On a steamy August morning, dozens of veiled women sat on a splintered wooden bench in the fly-infested mosque of a poor neighbourhood in Cairo, where they had gathered for the gift of free medical care.
Mothers queued cradling feverish newborns. Free drugs flowed from the gloved hand of a pharmacist whose face seemed swallowed by a black niqab.
It was the holy month of Ramadan. Weeks of solemn fasting had been punctuated by scrappy Friday protests in Tahrir Square by Salafis, who embrace a puritanical version of Islam. Like the country's powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement, Salafis believe in an Islamic state and sharia law. But a small, hard-core strain also espouses violent jihad.
So when tens of thousands of them turned out to agitate in the place considered the crucible of Egypt's future – and, in many ways, that of the Arab world – many Egyptians feared that the secular revolution that dislodged former dictator Hosni Mubarak was being hijacked by Islamist forces.
This clinic could be construed to embody that same nightmare – radical Muslims offering free health care to curry favour with the masses. Hamas used the same ploy to sweep to power in Gaza; Hezbollah used it in Lebanon. But what was going on here proved to be something altogether different.
The organizer was Mohammed Tolba, a bearded, thirtysomething computer specialist. The mosque did not buy this clinic's medicine; he and some friends did. The big Salafi protest in Tahrir Square? He slept through it.
“I am not going to vote until I feel like somebody deserves it,” he said, shrugging as if to say he wasn't expecting that to happen any time soon.
Mr. Tolba conceived of the clinic with a group of young Salafis and Christians who meet over lattes at Costa Coffee, in defiance of their religious elders. The idea was to hold interfaith events – also including a picnic and a football match – to bring people together.
It is a small but significant experiment in moderation in the laboratory that is post-revolutionary Egypt.
The country's rejection of authoritarian rule has birthed a new Arab nationalism that transcends borders, cuts across sectarian lines and, crucially, cleaves generations. Young Arabs – the ones who came of age in the wake of 9/11 and, not coincidentally, led the Arab Spring uprisings – speak of shared beliefs in secular democracy, a kinder, gentler form of capitalism and a charter of rights not dependent on faith.
Yet they distrust the West as much as they do the jihadists who have been in a bitter tug of war over the region for the past decade. That conflict has shaped this emerging generation's identity and sparked its defiance.
In the wake of 9/11, al-Qaeda and the West each overplayed their hands. Radical Islamist groups used jihad to try to topple dictators, but scores of ordinary Muslims were also killed. Meanwhile, although the West deposed regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, elsewhere it propped up the dictators who obstructed the democracy it claimed to promote. All of this caused anger on the Arab street.
That anger ultimately led to the secular uprisings that have toppled more governments in the region in six months than either al-Qaeda or the United States managed in 10 years. In this way, the Arab Spring stands as the most significant and surprising consequence of the terrorist assault that changed the world that sunny September day.
Rebels without a plan
If the terror attacks on America and the Arab Spring bookend the 9/11 decade, what kind of Middle East will emerge in the vacuum left by the weakened al-Qaeda and West? And how will the leaderless Google kids of Tahrir Square reconcile their ambivalence toward politics with their ambition to create a modern, moderate Middle East?
The sheer momentum of the Arab Spring stunned even its most ardent supporters, but the revolutionaries' efforts to move beyond protest to building a new society are clumsy at best.
Even the modest proposal of that interfaith medical clinic in Cairo failed to create common ground: The Christian doctors who initially agreed to participate withdrew, inexplicably, at the last minute. And such efforts pale in comparison with the scope of the region's problems.
Before the revolution, for example, Egypt's economy was posting 5-per-cent growth. In the first quarter of this year, it contracted by 3.5 per cent. Under public pressure, the government has boosted the minimum wage, but done nothing to encourage productivity, while doubling down on spending. Inflation, always a problem in Egypt, threatens to become unbearable.
Badry Mohammad, a stunning 26-year-old woman, with a persistent cough, was holding a three-month-old in a lemon-yellow dress, as well as two boxes of the antibiotic Amoxil. She described how bleak things had become since “the Pharoah” had left, as the revolution staggered into political and economic uncertainty.