She has the looks of a movie star and 30,000 devoted Twitter followers. Nermeen Bedair is not a starlet, however, but a young dermatologist who was in Tahrir Square when they drove Hosni Mubarak from power.
For many young people who could not get to Cairo, she was the voice of the revolution. “I am not political, but I was in the streets pushing for a free democratic Egypt. A year ago we had such high hopes, but now...” she said softly, her voice trailing off.
Bedair and five other young Egyptian activists told me late in March their stories of the revolution at a small coffee shop in Cairo. All had been involved in the protests of 2011. The crowds had grown from 50,000 on Jan. 25 to 100,000 five days later, swelling to 250,000 in two weeks.
Similar demonstrations erupted around the country, and the police forces of the dying regime turned violent. Eight-hundred people died in the crackdown. But by early February of that year the army had enough and forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign.
I visited the country as part of a U.S. State Department program involving the Former Members of Congress Association and Legacy International, a Virginia foundation. Our mission was to examine the aftermath of the Arab Spring. What we saw and heard left us both heartened and depressed.
On the far end of the dinner table that night at Café Rishe, engineer Alfred Raouf still brimmed with revolutionary zeal. A founding member of the Al-Distour Party dominated by young professionals under 35, he can’t wait to run for parliament in the next round of elections. The elections now are on hold because of a stare down between the courts and Muslim Brotherhood, which controls the presidency and legislature.
“We have a historic moment in front of us,” Raouf said. “Not only in Egypt, but Libya and Tunisia too. We have to establish a real democracy, not a theocracy. It’s not about the first election. It’s about the second election and people in power giving up control if they lose.”
Unfortunately, few in Egypt today seem to embrace his optimism for the future.
President Mohammed Morsi came to power promising bread, freedom and social justice. He’s failing on at least two of his three planks. The economy is in shambles. On a drive to Alexandria from Cairo, traffic halted as three lanes merged into two. We assumed it was an accident or road construction. It was neither. The right lane was blocked by mile after mile of long queues for increasingly sparse supplies of diesel.
As for freedom, the scorecard isn’t any better. Last weekend popular Egyptian television satirist Bassem Youssef, known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, was arrested facing accusations of insulting Islam and the country’s Islamist leaders. In recent weeks police have rounded up journalists and other critics of the regime.
The reaction from a third dinner companion left us all more than a little stunned. Ibrahim Seyam, a young engineer for a French energy company, said given the choice he’d prefer a return to the Mubarak regime. The economy was better and the streets were safer.
“I think Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood want an Islamist state, and we are just swapping one dictatorship for another. At least Mubarak knew how to run the country,” he said. He’s counting on a military coup to toss out the Islamists.
Bedair reached across the table and tore off a small bite of bread. She stared down at her plate and then looked up at me. Her eyes look exhausted. “I just want to go back to treating patients and teaching at the university. We were all so inspired by the revolution, but not anymore. I am so tired of politics.”
Her generation was responsible for the Arab Spring, but they may not see an Arab Summer. A frightening chill is in the air. The Arab Winter may already be settling over Egypt.
Klug, of Monona, is managing director of public affairs at Foley and Lardner. He served in Congress from 1991 to 1999.