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Egypt dreams of freedom, 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.

world Updated: Feb 03, 2011 00:51 IST

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.