|Many Egyptians are frustrated with the slow pace of democratic transition, and remain apprehensive over the economy and security - but most are optimistic about the future [EPA]
Some five months after the fall of Mubarak, Egyptians are happier and more relaxed as they go about the day to day mechanisms of life in the capital, Cairo. A new poll, conducted by the Gallup Centre in Abu Dhabi, attested to this change. It found, for the most part, that Egyptians believe things are looking up.
It was taken a month and a half after Mubarak resigned, between late March and early April. Polls are very rare in Egypt, so there was never much in-depth data on public sentiment beforehand. But anyone who had visited before the revolution can attest Cairo was not a place where contentment was easy to discover. At least for the poor, straining against the weight of corruption and misfortune. Life was an orderly chaos at best, frustrating and necessary. The chaos is still there, although now there is the feeling that there’s a point to it all. A collective burden the masses must bear on the road to a better Egypt.
Many of the wealthy Egyptians are well travelled, some have found education abroad. But the Gallup poll found Egyptians are half as likely to want to emigrate after the fall of Mubarak. Most believe society will become freer and fairer. They have confidence in their futures, in their country. It is clear in the attitudes of 20-something Egyptians, whether they are shopkeepers, taxi drivers or professionals.
But not everything is a bed of roses. The poll found security is of great concern to Egyptians. The police left the streets during the revolution and many have not returned, their previous posts abandoned. Just look around in areas like Maadi, a middle class area pockmarked with embassies, foreign restaurant chains and hip cafes, after sun falls. It's the middle of spring, the air is warm, crimson flowers are in bloom and the trees are green. But there are very few people in the street. There's still an air of apprehension in some places. The poll has found only 39 per cent of Egyptians have confidence in the police – down from 58 per cent in 2009.
Sitting in a Mexican restaurant, Dalia, a 27-year-old teacher's assistant, explains: "It's difficult to express, it's just something I feel. I don't feel safe, I don't stay out late anymore and I don't catch taxis by myself at night either." She must travel across the city to get to work every day. So too must her colleague Fatma, 25: "No, I don't feel safe, during the revolution it was much worse, but now I still don't feel secure." But she adds: "I'm hoping things will get better." Fatma did not support the revolution until Mubarak resigned. Earlier she had even gone to Tahrir Square hoping to convince the protesters to go home. Regardless of who supported whom then, they're now feeling the same type of unease.
Incidents of violence in the street, where people have taken matters into their own hands, are rife - speculation about organised crime on major thoroughfares after dark keeps many inside. Regardless of what is true or false, it's enough. And if it's enough to keep Egyptians home, then it's more than enough to keep foreigners away.
In the Khan el Khalili, Cairo's heaving bazaar, the same can be said. Life takes on a slow pace around noon. The spring weather means it is bearable, but the sun is hot. Egyptians are out shopping and haggling as though not much has changed, but this market relies on troupes of tourists. Mahmoud, a fabric salesmen in his late 30s, is the effervescent wheeler and dealer. He's been plying his trade here for more than a decade. His shop is filled with scarves and tablecloths, which range from cheap to chic. He is still smiling as he describes life these days: "This time of year, it was busy. It was full. Now it's quiet." His smile is wide, but his eyes are serious: "What can I do?"
Foreigners who have found work in Egypt are looking elsewhere too. These are the people who are teaching at Egypt's best schools, working in the private sector and contributing to the country's economy.
Egyptians have noticed the effect, the economy is a disaster. Foreign capital is fleeing and wealthy Egyptians themselves have been moving billions of dollars offshore for months. Analysts fear economics could derail the country's steps to democracy. The Gallup poll found the number of people who believe the economy is getting worse is more than twice as high as it was a year ago. They're more optimistic about future economic prospects, but for now, certainly not. Egypt's ruling military council has just announced the end of the curfew to get life and the economy, back to normal. A $3 billion loan from the IMF, announced on Sunday June 5, may assist.
Young Egyptians are also trying to do their part. By the police station in Old Cairo, near the bookstore in Maadi and across other neighbourhoods, they have claimed slivers of sidewalk, walls and median strips as their own. They huddle in groups of five or six, with brushes and buckets of paint. Cheerily they set about trying to paint a brighter future. "Welcome to Egypt," says one of the fresh paintings. "We love Egypt," says another. They're painted black, red and white like the flag. One of the young authors stands beside her artwork proudly. She and her friends have just left school and have come down to finish their project. "We want to show something positive," says Ahwa, a 14-year-old who lives nearby. Her hands are covered in paint, but she doesn't seem to mind.
Beyond the optimism, there is reality. On the trendy island of Zamalek, a small boy, no more than seven, waits beside a cafe. He outgrew his flip flops long ago, still he wears them. His feet are blackened as he shuffles up and down the sidewalk, trying to sell tissues. He's been there for an hour and has had no luck. Beside him a waiter sits on the hood of a car. He is fresh faced, still a teenager. He swings his legs playfully as he laughs with a colleague. He is lucky and knows it. Some 81 per cent of Egyptians surveyed said it was a bad time to find a job.
They're hoping the country's future president can turn around their luck. Whoever that will be. Elections are only three months away and there is no clear front runner. Essam Sharaf, the current prime minister is perhaps the most well known. Mohammed, a taxi driver in his late 40s, thinks he's the one to watch. "I think he's a good man, he's got some good plans for education here and we really need that." But he cautions: "We don't just need a change of leader, we need to change the way we all think too." But many Egyptians complain they're not sure what's going on, not only with the ruling Military Council but with the candidates themselves.
Limited rise of the Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood is perhaps the best known party, but they're continuing to focus on their grass roots movement, rather than fielding a presidential candidate. Last week it was given full electoral status, named the Freedom and Justice party. Some foreign observers may shudder at the thought, but the Gallup poll found only 15 per cent of Egyptians support the Muslim Brotherhood – about the same proportion of people who still support Mubarak's NDP party. Although the Brotherhood is not fielding presidential candidates, it will field candidates in parliamentary elections. And they could play an integral role in determining the constitution and future Egyptian state. Only one per cent believes the Islamic Republic of Iran should be the model for a future state. It's a small percentage but large enough to worry some women.
"If they do that we'll have another revolution and I'll be the first one in Tahrir Square, I promise you that," says Soheil, a 56-year-old mother of two. She is a widower, speaks three languages and is at home on the island of Zamalek.
Her neighbour, Raha, joins her: "It will be a bikini revolution, you can go down there in your bikini," she laughs before she inhales deeply on a water pipe. Sohail shakes her head disapprovingly, laughing too before looking serious again: "They can't do it," she says. "We will never accept a system like Iran's, we'll never accept people telling us how to live and what to wear. Never." Neither women wear hijab, it's one of the ways in which they measure their freedom. They have the choice and that's the point.
In Maadi, Fatma is just as adamant. She wears hijab but is dismissive when asked if she's conservative. She's even more dismissive when asked about the Muslim Brotherhood. "I hate them, I hate the way they think, they don't adopt change, they just want to rule like Saudi Arabia, they don't want women in charge and they don't want them to work. I just hate them and so does everybody else."
Well, not everybody else. Mohammed counts himself lucky to have a job. He has a wife and two young children to support. He lives in Giza where his view of the pyramids is tainted with piles of uncollected rubbish and the odour of poverty. He may think Sharaf is perhaps the best bet for President, but he also believes the Brotherhood offers something long sought after in Egypt: "I think they're honest and they're helping people - which is more than the rest of them did."
As the sun dips at the Khan on Thursday night, it is bustling once again. Nasser is serving tea at one of the traditional coffee houses, near Midan Hossein. His forehead bears the bruise of the pious. He will vote for the Muslim Brotherhood for the same reasons Mohammed is considering it. "They're very good," he says in his limited English before trying to put together more thoughts. "They're with the people," he manages - before showing a thumbs up.
Regardless of whether you favour secularism or not, community support is a large part of what won the Brotherhood that 15 per cent. They have been helping people through grassroots community campaigns. They have social programmes and contribute to education and health care; the very services which lay neglected under much of Mubarak's tenure. Although the Brotherhood was technically illegal, it was this environment which garnered them respect from many of Egypt's most needy communities. Respect, however may not be enough at the ballot box. But there's still three months to decide.
Nobody knows what will happen in September. The Gallup poll has found nine in ten Egyptians think the coming elections will be free and fair. A stark contrast to the past where voter apathy was high and so, allegedly, was the corruption. Dalia says the type of Egypt they want is going to take time: "I'm positive, but we're not going to feel change for another ten years, I'm not going to feel change until my children can go to school and get a good education, or get proper medicine when they're sick."
Fatma agrees: "People are rushing. They're rushing for September - but change is not quick, change needs time." Back on Zamalek, Soheil is interested in the poll's findings, some are a surprise, some not so much. She thinks about September. "I don't know what's going to happen," she tells me. "But we're going to do our best."