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What an Arab revolution looks like-up close

The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" is playing at my favorite pizza joint in Portland as I tell my kids, age 10 and 13, that I'm going to Cairo.

"As in, Egypt?" one of them asks. "Why?"

To see what an Arab revolution looks like-up close.

I know I can't walk like an Egyptian. But I can watch Egyptians walk like an Egyptian. Watch them talk, post, march, strike, agitate, organize. Watch them take control of an ancient modern country that hasn't really been theirs for a very long time.

There's an elegance to the timing. I first went to Egypt 20 years ago. Having graduated from journalism school, I landed an internship at "Cairo Today," a publication for visiting businessmen and tourists. Imagine a booster magazine for someplace like Tampa - full of fluff about old-car shows and how to get the most from your visit to the pyramids - but with way more typos.

That time, I got lucky-in the way journalists mean "lucky." I graduated in May of 1990 - a time when the jinn of Mid-East politics were asleep. I left for Cairo in November. In between, Saddam invaded Kuwait. The U.S. was embarked on its first troop surge-the first of many-and the Israelis were on red alert. Middle East governments were picking sides. And I got dropped into a Cairo newsroom with a war coming on.

I didn't see much war, in fact. The closest I got was a few days in Gaza watching people drive past in donkey carts laden with plastic sheeting to protect their homes from gas attack. That's fine - war correspondent isn't something I've ever wanted on my resume.

But I did get to see, and live in, Cairo in a time of crisis. Economic crisis, especially: tourism dried up, and businesses - from taxi drivers and street vendors, to chic restaurants and airlines - suffered terribly. As the troops poured in, the tourists flowed out, picking Club Med Martinique over the Hilton Luxor for their next winter getaway.

And yet, the country was never - not for one afternoon - dangerous or dicey or even unsettled. At least not for a Westerner, or an Egyptian who kept whatever negative opinions he might have about his government to himself. President (nearly-for-life) Mubarak had cast his lot with the Americans - allies in his cold peace with Israel and sponsors of his army's billion-dollar gravy train. The police and army confidently walked the streets and checked IDs; the ministry bureaucrats made you wait in line and file in triplicate to visit a tomb or speak to another ministry's minister; the tour guides and camel drivers asked, shouted, begged and pleaded for baksheesh. Life went on as normal. On the surface.

Below the surface - not so much. One afternoon, an American photographer friend and I wandered into a warren of narrow streets in a neighborhood called Shobra. This was - probably still is - one of the most crowded and impoverished human settlements on earth. Just a short taxi ride from the mansions of the wealthy and the hotels of the Egypt-on-$1,000-a-day set, women cooked on open fires in the streets as barefoot children capered in piles of garbage nearby. The "plumbing" was an open sewer down the middle of the street.

We reached a square, and a large group of men - most with no work to do, no job to go to-crowded round. They urged us to sit with them, bought us tea, offered us bananas. "Saddam-yes, we like him, very good" one man said to nods all around. "Kuwait is too rich. Arab countries need more like Saddam." Another said: "Show us your camera." We watched nervously as they passed a $1,200-Nikon around. After oohs and ahhs it was politely handed back.

To me, this was Egypt at its best; and also at its essence. Generous, open, irrepressible, unabashed. Proud, but stoic - making do with so little, and with so little hope of getting more. And biding its time. Waiting for the right moment to demand its due from remote, repressive, well-heeled rulers who lived a world-and mere blocks-away.

It seems that perhaps Egypt's time has come. I've headed back to see how the Egyptians are walking now.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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