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Comedy writer Moe Asem photographed in Tahrir Square. Dana Smillie for The National
Comedy writer Moe Asem photographed in Tahrir Square. Dana Smillie for The National

Egypt's revolutionary generation struggles with the next step

Just weeks after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak's regime, the gravity of the task ahead is setting in.

Moe Asem calls it postrevolutionary depression.

For a month and a half this year, Egypt was united across religions, political ideology, gender and class in a single cause: toppling the three-decade regime of Hosni Mubarak. Now, just weeks after he stepped down, the gravity of the task ahead is setting in.

"There was a myth at the centre of the revolution that this was something that would make everyone happy," says Mr Asem, a 28-year-old graphic designer who was present from the early days of the protests in Tahrir Square. "There was a sense that when Mubarak left, there would be happiness and unlimited comfort served to everyone on a platter … Now that we have got what we wanted, the feeling is what are we going to do with ourselves? The emotions have changed."

The first setback came on Sunday. The Egyptian people overwhelmingly voted for a set of constitutional amendments that many original protesters believe will move the country away from the kind of radical reform needed to ensure real democracy. Others see the vote as an affirmation of the idea that Egypt needs to get on its feet again and restart its stalled economy.

No matter what the outcome of the vote eventually is, it is clear that the idea of a unified Egypt is beginning to fracture. The mood has shifted from euphoria to division, and the opposing factions that seemed to dissolve during the protests are re-emerging.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group long suppressed by Mubarak's state security apparatus, is openly flexing its political muscles. Youth groups that helped to build crucial support for the revolution using Twitter and Facebook are forming parties and putting forward leaders. Candidates are emerging with views that range from those of the old guard in Mubarak's National Democratic Party to moves to reform the entire system from the bottom up.

Amid the muddled hangover of the revolution, these political groups will have to compete for the emotions of the Egyptian people, 40 per cent of whom live on just $2 a day.

"The stage we're in now is becoming a war of nerves," says Walter Armbrust, a professor from the University of Oxford who is studying new media in Egypt. "One of the secrets of getting people into the streets was the fact that the demands were clear and simple … it's another thing to actually achieve greater social and economic justice."

Ousting Mubarak was a deceptive victory, he says, because the real challenge is to reform the government so that the traces of his security-led regime are replaced by democratic institutions.

"The counter-revolution is very much alive," Dr Armbrust says. "It's not over by a long shot. There is still going to be a lot of fighting going on as people from the old regime try to save themselves."

The clash between old and new was alive in Tahrir Square earlier this month when a fight broke out between the entrenched protesters in the square and dozens of Egyptians who wanted them to leave and let the country get back to normal. The military, which has had effective control over the country since Mubarak stepped down, responded by tearing down tents in the centre of the square and forcing protesters to leave. The day before, 13 died in fights between Muslims and Coptic Christians after a church was burnt down and a story emerged about a Muslim woman marrying a Christian man. There were also fears that Christian priests were casting spells on Muslims to make them impotent, a sign of the superstitions that still push groups apart.

A walk around the Khan el-Khalili, an old souq that is usually a packed tourist spot, showed empty alleys and despondent purveyors of papyrus, perfume bottles and miniature pyramids. The newly appointed tourism minister said that visitors to the country were down 80 per cent in February, compared to February 2010. That has major ramifications for the estimated one in seven jobs that are related to the industry and 11.5 per cent of the gross domestic product that comes from tourism.

And while the salon-like atmosphere of bars, such as El Horreya, and book shops is still thriving with discussions of the country's political future, there is a sense of confusion about how civic life can be re-energised now that the battles are more ambiguous.

Mae Zein Eldeen, a 21-year-old student at the French University in Cairo, counts herself among the early youths to rally in Tahrir. She says the uprising has lost steam as the debate shifts from calls for a freer democracy to the practical problem of getting things moving again.

Standing outside a polling station during the vote on the constitutional referendum on Saturday, she said she had experienced the reality of a nascent democracy. Agitators were standing by, telling people to vote yes for the referendum or face a secular regime that grants Christians more rights and caters to the middle class - ideas that rile many everyday Egyptians.

"We really haven't done this before," Ms Eldeen says. "What we have realised is that Egypt is not Twitter, Egypt is not Facebook, Egypt is not Cairo and Alexandria alone … Egypt is so much bigger and there has to be some way to reach out to people we cannot usually reach out to."

Standing on the street, she said she also remembered that Egypt is largely made up of a conservative population that is suspicious of importing Western culture.

"I went to speak to people on the street right before the referendum," Ms Eldeen says. "All they could see was this girl with a smart phone, who was not veiled, who dressed in a certain way. They never took me seriously. They were just like how could you come and speak to me about the future of my country if you look like that and talk like that and act like that."

The unified jubilation after March 11 has begun to recede, as the easy targets fade away. Allegedly corrupt politicians and businessmen are already facing trials and dubious land deals are being overturned. The Amn al Dawlat, an internal intelligence agency whose broad powers under Mubarak gave its operatives the ability to interrogate and arrest dissidents, has disappeared from public life after protesters invaded their headquarters across the country. Tens of thousands of documents, if not many more, have been seized by the government for future inquiries into human rights violations.

"At first after Mubarak, we had a new purpose: to hate corrupt politicians and make sure they stand trial," Ms Eldeen says. "Now we are back to democracy, whatever that turns out to be like."

Even the image of the military - whose leaders refused orders to fire on protesters and has said it would defend the Egyptian people's rights to reform the government - has become the target of criticism. Some see an impending conflict between reformers and the entrenched military power, which has much to lose from a stronger democracy. Not only did military generals hold considerable political influence under Mubarak, but they also controlled a little-understood but vast network of companies and factories that earned a steady profit.

The era of easy targets and flawless heroes has ended, observers say.

"Everyone in Egypt hated the police and wanted to see them out of their lives," says Blake Hounsell, the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine. "It's a lot harder to rally people around arcane provisions of the constitution."

Foreign governments are cautiously eyeing the developments in Egypt. Long a linchpin of the Middle East, any change in its government could harm Arab unity and Israeli negotiations with Palestine. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, took a tour of Tahrir last week. But a youth group refused to meet with her because of "the US administration's weak position at the start of the revolution due to its close relationship with the ousted president".

Some political candidates, such as the secretary of the Arab League Amr Moussa, are seen to be a favourite of those wanting subtle reform without major shifts in foreign and domestic policy. The likes of Mohammed ElBaradei, a legal scholar and former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, are pushing for greater changes. They are up against a populace that has never seen such a Westernised, secular candidate.

It is too soon to say how the economic debate in Egypt will unfold, but the impacts of the revolution are already being felt throughout the country. Mahmoud Abdel- Fadli, a professor of development economics and member of the Central Bank of Egypt, said that there had yet to emerge a debate about the neoliberal policies under Mubarak that led to privatisations of state assets and laws that encouraged foreign investment into the country.

"This government is transitional," he says. "But I think after the transitional period in six months, there will be a kind of debate about the directions of the economic policies in the future."

At the least, he says, there will be a move toward increasing wages for Egyptians and government investment to create more jobs. The main problem under the old system was cronyism.

"Liberalisation plus corruption: that was a major problem," he says. "With no corruption, I think the system we have will be more helpful for the future of the country and the region."

Despite the grim landscape, some see healthy debate emerging in Egypt. Ahmed Shebl, 28, a graduate student in political science at the American University of Cairo, says that every democracy needs a balance between conservatives and liberals.

"Frustration has been a big part of the situation lately," he says. "There has been 30 years of the government taking away from people anything that they could have, from education to salaries to jobs to affordable houses. This is affecting everyone… How to achieve this is the debate now. We need debate."

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