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Upside Down

How the protests are altering Egyptian views on authority.

As an American in Egypt, I’ve always been asked about my government’s support for President Mubarak. My usual response is to say, “We don’t control everything our government does, just like in Egypt. I am here to write about your country so people in my country and in my government can read it.” Prior to this week, most people thanked me and the buck stopped there.

But as this country’s social order upends itself, I’ve noticed a marked shift in the way people here react to authority. Egyptians who have for so long felt at the mercy of their government have started scrutinizing my answers—and the results are sometimes exultant, sometimes ominous. Walking towards the chanting, million-strong gathering in central Cairo, Magda, a middle-aged mother of three teenaged boys, begged me to eat one of the cookies she was bringing to the protest. “Please, it’s going to be a long day,” she said, when I tried to refuse. After five minutes of expressing sheer joy at the gathering and the fact that I was a journalist who could cover it, Magda learned my nationality. Then, she turned to me and said, “You know Egyptians hate America.”

“Really?” I asked. “No, no,” she clarified. “Not Americans. The American government.” But the conversation after that just wasn’t the same. After telling Magda about an angry crowd I encountered in another neighborhood in Cairo yesterday, she told me the crowd was probably the Mossad. Then, Magda asked to see my press pass, just to make sure I was who I said I was. That had never happened to me in Egypt before.

Some of these new stirrings are political, and many Egyptians I spoke to expressed deep and continuing disenchantment with America’s past—and in their eyes ongoing—support for Mubarak. (With Internet and text messages down, and state TV dominating the airwaves, Obama’s U-Turn on the Egyptian government has been slow to reach the masses.) But the upheaval has had all kinds of consequences for the social order, including the security of the streets. Organized bands of young men protected their neighborhoods with sticks and bats when the police forces melted away on Friday, a day of violent protest. Knowing they can protect their homes and families, many young men seemed to believe, means they can take control of their country. “Now, we’re going to ask the police for their license,” one participant told me. “We are going to stop their cars.”

Sarah A. Topol is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.

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