Amr Mazid, 28, listened in tears to his brother Muhamed, who called at 3 a.m. to tell him incredible news: On Feb. 11, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had just resigned after ruling since before Amr Mazid was born.
Abdel Rahman, 23, spent Mubarak’s final 18 days in office ensnared by the images on his television screen. Like his fellow Egyptians in Costa Rica, Rahman slept little and felt too nervous to eat much. Finally, on Friday morning, Feb. 11, his anxiety subsided, replaced by joy.
Hosam Said almost choked on his breakfast when he heard the same reports about his homeland. The news blared from his computer, which he had tuned into the Al-Jazeera news network. Said couldn’t finish his “gallo pinto,” Costa Rica’s version of rice-and-beans. He jumped up from the kitchen table, let out a scream and hugged his wife. Pro-democracy supporters had beaten a dictator.
“I was certain [it was going to happen],” Said recalled. “The surprise was that it was a little bit earlier than expected. I thought it was going to take two weeks more that the people would suffer. But when I saw people building showers in the streets and tents, I knew [Mubarak] would step down.”
Mubarak’s departure resonated with Egyptians and other Arabs living in Costa Rica. Since 1981, he controlled a country that grew more totalitarian and poorer. Last Sunday, dozens of Muslims, including about 10 Egyptians, celebrated Mubarak’s overthrow at the Omar Mosque in Guadalupe, a suburb just northeast of San José. The Egyptian flag was draped over the back windshield of two cars in the parking lot.
Inside the mosque, Mazid, Said, Rahman and 80-year-old Said El Seweify sang Egypt’s national anthem “Biladi,” Arabic for “My Country.” They were joined by a young Syrian who said he hoped his country would be liberated next, following Egypt and Tunisia in quests to oust autocratic presidents. Other members of Costa Rica’s Muslim Cultural Center cooked a traditional Arabic meal of pitas and humus, lamb shish kabobs, rice and chicken, and sticky sweet baklava.
“We don’t have an embassy, we don’t have anything,” Mazid said. “So this is our place to be together, to eat something, to be something.”
Mazid calls Costa Rica his adopted homeland. He operates a security business in the capital. But he hopes to return to Egypt soon to see his family in Imbaba, a neighborhood in northwest Cairo.
Mazid remembers his mother raising him to never question the government. Doing so could have landed him in jail. But during this month’s demonstrations, Mazid learned that his mother and sister were handing out food – bread, water and carrots – to protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Mazid’s mother even suffered an injury in one of the clashes.
Other Egyptians in Costa Rica had friends that were killed in recent fighting or disappeared under the Egyptian regime. At least 365 people have died so far in recent clashes, according to Egypt’s Health Ministry. Many more remain missing.
El Seweify ran up a $75 phone bill checking in with his daughter, a scuba diving instructor in the coastal city of Sharm el-Sheikh. After living through multiple regime changes and wars in Egypt, El Seweify left in 1969, 12 years before Mubarak came to power. Today he splits his time between Canada and Costa Rica. But memories still linger of people disappearing for speaking out against past governments.
“There is finally justice in my country,” El Seweify said. “I am happy other people found justice.”
El Seweify speaks with cautious optimism about the future. Mubarak is gone. But much uncertainty remains. Will the Egyptian army that now runs the country satisfy protesters’ demands for democratic elections? While the Egyptian people were organized enough to oust Mubarak, their plan for the future remains unclear. Some, including aviation and textile workers, continue protesting despite Mubarak’s stepping down.
Antonio Barrios, a professor specializing international conflict at the National University in Heredia, repeated those concerns in a phone interview. A new president will be elected in September. Barrios questions whether six months are enough time for Egypt to develop a plan for democratic elections. He wonders if the army will make the necessary changes to the constitution to allow for free elections.
Rina Cáceres, a professor of African history at the University of Costa Rica, said in an e-mail that, “History has shown that the path to building a democracy is long.” She worries that if Egypt’s path toward democracy is delayed due to disagreements about the future then outside interests – both regional and global – could seize control of Egypt’s destiny from the Egyptian citizens.
The Egyptians in Costa Rica believe their countrymen will bring about the right type of change. Mazid has spoken with friends in the army, who ensure him the plan is to establish a democratically elected leader.
Mazid and Rahman, however, haven’t yet finished celebrating. They laugh about signs Egyptian protesters display on television.
“Mubarak, please go. I want to get a haircut.” “Mubarak, please go. I want to take a shower.” “Muburak, please go. I got married 20 days ago, and I miss my wife.”
Mubarak went, and a nation feels relief.
Said Rahman: “To get out Mubarak from there is like moving a pyramid.”
Rommel Téllez contributed to this report.