Letter from Cairo: Egypt's Revolution Is Now Frozen In Place
Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square in December 2011.
CAIRO, Egypt -- It was on a lunch break during a tour of the ancient city of Memphis, under the shadows of Egypt’s ancient pyramids that Tarek, a tour guide, became emotional.
“Before the revolution,” said the 28-year-old, “I worked so hard that I begged for one day off a month and the company always said no. Now I get to do three jobs a month and I have to beg them to pick me.”
It’s a phrase you hear often in Egypt. “Before the revolution,” locals say, things were bad but manageable. Before the revolution, everyone hated the same regime. After the revolution, hope has turned to fragmentation and fear. And tourism – once a mainstay of the economy – has slowed to a trickle.
Tarek says he’s now feeling the pinch.
Winter is typically peak tourist season, but on one afternoon in December – the coldest in a century – the Sonesta Moon Goddess sits almost empty among a cluster of luxury liners meant to ferry eager tourists along the famed Nile between Aswan and Luxor. There were five guests on board the Sonesta, which has a capacity of over 100. The 45-member crew looked close to despair.
Tarek, meanwhile, says his mother is sick and in hospital. “I sold my laptop, I sold my nice furniture. I stopped going to the gym, stopped lifting weights, which was my passion. All I think of now is how to pay the bills, and it’s not possible.”
Then he adds, under his breath, “I hated the old regime, but not that much.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many of Egypt’s young, who account for a quarter of the country’s population. In 2011, thousands joined in a popular revolt inspired by the rising tide of discontent known as the Arab Spring. Egypt’s protests ended former leader Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule and culminated in the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammad Morsi, who was then toppled from power by the state military exactly one year later.
Since then the country has been racked by violent protests and a growing power struggle between Islamists on the one hand, and a military led by notorious strongman Gen. Abdel el-Sisi.
The political and social chaos has taken a heavy toll. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), unemployment reached 13.4 percent during the third quarter of 2013. For those under 25, the figures are worse, with some 70 percent of young people unemployed. Predictions for the fourth quarter are even more dire.
Meanwhile, society is fragmenting, as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood continue to clash with both the military and anti-Brotherhood forces. In the latest round of violence, spurred by a newly enacted law prohibiting public protest, a student at Cairo University was shot while on campus, reportedly through a shut gate. His death has only heightened a sense of angst among the young.
One cabbie offered this assessment of society post-revolution. “Before, if there was an accident, five or six cars would stop to help. Now, no one wants to be involved. They don’t trust each other like they used to.”
Amid the chaos, Interim President Adly Mansour is working to draft a new constitution intended to pave the way toward new elections next year. But with political factions critical of the draft’s language, and with the Muslim Brotherhood – which still holds a significant following – planning to boycott the referendum, the road ahead looks treacherous.
“I would say that anyone who says they aren’t confused is a liar,” said one graduate student at American University in Cairo who declined to give her name for fear of possible repercussions. “The last few months have been mindboggling.”
Indeed, the hope that initially propelled the uprising has long since given way to fear and trepidation. She says she no longer walks in her own neighborhood. “I used to feel safe but now I am not so sure. I’ve seen people fighting, fist fights, that’s something I didn’t see before.” There are more robberies as well, she notes. And yes, more people with guns.
Another student says conditions for women in particular have deteriorated. “Actually, I would say that life went to hell after the revolution, especially for women.” She cites several recent instances of women being attacked with acid for going out unveiled.
As for Tarek, there is now a sense of wistfulness when he thinks about life under the old regime, a kind of revolutionary regret. “Some of my friends are saying if Mubarak ran again, they would vote for him.” Standing beneath the likeness of Rameses II – one of ancient Egypt’s most famed rulers who in the first millennium BC held power for more than six decades – he then adds, “But if that’s the case then why did so many of us die to topple him?”