Cairo — The air of hopefulness is so palpable in Egypt’s capital city — as people try to digest what happened to them during their revolution — that it’s easy to become a dreamer.
This is Egypt’s interregnum of hope, a period that comes just after “people power” ousted a dictator, but before the meaning of the revolution has become truly clear. At this point, it’s still possible to imagine that Egypt might produce the first democracy the Arab world has known.
My Egyptair flight from New York to Cairo was full of young professionals and families eager to get home and feel the difference for themselves. At the airport Wednesday, a young woman selling me a cell-phone SIM card, who was in Tahrir Square during the demonstrations, told me, firmly: “The people have spoken.” She said she was looking forward to voting for the first time for president and parliament; she never bothered before because elections were rigged.
Cars course through Tahrir Square once more with drivers oblivious to army tanks parked around the edges. Groups of young people rush about with brooms cleaning up garbage from the square, while others, wearing plastic gloves, paint the metal railings a bright green along the Kasr el-Nil bridge. In 40 years of visiting Egypt, I’ve never before seen this kind of civic activism.
Flowering shrubs have been planted on the roundabout in the middle of the square, which was trashed during the demonstrations. Many cars sport stickers saying “I’m Proud to Be an Egyptian.” Hawkers are selling Egyptian flags, and headbands in the flag’s red, black, and white colors. Off to one side of the square, a small crowd has gathered around a makeshift memorial to the 376 people known to have died during those 18 days.
Of course, the obstacles that threaten this dream are legion: Arab society is patriarchal and lends itself to strong rulers; the army, which is now overseeing constitutional reforms, is a product of the old system and profits from it.
Moreover, the old regime crushed independent political parties, and the Facebook rebels have so far shown no interest in organizing new ones. The Muslim Brotherhood, while not representing a majority, is by far the best-organized political group. I will examine all of these obstacles during my visit.
But two factors make it impossible to dismiss this Arab revolution as doomed to failure. First, it was made in Egypt, which Arabs have traditionally called the “mother of the world.” Historically, Egypt always led the Middle East in politics and culture. Yet, in the last 30 years, the country stagnated and the label became a joke.
This revolution has galvanized a powerful wave of national — and civic — pride that was absent for decades. “People went to Tahrir Square as Egyptians,” I was told by Hussein Shabka, a sociology professor at the American University of Cairo. He says the demonstrations were not about religion — indeed, Muslim and Christian leaders initially told their followers not to participate — nor were the protests about pan-Arab ideologies. “There were no (traditional) party flags,” Shabka said. “People were chanting, ‘Long live Egypt.”’
The second factor: Egyptians have lost their fear of authoritarian rulers. “Over the past 30 years, the military developed a security apparatus that terrified us all — my generation and my parents,” Shabka said. Egypt’s young rebels confronted this apparatus with a strategy of nonviolence and broke the grip that this paralyzing fear had on society. This improves the chances that the revolution won’t slide back into despotism.
No one knows how this revolution will end, and I will be talking to many Egyptians about its prospects. But the leap forward made by Egypt’s young people in the last month can’t be easily dismissed.