Doubt, fear as Egyptians head to polls

The distance between the speaker on the stage and the hundreds of spectators seated in front of him in the coastal city of Ismailia was not very far. But the gap between the thoughts and the enthusiasm of the two sides was unimaginably huge.

The talk in this street rally — something that could never have happened two months ago — was about the Egyptian revolution that forced Hosni Mubarak to resign as president of Egypt on Feb. 11.

The speaker was enthusiastically encouraging the audience to keep rebelling until the revolution becomes a full-fledged political movement able to make this populous Arab county, which was ruled by one man for the last 30 years, take off.

“The revolution isn’t complete yet,” the speaker told the crowd. “The people in each of the nation’s cities and governorates must take the revolution to their individual governorates and cities. Our country must be fully clean of the pits of the former regime.”

The speaker was Ahmed Maher, a civil engineer in his early 30s and one of the champions of the revolution that engulfed Egypt on Jan. 25 with the aim of ousting Mubarak — a former army general who, during his three-decade reign, devolved from a celebrated air-force liberator to become a despised despot.

Maher spoke about the need for more revolutionary work. For him, Egypt could now easily fall into the hands of either the Islamists or the remaining members of Mubarak’s disbanded National Democratic Party.

His enthusiasm, however, was not shared by everybody in the audience. Some people kept mumbling, while others shook their heads in disagreement.

“Which work?” one of the attendees at the rally asked a friend after the rally. “We need to be clear on our future. Everything is obscure. When will these clouds go?”

This attitude may reflect the general condition in Egypt now that the revolutionaries have gone home, a new government has been installed and a process of constitutional reform has started.

While almost everybody in post-revolution Egypt is happy to be rid of Mubarak and his corrupt band of politicians-cum-businessmen, almost everybody is also totally unclear on the direction their country will take in the future.

Having seen their country thrown into extreme chaos after clashes between the demonstrators and policemen forced the latter to turn tail, leading to an unprecedented security vacuum, some Egyptians, the elderly in particular, blame the revolutionaries, most of whom youthful, for what they call the “destruction” of their country.

“I had really hoped that this revolution had never happened,” said Mohamed Qamhawy, a shop owner in Cairo. “True, Mubarak was corrupt, but at least people felt more secure.”

Security seems to be one of many things missing in post-revolution, post-Mubarak Egypt. On Jan. 28, at the climax of confrontations between Mubarak’s policemen and the hundreds of thousands of his haters who came out to demand his ouster, all of the nation’s police stations were suddenly empty. Jails were attacked, leading to the escape of thousands of inmates who spread fear everywhere.

Some of Qamhawy’s neighbors were robbed, and the shops of others were looted.

Egyptian cab drivers talk about masked men who meet them on highways and take their cars from them at gunpoint. In some areas, the sound of gunfire is becoming a common occurrence in a country that seems to have quickly descended into total fear and uncertainty, just one month after the dictator left.

Some Egyptians, however, look at this fear and point at behind-the-curtain plans that aim to destabilize Egypt and abort the revolution. They call these plans a “counterrevolution.”

Essam Sharaf, the prime minister of the caretaker government, said in a TV interview that there has been a “systematic” effort to spread chaos in Egypt and make Egyptians regret deposing Mubarak.

“The counterrevolution is true,” said Rifaat Al-Saed, the chief of the leftist Tagammu Party. “Some of Mubarak’s loyalists can’t reconcile themselves with the fact that their benefactor is gone.”

This is, perhaps, one reason that most Egyptians view a recent proposed package of constitutional amendments with a mixture of doubt and fear. The amendments, which mainly focus on the powers of the president and his tenure, are due to go before a national referendum on Saturday, March 19, when more than 40 million Egyptians are expected to head to the polls.

But some people fear that if the amendments are approved by a majority of Egyptians, a parliamentary election will follow to benefit none but the pits of Mubarak’s party and the Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood.

“They’re the only organized powers in society now,” said Zakaria Abdelaziz, an Egyptian judge, during a recent gathering in Cairo. “A parliament majority by these two powers will be catastrophic for Egypt.”

The next parliament will have the authority to choose a group of experts who will write Egypt’s next constitution, and therein lies the danger, according to many. If the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s party make up a majority in parliament, they will choose people to write the constitution they like, not the one the rest of Egypt likes.

Even with this, a large number of the people who will head to the polling stations — the first democratic test for this country in modern history — have not made up their mind on the amendments. Some of them do not even known what the amendments are generally about.

“I can go to the polling station on Saturday, but I don’t really know whether to vote yes or no,” said Khalid Abu Shama, a trash collector from Giza. “What I want now is for this country to go back to normal. Everybody is tired. Everybody is fed up with fear and uncertainty.”