The images shown on the news media are startling: violence rages on the streets of Cairo while a divided government continues to sow seeds of discord.
I have spent some time in Tahrir Square this past week and have seen a very different perspective. I saw no violence, I saw no despair. Instead, I saw a people reclaiming their unique voice for democracy. The situation in Egypt is tense, but the future is bright.
What started as a political power grab by President Mohamed Morsi in the shadow of his success ending the Gaza conflict turned into chaos on the streets as rival protesters from opposition groups and government supporters voiced their differing visions for the future of Egypt. Most importantly — and despite the selected scenes shown on international media — they did it peacefully. There was even a sense of hope.
I first came to Cairo in the summer of 2010. I saw with my own eyes the lack of political freedom. Street demonstrations were illegal and would result in imprisonment. I saw firsthand the brutality the people faced at the hands of the police. I saw a people resigned to a future of dictatorship and oppression.
Then, in March of 2011, just one month after Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office, I had the opportunity to return to Cairo once more. I saw a very different story. I saw a people experiencing freedom for the first time and making full use of that right. Protests, gatherings, and political rallies would break out anywhere at any time. People cared deeply about the future and felt, for the first time, their voice could be heard.
But there was also a sense of anxiety. It was then that people first realized how disrupted the country had become so quickly and how difficult the rebuilding process would be. Democracy could not be instituted overnight, despite the immense expectations.
And it was then Egyptian society saw the first cracks of division. What had been a remarkable unification in the effort to oust Hosni Mubarak turned into a deep cultural and religious divide in the effort to rebuild the country.
That division is clear on the streets of Cairo today. The liberals' chants heard in Tahrir do not mince words about the Muslim Brotherhood. What Mr. Morsi's dictatorial decree has achieved was to unify a previously fractured opposition, which will almost certainly result in a worrying divisiveness in the days ahead.
The Egyptian constituent assembly attempted to defuse the situation by rushing through a draft constitution that requires approval by the president and through a national referendum vote. The move did not work. Championed by the religious conservatives in the committee — most of the opposition had walked out and boycotted the process months ago — the new constitution faces severe criticism from Egyptian liberals and seculars. Many question whether it was written with the intent to represent all of Egypt's diverse society. Egyptian judges have announced they will refuse to oversee the constitution's referendum vote scheduled for December 15th.
But I keep hearing a shared sentiment from both sides of the political conflict this week. Ahla al-laHazat hiya abl sharouq al-shams. The night is darkest just before the dawn.
I don't know how this current situation will play out. I don't think anyone does. The situation is tense. But the very fact the Egyptian people can find themselves in this position is remarkable. Two years ago they were living under a dictator. And Egypt's future looked no brighter just one year ago under military rule. Now, two diametrically opposed sides can take to the streets to share contrasting visions for the future, and they can do it relatively peacefully.
The Egyptian people realize this. The protesters in Tahrir are calling for the downfall of the government, yet they wish stability for all. Volunteers police the streets of Tahrir to deter rioting and hooliganism. The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, has taken extraordinary steps to discourage violence between their supporters and the opposition.
For better or worse, Egypt is now a democracy. That responsibility is beginning to set in for those camping out in Tahrir. Change cannot happen overnight, but the passion needed to pursue that change can never falter. The days ahead will be tough on Egyptian society, but I feel as hopeful as those marching in the streets. Progress has already arrived, and this is no time for despair.
Nolan DiFrancesco is a 2012 graduate of Johns Hopkins University and is currently managing several sustainable development projects in Egypt's South Sinai region. His email is email@example.com.