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The fears of Egyptians great and small

By ,

CAIRO

How has life changed in Egypt since the revolution, and what’s going to happen in the parliamentary elections that begin this month? I asked those questions last week in a poor neighborhood of Cairo called Ain el-Sira, and the responses amounted to a warning: The new Egypt must give these people a sense of security and progress soon, or it’s in trouble.

“It’s worse since the revolution — there is no safety, no security, no police,” says Nashwa Mustafa, a friendly woman garbed in black who sits with four friends in a job training center. By learning to use a sewing machine, she hopes to boost her current income of about $70 a month. She is so worried about lawlessness that she stays indoors at night; the four other veiled women nod in agreement.

Ask these women whom they plan to vote for in the parliamentary elections, and they immediately mention Yousry Bayoumi, a Muslim Brotherhood candidate who lives nearby. “Of course they are respected!” says Mustafa of the Brotherhood. As for the more extreme Salafist Muslim groups that have sprung up, the women are skeptical. “We never heard about them until the revolution,” says one dismissively.

Rida Mohammed, an older woman who is teaching the others how to work the sewing machine, says quietly that she misses former president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in February. “Now Egypt is not safe,” she murmurs. “I wish he would return.”

This is a focus group in the raw, in a neighborhood of dirt streets and narrow alleys, where the only color is the laundry hanging from windows. I came here with an anti-poverty group called “For You, My Country!” that provides job training and small loans. Entering through a dusty courtyard, we stumbled over sheep about to be slaughtered for the coming Eid feast.

Why is security so bad? For an answer, we walked to the local police station, about a block away. The police were once an arrogant and pervasive force in Cairo, until they cracked down on the Tahrir Square demonstrations. Now they are hated, and in their shame, they have disappeared. The transitional military government has failed badly in reorganizing them.

The Ain el-Sira station is empty, except for one white-clad policeman named Hani Salama Yousef. Asked why his colleagues have disappeared, he bows his head. “We are depressed. When we go to protect people, they don’t respect us,” he says. The police, like nearly everyone else in Egypt these days, have been on strike. One of their 15 demands is the right for pious Muslims to wear beards.

From this dirt-poor neighborhood, let’s pull the camera back to the leading political figures who are trying to speak to a nation whose patience with the ruling military council is beginning to wear thin.

I visited Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa, the two leading political figures. Both agreed that the military rulers must be replaced soon by civilians, but they differed sharply about priorities.

“The situation is 100 percent messy, going from bad to worse,” says ElBaradei. “People thought this revolution was about freedom and basic needs, but they haven’t seen anything yet of either.” The army has the power, but “they have no clue how to run the country.”

ElBaradei volunteers to serve as prime minister for the broad coalition government he hopes will emerge from elections: It could recreate the unity of the Tahrir revolution, he argues. The key is to gain enough time and stability to write a careful constitution that guarantees basic freedoms and keeps Egypt a “civil” state: “Democracy is not instant coffee,” says the former Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Moussa wants to move more quickly — to a presidential election by mid-2012, a few months after the new parliament is seated. He is already the leading presidential candidate, and he’s running a populist campaign that tries to offer something for every constituency. He sides with the Muslim Brotherhood — and against El Baradei — in favoring a quick constitution, without a bill of rights, that retains the ambiguous Article 2 endorsing Islamic sharia law as the main source of legislation, but also affirming minority rights.

“This is an uphill drive, but it should start right away,” says the former foreign minister.

“Make haste slowly,” advises the old Latin proverb, and that seems a good recipe for Egypt. A strong prime minister can pull the country together and get it moving again, while the country writes a good constitution. A quickie constitution that permanently enfranchises the political powers of the moment could be a disastrous mistake.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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