Dobson is guest-blogging for The Post this week from Cairo.
Distrust is running high in Cairo. The youth fear that the military will hijack their revolution. Liberal opposition parties fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will dominate early elections. Muslim Brothers claim that remnants of the old ruling regime are stoking sectarian strife. Everyone worries that everyone else is cutting deals with the generals to gain some greater place in post-Mubarak Egypt. After living under 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s divisive politics that kept him on top by keeping everyone at each other’s throats, Egyptians can be forgiven for looking at their political opponents with a weary eye.
Egypt is at the beginning of a long road. Everyone I have spoken to this week has agreed that building the substance of Egyptian democracy will be an even greater challenge than forcing Mubarak’s departure. And the revelations of the Egyptian military’s recent abuse and torture of its own citizens — which unfortunately, its leadership continues to deny — is only the first chapter in a dangerous transition as Egyptians throw off the weight of decades of dictatorship.
But successes need to be celebrated, and March 19, 2011 should be remembered as a historic day in modern Egyptian history. Today, millions of Egyptians are lining up at one of 9,273 polling stations to cast a ballot they can genuinely believe will be counted. (As of this writing, the voting appears to be proceeding smoothly.) Whether the constitutional amendments pass or not, Egyptians will be far less likely to let someone revoke this right once they have exercised it. Earlier in the week, I asked human rights activist Gasser Abdel Razek what was the biggest difference between the new and old Egypt. “That’s easy. Votes for the first time will count,” Razek told me. “And we are not going back.”
Another thing has changed, too: The political life of Egypt has reawakened. Friday night I walked by outdoor cafes in downtown Cairo. The only topic of conversation was today’s vote. Friends were debating this and that clause of the constitutional amendments. Family members were trying to persuade each other to either vote yes or no. Just before midnight the streets leading to Tahrir Square were filled with people holding up posters and placards doing last-minute political canvassing. In one of its sillier gestures, the Egyptian military issued an order on Wednesday forbidding media outlets from printing or discussing anything about the constitutional referendum that might sway opinion. As if Egyptians needed to rely on journalists to sway opinion? As one activist told me, “These days everyone is a constitutional expert.”
When I arrived at Cairo International Airport last week, my cab driver asked me, “Is this your first time to Egypt?”
I replied, “No, this is my third time here.”
He paused, and then smiling said, “Maybe it is your first time in Egypt.” He may be right.