A reborn Egypt gets back to business

The metalworkers beneath the overpass hammered tin and cut steel, smiling and making a big noise. Ladies hurried to market where sheep waited for slaughter. Boys, sensing something new in the air, ran through alleys, trailing flags.

"I woke up with the idea that we can do something. Democracy. Freedom. Do something we haven't done for 30 years. We got the country back and it's time to reshape it," said welder Ragab Abdou, tools at his feet, a rim of grit beneath his eyes. "For too long, we got the least of what was available. This revolution is for our children. Who could have imagined what has happened?"

Millions of Egyptians awoke Saturday, different from the day before. It was as if a dream had bloomed in the waking world. President Hosni Mubarak was gone.

But the rhythms of this ancient ragged city endured: Minibuses rattled to life, dogs slept, soldiers stood guard, and the Cairo sky was clear enough to spot the pyramids rising in the desert distance.

Beautiful.

This nation had been on the brink for 18 days of protests. To the wonder of many, the will of the people didn't buckle and Mubarak's hold was broken. Tahrir Square, the epicenter in the country's battle for change, remained vibrant Saturday with songs and speeches. Thousands came to be near the now hallowed patch of earth to celebrate, to dance, honor and remember.

But much of Cairo returned to its ways, as if it had been out of its skin for too long and needed the comfort of the ordinary: traffic, praying, strolling the Nile, whispering through the smoke of shisha pipes.

And work. A man who celebrates too long is a man who loses a day's pay.

Abdou and the men and boys in his metal shop had little time to contemplate what comes next. How long will the military stay in power? Who will be the next president? How will they rename all the buildings, libraries and highways honoring Mubarak?

"I was eager to get to my job today," said Amr Mohamed, a blowtorch at his side. "We have a lot to do. We'll start soon finding out about all the government's corruption. How bad it was. I don't want to see Mubarak go to jail. I just want us to get the money back his people stole and give it to the poor."

Carpenters and boys with nails were rebuilding the nearby flea market as men sat at stalls of old stoves, refrigerators, mirrors, stereos and busted suitcases. Traffic thickened on the overpass and men on rooftops released flocks of homing pigeons that wheeled over the Nile, circled and returned.

"I'm free. I can feel it more today," said Abdel Alim Fawzi, a junkman with a mustache. "You know how I can tell? Every time I loaded my truck to come to this market the police would stop me and force me to pay bribes. Not today. No police. No bribes."

He laughed in disbelief and took a call on his cellphone near women bickering over a used bathtub.

In a country where boys grow into jobless men too poor to marry and more than 40% of the population lives on $2 a day or less, broken and old things find new lives.

"One day," said Mahmoud Shaaban, who earns $50 a week selling windows on a patch of dirt, "I suppose Mubarak would have died. I didn't think he'd go out the way he did. I wanted him gone, but he left in such a shameful way. He did some bad things and some good things too. He kept us out of war. What happened is a message to other politicians. If you're corrupt, watch out."

Abdel Salem found a bit of shade near two wooden chairs that looked like tossed-away thrones, cushions stripped, gold brocade peeling. A holy man chanted verses from the Koran from a radio in a shack, where a boy with a tray served tea to junkmen, truck drivers and a curious collection of buyers.

"I have a high school diploma but I couldn't get a government job because I didn't have connections," said Salem, who has been working at the market for 15 years. "We can't stay angry forever, though. This revolution showed the true character of Egyptians. We had kept so much deep inside us for so many years. We've been unchained."

Seif Ibrahim appeared with a newspaper. He folded it and unfolded it, nudged closer to Salem and other men. He exhaled.

"I have been reborn," he said. "There were no jobs here under Mubarak. I had to leave Egypt with false papers and spend five days on a smuggler's boat at sea. I worked in Italy for six years. For six years I didn't return to see my wife and children. I had to stay and send money back. I had a job installing security house gates."

He looked at the waiter and down a dirt alley leading to a graveyard.

"I respect that Mubarak fought in war and defended the country when he was younger. That's fine," he said. "But his social and economic programs ruined us. We need a national vision. We haven't had one for so long. Give us a vision and we'll be able to work in our own country."

The sun climbed. The market men waited. The revolution had been good for the country, but not so great for business. Boys ran down the street with national flags, mothers carried bags of groceries. Butchers worked their knives. And around the corner, the poor, far from the music of Tahrir Square, surrounded a state building protected by an iron fence, shoving their arms through spaces, hands holding slips of paper promising subsidized electricity.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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