02.11.2011 – NYC’s Egyptians Breathe Sigh of Relief – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

NYC’s Egyptians breathe sigh of relief

President Hosni Mubarak left office Friday, giving responsibility for the country to the military. Some Egyptian-Americans in the city feel suddenly hopeful.

By Benjamin J. Spencer

AP Images
Hosni Mubarak, a former air-force general who as president was commander of the largest military force in the Arab world, was the nation’s longest-serving ruler in more than 150 years.
Published:February 11, 2011 – 11:24 am
President Hosni Mubarak finally heeded the will of his people of Egypt Friday and stepped down from office after 18 days of protests wracked the country. Mr. Mubarak ended his 30 years of autocratic rule by handing over power to the military.

The resignation came after Egyptians streamed out of Friday prayers vowing to topple Mr. Mubarak after he defied calls Thursday for him to leave. Military helicopters buzzed outside the presidential palace at dusk and Arabiya television earlier reported that Mr. Mubarak had left Cairo for the Sinai resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

“Mr. Mubarak has decided to waive the office of the presidency,” said Vice President Omar Suleiman in a statement on state television Friday. “He has instructed the Supreme Council of the armed forced to take over the affairs of the country.”

The immediate reaction from New York’s Egyptian-Americans Friday was cautiously hopeful.

Mostafa Sayed, 39, runs a lunch cart on East 44th Street between Second and Third avenues in Manhattan. Born and raised in Cairo, he boasts a Masters degree in applied statistics. But he couldn’t find work in Egypt, and he chafed under the rule of Mr. Mubarak. Some 13 years ago, he left to become a U.S. citizen.

“If I get my chance there, maybe I’ll go back,” he said. “After 30 years, I feel hopeful.”

Even before Mr. Mubarak stepped down, though, debate ranged far and wide in the Egyptian Coffee Shop in Astoria, Queens, on the foreign country’s future. One topic: whether or not to trust the military that now controls the government.

“He’s like a snake. He’s leaving his head,” said businessman Samy El Sharkawy, referring to Mubarak’s hand-picked military elite, whom he called “the dogs of Mubarak.” He advocated a revolt among the younger members of the army. “One of the young officers will arrest the leaders and take over,” he predicted on Thursday.

Mohamed Soliman, a Queens-based activist who runs a Facebook page called “Civilization’s Bridge,” where opposers to Mr. Mubarak’s government have been meeting for the last 18 months, echoed the Mr. Sharkawy’s call for justice. “All these guys, all the regime, are supposed to be under arrest,” he said. He hopes to see elections in Egypt as early as September.

But Egyptian Coffee Shop owner Labib Salama had a more moderate stance. “We hate the Egyptian police,” he said. “But we trust the military.”

Change may come quickly, regardless of whether the Egyptian military wishes it.

Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google Inc. in the Middle East and North Africa and a figurehead of the protests, on Friday read out a list of demands that included abolishing all restrictions on forming political parties and giving voting rights to Egyptians living abroad.

If they came to pass, concessions like those could spell a radical shift in geopolitical power, said Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi, speaking at a Thursday evening panel “Egypt Arising.”

A well-known Palestinian-American historian and the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia, Mr. Khalidi said any number of U.S. and Israeli interests could be threatened by what he called “a thoroughly revitalized Arab world.”

“This will pose a problem for Washington,” he said.

But U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, the Washington representative the “Little Egypt” neighborhood in Astoria, said in a statement that she fully supported the change.

“Today, the bravery of the Egyptian people made history. Those who gathered in Tahrir Square deserve the credit for changing their nation and making this huge step forward.” Ms. Maloney said.

The Columbia panel concluded that the future of Egypt after Mr. Mubarak’s departure is anyone’s guess. But Mona El Ghobashy, a political science professor at Barnard College who frequently comments on the country, sounded a note of caution.

“There’s a danger in parliamentary elections,” she said. “The way forward is fragmentation.”

Queens limousine driver Fathy Ahmed, who has two children still living in Egypt, can only hope the opposition stands against the endemic corruption he saw for the past 30 years.

“I hope we choose good people,” he said simply.

Bloomberg News contributed to this article.