves to clean up the mess in Tahrir Square:
Thousands of volunteers carrying brooms, dust pans and garbage bags descended on Tahrir Square and the streets surrounding it to clean up – answering a call to action that began circulating over text messages just hours after President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation was announced Friday.
Fashionable young men and women donned rubber gloves and facemasks alongside their lower income compatriots wearing scarves to protect themselves from the dust and began sweeping the streets in the square and breaking down tents.
Some found there was not enough to do and spread to the surrounding streets where they cleared rubble and other artifacts of the uprising that gripped the downtown area for 18 days.
For many, there was a sense of renewal and unity that Egyptians called unprecedented and prayers that the political upheaval would bring with it and sustain the civic consciousness on display Saturday.
“I came to clean but could barely find anything to clean,” said Jehan Agha, 32, of the upscale Mohandseen neighborhood, who was pulled into duty checking bags and doing body searches at one entrance to the square. “I’ve never seen people care about Egypt like this – people from all walks of life, ages and religions. It’s a new beginning and I hope it doesn’t end today or the next day.”
Many in the broom brigades wore slogans that read: “Sorry for the disturbance, we’ll rebuild Egypt.” A truck carrying brooms and dust pans from a household goods store was mobbed by people eager to help out.
Several blocks away in Taalat Harb Square, volunteers wearing bright green neon reflective vests, bearing the words “I’m proud of Egypt’s cleanliness” swept away garbage. About 10 people scrubbed the statue of Talaat Harb, a famed economist and founder of Banque Misr, cleaning it of anti-regime graffiti.
This all may sound charming but unimportant, but it’s not. Anyone who’s been to the third world has seen trash strewn everywhere. This isn’t because less-developed countries produce more trash; in fact, they produce less. And it’s also not just because of lack of money for a proper waste-disposal infrastructure. Rather, it’s the product of a lack of civic consciousness and responsibility, without which ordered liberty is impossible. So score one for Cairenes — and hope they can keep it up.