You can see what the Egyptian revolution has achieved, 20 months on, by visiting this rural area of the Nile Delta that was the birthplace of the deposed dictator, Hosni Mubarak: Everything is different outwardly, but beneath the surface, almost nothing has changed yet.
The revolution’s impact is most obvious in the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood won the parliamentary elections here, even in this former regime stronghold. And people seem free to say what they think, including sharp criticism of the new president, Mohamed Morsi, in a way that would have been unthinkable before.
The chaos has eased, too. Security is better than it was in the months after the revolution. The police are back in the streets, directing traffic. A long strike has ended at the local textile plant, and people are back at work on farms and in rural factories.
Mubarak’s old family house is abandoned and ignored. The narrow street is decorated with posters for Morsi and the other candidates who ran to replace him as president. What was once known as the Mubarak Bridge across a big Nile canal has now been renamed after one of the revolution’s martyrs.
But the deeper changes that Menoufia needs are only beginning. The Nile canals are filthy with trash, and the water is undrinkable. The local economy is backward, still dependent on a moribund state bureaucracy. The Muslim Brotherhood leader here says all the right things about reform, but so far there’s almost nothing to show for it.
Sitting on the banks of a broad canal, I talked politics with a group of young residents. So many came along to join in that we had to move into a local clubhouse. Mohammed Said, a 32-year-old leather merchant, credits the new president for firing the top army generals and creating Egypt’s first real civilian government. But otherwise, he says, “the changes on the ground are superficial. . . . The people are still poor, the kids are on the street, the water is dirty.”
Around us, indeed, is a timeless scene: A fan spins lazily overhead; outside, the waters move slowly downstream, clogged with trash. Women by the bank wash their clothes in the canal, despite its filth.
Some people are sharply critical: “The Muslim Brotherhood will lose the next election,” insists Ayman Abdul Aziz, 26, who describes himself as a video cameraman. He thinks the Brotherhood has “manipulated” the piety of poor Muslims to get power but won’t deliver. Like most of the young people who met me, he’s a member of a secular leftist group called the April 6 Movement that helped start the revolution but then lost out to the better organized Brotherhood.
In a tidy office nearby, I meet a local leader of the Brotherhood named Badr el-Falah. He’s an engineer by trade, now a member of parliament, and he shows the Brotherhood’s best face: neat, well-spoken, serious about fighting corruption and creating jobs. He spent time in prison in 2010 under Mubarak, and his forehead is calloused from frequent prayer.
When I ask Falah about the Brotherhood’s slogan, “Allah is the answer,” he says it has been part of his life since he joined the organization at 17. Yet in our conversation, he focuses not on religion but on economic development. He understands that the people of Menoufia are in a “huge rush” to see change, but he says it won’t happen overnight; the problems are too serious.
How to judge the Brotherhood’s success in this patch of Egypt? Falah answers that in a year I will see more paved roads, cleaner water, less trash. In two or three years, I’ll see new industries, a new highway connecting the city with Cairo, a free-trade zone, a less corrupt local bureaucracy and a program to recycle waste.
Back in Cairo, I ask a leading technology investor named Ahmed el-Alfi, who’s running a new “incubator” for entrepreneurs called Flat6Labs, what he thinks of the Brotherhood leadership nationally. He explains why he’s optimistic: “Morsi is meeting with a broader representation of business people than Mubarak ever did. He knows that the status quo is a dead end and that he has to make economic progress quickly.” The human capital exists to change Egypt, Alfi insists: His labs launched 18 tech businesses over the past year. Ten have already found investors.
Will Morsi and the Brotherhood be the change agents Egypt needs? The honest answer is that we need to come back to places like Menoufia in a year or two and find out.