9 Faces of the New Egypt

Sondos Assem, 24, The Brotherhood's Twitter Representative


If last December you had told reserved graduate student at the American University in Cairo that she'd be perma-tweeting a revolution that brought down Mubarak, she says she would have laughed. If you had told her she'd be doing so mostly for the Muslim Brotherhood, she would have said "No way, not possible!"  But on January 25th, the one-year anniversary of the uprising, she glided into a posh hotel café off the square in sunglasses and a trenchcoat, armed with her omnipresent smartphone, running the Brotherhood's official English-language Twitter feed at one of the most crucial times in the Islamist party's history.

Just a few months ago, Assem didn't want her real name published in a Foreign Policy article -- but now, the Brotherhood's electoral success seems to have given her a boost of confidence. She has emerged as an unofficial spokesperson of sorts, helping to run the Brotherhood's English-language Twitter feed, @Ikhwanweb.

Over the past ten months, many "Tahrirists" have complained the Brotherhood has hijacked their revolution, but Sondos says it's just as much her revolution as anyone else's. She recalls how she went to Tahrir with her mother on January 25th last year; they had planned to meet with her father, both he and Sondos' brother were arrested and held for 48 hours.

Long locked in the Western public conscience as a bevy of bearded men, the Brotherhood's twitter face, decked in a chic wardrobe with a worldly resume, is a calculated break.

Her role in the organization and the group's casual adoption of Twitter is reflective of a central issue and broader question the group faces in Egypt's embryonic political landscape: who speaks for the Brotherhood? When asked where she might deviate from the Brotherhood's ideology, she starts and stops a few times, struggling to articulate that she "maybe" disagrees with the Brotherhood on their not endorsing a female for president.

Arzac Adly, 28, The Server of Egypt's 1%


The rubbled road to Arzac Adly's house in Haram, a slum area nestled near the pyramids, runs past a series of small mosques and pharmacies, a chain of beiges and yellows that stretch into a mustard-hazed horizon. Adly says she remembers walking down that same road a year ago when she heard it was the end to Mubarak's reign. "I was sad," she said. "I knew life would be different. And I was right. It's harder."

Arzac is a 29 year old bathroom attendant at one of Cairo's most posh restaurants, nestled on the tip of Zamalek, the leafy island in the Nile that is the city's center of privilege. It's only a few miles from her home, but it smells and feels like a different world. A beehive of BMWs and Mercedes swarm at the entrance. Clad in a grey uniform and an always daintily colored veil, she smiles dimly. As Cairo's rich and beautiful parade purposely into the bathroom right past her with quilted Chanel bags and red-soles, status symbols that are lost on Adly, she greets them with a faint habibti (darling). She's never had "the weird fish" (sushi) they serve at the restaurant, and jokes that the whole place is a bit strange. It's a different world, she admits. 

For the past several decades, Egypt has been a country of polarities; stark first-world wealth juxtaposed with, but never quite rubbing up against, grim third-world poverty. And though the uprising has caused society to crack open, not everyone appears to have suffered. It's harder to isolate yourself, sure, but it's possible.

 "We're all Egyptians, of course," she says. "But sometimes I do think why and how lives come to be so different. Who decides?"


Bassem Sabry, 29, The Liberal in Crisis


Bassem, 29, sitting inside the same café where Arzac works, announces his self-diagnosis, one that's become en vogue among the joking set: PTSD, Post-Tahrir Stress Disorder. His puppy eyes sit behind chic frames that reflect his always buzzing Samsung Droid. He bumps into acquaintances at the café -- the scene is a carousel of all who know each other, halted sporadically by kisses on both cheeks and greetings sluiced in formalities. 

The media executive has made a name for himself in the Egyptian Twitterverse (13,000 followers) with his curation and sharp insight. "It's gotten to the point where I'm afraid to turn on my phone. I'm always anxious. What if one of my friends got hurt? Arrested?" he says. "It's realism. Not paranoia."

Since the fall of Mubarak, secular groups have been grappling with existential questions about what they stand for and what life will be like for them beyond Tahrir. Egypt's "Twitterati," once the spokespeople of the revolution, have seen some of their stars fall and fade as they've lost support from an Egyptian public tired of the constant calls to rally in Tahrir and frustrated by their lack of planning and mobilizing beyond the square.

Bassem concedes the Twitterverse can be an echo chamber and says he wants to do more on the ground. He frets over a Gallup poll from September, which showed that 84 percent of Egyptians said continued protests were a" bad thing" for the country.

As a "proper liberal," he explains, he's always felt different from the rest. But now, he feels squeezed between the army and Islamists. He's been talking to scores of self-identified liberals to get at one of the harder questions in new Egypt: "What does it mean to be an Egyptian liberal?" After he figures that out, he says, he hopes to coalesce and refine their goals. On his rare free moment, he's working on a book compiling answers to the question, "What's the most important lesson you learned in life?" He gave a Tedx talk on the subject a few months back.

He says that one of the most recurring elements in the answers he's collected is overcoming failure -- doing something even if you knew you might fail.

Ashraf Mohammed, 42, The Widower


Ashraf spends most of his days in Zamalek, where he owns and manages a tiny kiosk, but lives across the river in Imbaba. You can find Ashraf brooding behind the counter at the stroke of 9 a.m. He's a boxing fiend, both player and fan, who says he heard about Philadelphia long before the vibrant New York City or Hollywood because that's where Rocky is from.

Ashraf had planned to go Tahrir all week to commemorate the anniversary of the uprising, but instead, on the 26th of January, he sat in his kiosk weeping. His wife had died, leaving him to take care of their son. Fatima had been battling complications of Hepatitis C for years. Egypt has led the world in infection rates since a 1970s campaign to combat another chronic malady, called Bilharzia, inadvertently spread Hepatitis C through the reuse of needles.

He didn't take any time off to mourn his wife's death because, aside from work, he says there's not much to do. It's business as usual. "You just keep looking ahead, especially in these times," he reasons. "Life goes on, God willing."

Come evening, with his boxing gloves thrown over his shoulder, Ashraf locks up and heads over to his uncle's ground floor flat where his son is playing. Tonight, he's planning to take him along to the ring. "He'll like boxing, too," he says, roughly smoothing his son's hair. "All Egyptians are fighters."

Presented by

Lauren E. Bohn

Lauren Bohn is the GroundTruth Project's Middle East Correspondent She's the co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted and a contributing editor at The Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

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