In Cairo, Hope Endures for Egypt's Revolution

The U.S. Constitution is hardly playing a role in shaping Egypt's new foundation.

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CAIRO--On my first day here this week, I found myself among a clutch of young activists milling about the Ministry of Justice. They were rallying in solidarity with the nation’s judiciary, which managed to resist much of the endemic corruption that prevailed under dictator Hosni Mubarak. Now, in the afterglow of a peaceful revolt that ended 30 years of despotism, the judiciary is at the center of a debate over how and when to write a new constitution.

The rally was to feature a delegation of judges, though no one seemed to know or care what they would do upon their arrival. After seizing the world’s attention for 18 days early this year before its triumphant denouement, Egypt’s revolution has eased into a period of suspended animation, as if steeling itself for a wave of political skirmishes to come. [See photos of the Egyptian uprising.]

There is growing mistrust of the military council that is acting as interim government, particularly its tactical alliance with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, the best organized political movement in the country. Journalists and activists who chafe publicly at even temporary military rule say they have received phone calls from shadowy voices ordering them to keep quiet. Secular political  leaders complain that businessmen with ties to the old regime are infiltrating the revolution and corrupting it with bags of money. An emerging Salafic-Jihadi movement, said to be funded from Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia, has been blamed for a rise in sectarian violence waged against Egypt’s Christian minority.

Such maneuvering was inevitable given the leaderless quality of the revolution. But concerns that malign forces—Wahhabi ringers, say, or regime hangers-on—may usurp the movement were dismissed by the activists as they awaited the judges. Alaa Seif, a prominently blogger who divides his time between Egypt and his computer software business in South Africa, calmly dismantled the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood would sweep to power in parliamentary elections scheduled for September. The group’s appeal is overrated, he says, and it is prone to overreach. [Check out editorial cartoons about the "Arab Spring" uprisings.]

We were joined by Nour Ayman Nour, the 20-year-old son of a prominent former dissident, and his friend and fellow activist, a dark-haired 20-something in a trim double-breasted blazer and black leggings. She introduced herself as a Trotskyite, proof that Egypt’s once diversified and unruly political culture is regenerating itself.

“The military is busy trying to scare people into thinking the country would collapse without a firm hand,” Nour said. “They want us to compromise and settle for less than what we deserve.”

I asked if the interim regime is as efficient at frightening Egyptians as Mubarak was manipulating Washington’s fears of a pernicious Islamism that would swamp the entire Arab world if not for his brutality. [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]

Nour thought for a moment. “You know,” he finally replied, “for the first time, they’re spending more time trying to scare Egyptians than Americans. In a way, that’s a sign of great progress.”

It was also a measure, however perverse, of Washington’s diminished influence in the Middle East, where the politics of fear remains the currency of power. In the debate over the constitution, for example, the one penned by American revolutionaries in 1787 figures hardly at all as a model for a newly democratic Egypt. “It is important we develop a constitution tailored to our own needs,” said Noor. “We don’t need inspiration from other countries.”

As it turns out, the judges never show up, which seems to matter little to Nour and his comrades. Fed up with an old, corrupt order, they willed a new one to life long after their parents and grandparents had resigned themselves to their fate. Unencumbered by doubt, they will satisfy themselves with nothing short of a democratic republic, one they know will remain as immortal and unblemished as they are.

  • See a gallery of cartoons about the Middle East protests.
  • See photos of protests in Egypt.
  • Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.