By David Ignatius
MENOUFIA, Egypt – 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.
But the deeper changes that Menoufia needs are only beginning.
Sitting on the banks of a broad canal, I talked politics with a group of young residents. Mohammed Said, a 32-year old leather merchant, credits the new president for firing the top my generals and creating Egypt’s first real civilian government. But otherwise, he says, “The people are still poor, the kids are on the street, the water is dirty.” Around us a fan spins lazily, the waters move slowly downstream, clogged with trash.
Some youths are sharply critical: “The Muslim Brotherhood will lose the next election,” insists Ayman Abdul Aziz, 26, a video cameraman. He thinks the Brotherhood has “manipulated” the piety of poor Muslims. Like most of the youths who met me, he’s a member of a secular leftist group April 6 Movement that helped start the revolution but then lost out.
In a tidy office nearby, I meet a local leader of the Brotherhood named Badr el-Falah. He’s an engineer by trade, and now a member of parliament, and he shows the Brotherhood’s best face: neat, well-spoken, serious about fighting corruption and creating jobs.
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 doesn’t focus on religion, but on economic development. 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 new 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.
DAVID IGNATIUS’ email address is email@example.com.