It was a beautiful, sun-splashed Cairo morning, and a brass band was playing in Tahrir Square. The musicians, about two dozen in all, wore driven-snow white trousers and red military jackets with gold tassels. They performed a repertoire of short, patriotic anthems with gusto, if less-than-perfect technique. A crowd of onlookers began to swell, and before long, people were snapping cell-phone pictures of the band and hoisting children on their shoulders to watch.
I asked my friend Hisham why everyone was smiling. «This is the Egyptian Army band,» he said. «Until the revolution no one in Egypt had ever seen them play before. They only played for Mubarak.»
We stood and listened with the rest of the crowd, Egyptians young and old, who now come to Tahrir Square to get their faces painted and pose for photos with their families, like tourists. Some people clapped and sang along, before most decided to get on with their day. But the band played on.
A piece of graffiti scrawled on a building facing Tahrir Square reads «ENJOY THE REVOLUTION.» Nearly three months since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are still in a buoyant mood. A poll released by the Pew Research Center last week found that 65% of Egyptians say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, up from 28% in 2010. More than half say they are optimistic about the future — even though the country lacks a central government, its civil service is barely functioning and economic growth has plummeted from 7% to 1% in the last six months. «It’s been bumpy, it’s been imperfect, but I think things are moving in the right direction,» says Hossam Bahgat, a human-rights activist who participated in the demonstrations that brought down Mubarak. «Look around Cairo — things could be so much worse for a country that just had a military coup, that has no parliament and no constitution. But the country has remained stable. It hasn’t fallen apart. And so, yes, I’m optimistic.»
There remain plenty of reasons to be concerned about Egypt’s democratic prospects. But a brief trip there last month convinced me that there are just as many reasons for hope. And yet it’s hard to say the same about the rest of the Middle East. For all its initial promise, the Arab Spring has been marked as much by bloodshed and strife as by positive change. Rulers in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Libya have used violence against their own people to hold onto power. In the long run, such brutality will backfire against the autocrats, by isolating them from the world and wrecking whatever claim they had to legitimacy. But the ruthlessness displayed by leaders like Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi and Abdullah Ali Saleh has also made the revolutionaries less willing to compromise and more inclined to exact revenge if — or rather, when — they ultimately seize power.
That’s why Egypt still matters. Until now, the foreign-policy debate in the U.S. has been about whether to push for the removal of non-democratic regimes in the Middle East. But the bigger test is how to avoid chaos once they are gone. Places like Libya and Syria may look less like Egypt does today than Iraq did after Saddam Hussein: poor countries with weak central governments, vulnerable to terrorism, instability and outbursts of sectarian score-settling.
So how can the world prevent another Iraq — and help make more Egypts? It’s important to note that the Tahrir Square revolution didn’t come entirely out of the blue. Egypt’s civil society — its lawyers, judges, labor unions, artists, intellectuals — had roots deep enough to withstand Mubarak’s repression. In recent years, the country saw the emergence of a handful of genuinely independent newspapers and television stations, which helped both to expose the government’s lies and shine a light on those struggling against it. Privately owned newspapers like Al Masry Al Youm, founded in 2003, «re-energized the whole idea of civil society,» says Saif Nasrawi, managing editor of the paper’s English edition. «They convinced Egyptians that there was a political space in the country that wasn’t just controlled by the regime or one of the opposition parties. That made people realize that there is a way to conduct peaceful resistance that will actually produce change.»
There’s a lesson in that for Western policymakers. The resources we’ve expended trying to transform the Middle East through heroic interventions would be better spent fostering and supporting the institutions that can reform Arab societies from within. The existence of a vibrant, indigenous civil society can not only trigger political change, but also sustain it once it comes about. And that’s a big reason why, despite its troubles and those of its neighbors, Egypt still has a chance to make a successful and peaceful transition to democracy. The rebels of Tahrir Square are clear-eyed about the challenge ahead. «In history, there has never been a three-month revolution. A revolution takes time to yield results,» Nour Hamdi, a 29-year-old web developer turned revolutionary, told me. «This is the critical time for us — the revolution can still go in a good or bad direction. Look at what happened in Cuba, Chile, even Egypt’s own revolution in 1952. History tells us we have to keep our eyes open.» It’s still stirring to hear the bands playing in Cairo. But what matters is what happens after the music stops.