Heba Serag moves around the studio of Maria TV with ease, adjusting a camera angle, raising the lighting level. She is good at her job, running production at the new channel, and she is savouring it.
Ms. Serag, 25, graduated from Cairo University three years ago at the top of her class, and had a series of internships at television channels where, she says, the bosses praised her skills. “But they wouldn’t give me a job.” Ms. Serag wears a niqab (face veil) and conservative Islamic dress, including gloves, leaving visible nothing but a sliver of her eyes, stylishly shaded in pale blue shadow. And until a few months ago, a woman who makes that choice had no place in a public role in this country.
But this is the new Egypt – the Egypt where a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood is the elected president, where Salafists, who advocate for a literal interpretation of the Koran and early Islamic writing, are a noisy political opposition, where a constitution being drawn up right now makes sharia, or Islamic law, the basis for all legislation.
And there is a new television channel that targets religiously conservative women, with chat shows, beauty tips and heated political debate a bit like The View, staffed entirely by women such as Ms. Serag. Around town, it is known as Niqabi TV – not always affectionately.
It has been only 20 months since Egypt’s startling revolution began, and just three since the country passed the first milestone in its democratic experiment: a presidential election that brought Mohamed Morsi, an avuncular California-educated engineer and a veteran member of the Muslim Brotherhood, to power.
And yet Egyptians of all political persuasions are impatient for change and alert for any hint of it – for an uptick in a stifled economy that has only contracted since the revolution; for any gains in personal freedom, such as those of Ms. Serag, and for any freedoms that are lost.
Most of all, they are waiting and watching for signs of just what it is the Brotherhood intends to do.
During the long reign of Hosni Mubarak, and the two military dictators who preceded him, the Brotherhood was a quiet, even shadowy, opposition. The organization kept its countenance, seemingly occupied with its program of gradual change, believing that people must first be educated about Islam, then united, before political power is transformed into Islamic rule.
Then came the Arab Spring. Suddenly, young people fed up with the repression of the Mubarak regime were flocking to Tahrir Square and driving the old order to its knees.
This was, at the outset, a decidedly secular political movement carried out by Egyptians who happened to be Muslim. The Brotherhood, in fact, stayed well clear of it until the last days of the largely peaceful battle. Today, however, it has hastily adjusted recent history to claim a pivotal role in the dictator’s ouster.
“Egyptians saw it as a revolution,” says Ammar Ali Hassan, a sociologist who researches the country’s Islamist movements at the Nile Centre for Strategic Studies. “The Brotherhood saw it as an opportunity.”
Now, it is widely believed, by supporters and detractors alike, that no matter what the new government says, it has a “secret plan” – honed over decades – to Islamize the country.
President Morsi addressed the United Nations in New York this week, and Egyptians crowded around TVs to watch – as did people around the world, eager to know whether Egypt’s rapid change means this critical Western ally, the first Arab neighbour to make peace with Israel, a potential oil and gas powerhouse, and home of the largest military in the region, is about to make a radical departure.
When a mob breached the fortress-like U.S. embassy in central Cairo this month – angered by a U.S.-made film that mocks Islam and the Prophet Mohammed – many in the West felt they had their answer.
But that incident seemed a far bigger deal outside the country than in it. Everyone, from hard-line Salafists to secular liberals, is quick to blame the attack on a tiny group of misguided Islamists who turned a peaceful protest into a riot. They see an inexperienced government (and a police force stung by recent accusations of brutal treatment of demonstrators) that did not move quickly enough, and insist the event says nothing about a change in view of the West. The lineup at the McDonald’s restaurant down the street from the embassy did not falter, nor did the list of students waiting to write English tests for applications to American colleges.
All this makes for tricky times for a movement that contends it never even wanted to get into politics. It’s enough to keep Amr Darrag, a senior Brotherhood member who chairs the “foreign relations” committee of its Freedom and Justice Party, out around the traffic-snarled city at all hours of the day.