By Connor Adams Sheets
The cafés and sidewalks of Little Egypt in Astoria were alive with jubilation in the minutes after it was announced Friday that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down from the office he held for more than three decades.
The borough’s Egyptian immigrants filled the hookah bars and spilled out into the road on Steinway Street to share in one another’s happiness at learning that their oppressive leader had stepped aside.
Ferid Lebaghdedi, who came from Egypt to America 17 years ago and settled in Astoria, said two of his cousins were shot and killed by police during protests in Egypt Jan. 29, and another was still in the hospital with gunshot wounds.
He said he could not even begin to think about what will happen in Egypt’s future because he was so overwhelmed by the joy and relief at seeing Mubarak’s rule come to an end.
“Today I can’t even talk, I’m just very happy. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I’m happy, my family is happy,” he said. “Tomorrow and after tomorrow, everyone’s happy. I don’t like [Mubarak.] It’s 31 years, man, it’s enough. He’s a dictator.”
Heshem Makhlof, owner of the Nile Deli on Steinway Street, has been in America for 20 years and lives in Astoria. He was watching the celebrations in Egypt on the Al Arabiya news channel with rapt attention about an hour after the nation’s new vice president, Omar Suleiman, revealed in a terse statement that Mubarak had left office after 18 days of protest in Egypt. He said he was ecstatic to see the news.
“We feel very excited, we feel very happy, we feel freedom. It’s my dream,” he said. “I don’t believe it right now. I can’t believe it. It’s going to be a good thing. People will be free, better health, better life, better everything.”
Some concerns were expressed by international commentators almost immediately after the resignation about the fact that the country’s army would take power during the transition period to a new leader.
But Egyptians gathered along Steinway Street said they felt no such trepidation and instead welcomed the army’s presence.
Hesham Hashish, an Egyptian who came to America 20 years ago, said he drove into Astoria from Long Island Friday just to celebrate with his fellow Egyptians.
Hashish said he trusts the army will do right by his people.
“It means reparations for us. We got rid of a dictator who’s been there for 30 years and we’re going to start a new life, a new democracy in Egypt,” he said. “The transition is going to be smooth because the army is our family. In Egypt, everyone has to go in the army. Either you were in the army or you are in the army, and that’s why we’re more involved with army than the police.”
The Egyptian Americans were joined by immigrants from a wide range of other Arab countries who were excited about what they hope will be a symbol that will lead other countries in the Arab world to fight for their own freedom and democracy.
“Thank God Hosni Mubarak stepped down. The whole Arab world is happy now. He was a dictator,” said Tahar, a 45-year-old Algerian living in Astoria. “This is a good sign now because all the Arabs will wake up now. All the Arabs are down here, but Egypt is like the top, so now that it’s happened in Egypt, it will spread to the whole Arab world.”
But the hopeful atmosphere was the exact opposite the day before, when the hookah lounges of Steinway Street were packed with expectant residents glued for hours to television screens, only to be disappointed when Mubarak announced that he would not step down.
“I’m so angry. I’m shocked,” said Sayed Moustafa, surrounded by other bitter Egyptians along the street moments after Mubarak concluded his defiant press conference. “He should go. Tomorrow there will be 15 million people calling for him to go.”
The people got their wish the day afterward.
Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.