9 Faces of the New Egypt

Hind el-Hinnawy, 34, The Struggling Feminist

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Hind's bookshelves tower over her as she pulls down Bonnie G. Smith's Global Feminisms Since 1945 (Rewriting Histories). The small, raven-haired firebrand rocks a silver piercing on her chin and tight designer jeans that, despite her size, make her easy to locate her in a downtown crowd. In 2005, the designer-turned-activist created a national scandal when she took famous Egyptian actor Ahmed el-Fishawy to court to prove that he was the father of her child. Egyptian law stipulates that if a woman gives birth outside legal marriage, the child is illegitimate and is not considered fully eligible for social services. Hinnawy sought to prove that an urfi marriage contract -- an Islamic agreement that binds a couple under God -- existed. "It was only when I faced the laws and talked to lawyers that I understood how difficult it would be," said Hinnawy, who eventually won the case.

In the days after Mubarak's ouster, Hind radiated with the promise of a new beginning. The whole country seemed to tingle with possibility and Hind was dreaming up plans to start new initiatives for women. Now her features are rinsed in a jaded exhaustion. She worked intensely with many women's groups after the uprising but says they've gotten lost in a cul-de-sac of never ending emails, stalled in a perpetual phase of brainstorm. Like Hind, many women fear a sweeping retreat to the past, as activists put less emphasis on women's rights and women are sidelined in the political process. In the country's parliamentary elections, only nine of the newly elected 498 parliamentarians are women.

There were days she wanted to protest in Tahrir against SCAF, but life got in the way. After the uprising, her interior design company went under and she had to pick up a job at an insurance company.

Hind's been busy applying for a PhD gender studies program in London, but she changes her proposed thesis nearly every day, because "there's no fucking theoretical framework here to draw upon," she laughs, lighting her fifth cigarette of the hour. 

"We don't know to change. We don't where to start," she says. "And I'm not going to say that now is not the time to focus on women, but Egypt's problems are so much bigger."

Yasmine Nassef, 24, The Hopeful Graduate

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She stands on the dirt-floor roof of her building in Imbaba, a poor neighborhood three times as dense as Manhattan and stretched out on Cairo's west bank. That's where she goes when she "can't take so much noise" and wants to take in an elevated view of her city of 20 million.

Last year, she huddled in the same corner, catching a cool breeze that drifted across the mustard-hazed horizon of roofs, each lined with drying sheets and dotted by satellite dishes. "Mubarak has killed the will inside our hearts," she said. "Time has come for the people to launch a huge revolution and demand change."

A Cairo University graduate, she has a law degree and interns at the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance. Though veiled and "very religious," for Yasmine and many of her friends in Imbaba, once nicknamed the Islamic Republic of Imbaba, daily woes like the rising price of bread and gas tubes trump religion. She doesn't trust the Muslim Brotherhood and fears Salafis will trample on already anemic women's rights.

"Nothing has changed, but I have faith," she says, the racket of a neighbor's fight filtering into the bedroom she shares with her sister. Her boyfriend works at an insurance company and they're waiting until he makes enough money for them to get married. In Egypt, it's not until your married, she explains, that you can really become an "adult" in society. And it's customary that the husband buys a flat before the marriage -- something that's almost next to impossible in Egypt's crippled economy.

"I have hope," she says, adjusting her scarf before tuning into a Turkish soap opera. "We had to get rid of Mubarak only to start our real revolution, so it's just the beginning."

Rojeh Reda, 20, The Wary Christian

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Rojeh "JoJo" quotes Shakespeare and the syrupy lyrics of Egyptian pop singer Amr Diab in the same breath. He always wears a cross around his neck and often a bright green New York University hoodie he picked up in a neighborhood shop. His Facebook wall is plastered with imagery of Jesus and his five year old sister Catherine. A novice photo editor, he desaturates most of his self-taken portraits and inserts phrases like "Jesus is my light" and "Shake the water away to move freely in the sea," airbrushing in words like "fight" in bold colors to blunt the plaintiveness. He often calls himself "a rebel."

The Democracy ReportHe scoops ice cream at a dessert shop in New Cairo (about 45 minutes from his home, but one of the only places he could find decent work), and is generally sweet but still carries leftover teenage, and revolutionary, angst. One day, he distilled his political motivations into a sign, punctuated by a Guy Faskes mask: "The corrupt fear us. The Honest support us. The Heroic Join us." The corrupt are the Islamists, Brotherhood, and the Salafis, he explains. The honest refers to "liberals and all the people who want to live in freedom." And the heroic? Everybody who doesn't fear to have  "the second revolution."

In his heart of hearts, though, he says he knows it's not that simple. Many Christians like Rojeh were initially reluctant to participate in Egypt's uprising, fearing marginalization in an increasingly Islamized society. Just how safe Copts were under Mubarak is open to question, of course, given the sectarian violence and widespread suspicion of Christians that his regime had stoked as a hedge against Islamist challenges to its rule.

"We need to suffer before we reach true salvation," Reda says, applying his faith to his country. "Hopefully I'll still be living when I see that day in Egypt."

Presented by

Lauren E. Bohn

Lauren Bohn is a multimedia journalist based in Istanbul and a columnist for Foreign Policy. She's the co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted and a contributing editor at The Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

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