From beyond its borders, Egypt seems poised to revert to form after next week's presidential election a security state led, as it has been for the last half-century, by a military strongman in uniform or out. The headlines suggest little room for any other conclusion: Hundreds condemned to death after a one-hour trial; last year’s governing party declared a terrorist group; public protests outlawed; mass arrests, kangaroo courts.
Yet on the ground, no sense of crisis presents itself. The airport is no longer the loneliest place in town. There's little or no overt security presence in the streets, save the armed camp around the U.S. embassy just off Tahrir Square. Cairo feels like itself. And the people who would be expected to complain about the state’s infringement on rights may or may not actually complain. It depends on who you're talking to.
Some see the crackdown on dissent led by former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose election to the presidency is considered a foregone conclusion, as a throwback. "I think al-Sisi is trying to rebuild the wall of fear that we destroyed in the 11th of February revolution,” says Ahmad Abdallah, a leader of the April 6th Movement, the grassroots group most prominent in the build-up to the protests that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down Feb. 11, 2011.
Abdallah predicts his movement will be declared a terrorist organization after Sisi becomes president. Some of April 6th's leaders already are in jail, alongside respected journalists and at least 16,000 others arrested since July. Another 1,000 Egyptians have been killed by security forces.
“And this is just a prelude,” says Mohamed Lotfy, co-founder of the independent Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. “If an interim government is capable of doing this, imagine what an elected government can do.”
Others, former revolutionaries among them, argue the draconian new rules are simply necessary given the domestic threat posed by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the insular Islamist group that controlled government until Sisi removed it last July after millions marched against its continued rule.
“The security part is the most crucial part,” says Ahmed Magdy, 26, who protested in Tahrir Square and worked for a moderate Islamist candidate, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, in the 2012 presidential elections. He sat with three artists in a hookah bar one night last week where activists gathered each night during the protests against Mubarak. Magdy declares Hamdeen Sabahi, the Tahrir activist running against Sisi, “too weak.” The artists, all 26, and each named Aya, nod their agreement.
“He built his campaign on being against the army, at a time when the army is all we have,” says Aya Hassan. “It’s the one thing keeping the country secure….But we don’t think Sisi will be able to do much more than keep control. “
Does that mean Egypt is a police state again? “That’s the way it looks to outsiders, and this is the way the Muslim Brotherhood describes the regime. But that’s not the way the majority of Egyptians see it,” says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist and human rights activist jailed by Mubarak in 2000.
“Egyptians love stability,” Ibrahim explains. Living beside the Nile for thousands of years, he says, Egyptians relied on the course and predictability of its flow for life itself — and the same desire for steadfast permanence has dictated the shape of Egyptian politics. “This is the whole idea of a hydraulic society,” Ibrahim says. “You have a central authority that maintains law and order, and regulates the river, because it’s the only source of survival.”
Another veteran activist, Wael Nawara, says wariness of instability is what brought people into the streets against Morsi last June 30, fearing that after three years of incessant political tumult the state was nearing collapse. “Understand the model: It’s the people,” says Nawara, who co-founded the Constitution Party with Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. “The people made a decision to [depose Morsi]. Not the army. The country was collapsing.”
Nawara says he supports Sisi, but adds, “I’m not betting on him. I’m betting on the Egyptian people, because he is following them.”
Ibrahim agrees that something fundamental has changed. “Water does not pass under the bridge twice,” he says. “Things have proceeded in a way that is irreversible. The wall of fear that has remained in Egypt for 6,000 years--with this Pharaonic, hydraulic central authority--that no longer is there. Everyone is talking politics.”
Not quite everyone. Back at the hookah bar, the artists say they're growing wary of speaking their minds. “The problem now is people are not generating the atmosphere of freedom,” says Aya Amr. “When I’m in a group taxi now and I say I’m against Sisi, people get angry with me.”
Adds Aya Fayez: “The society is divided into two parts: Sisi or Brotherhood. If you speak against Sisi, you’re Brotherhood, and the other way around. Which reduces my freedom. Even on Facebook, I’m not speaking any more about politics. People fight over every word that’s said. You find fighting inside the home, between friends, losing each other because everyone’s very rigid in their opinion.”
Magdy, the Tahrir activist who a few minutes earlier called security key to everything, now adds the situation is far from ideal. “The heavy hand of security, and arresting everyone near the Brotherhood makes the families stricter with their kids, always advising them not to speak: ‘Don’t say anything about Sisi or the Brotherhood.’ ‘Don’t speak in the taxi, don’t speak in class.’”
So things are not always as they seem, either inside or outside Egypt. Consider that Amr Badr, the spokesman for presidential contender Sabahi, meets TIME at the online newspaper he edits. It’s a hive of twenty-somethings swarming workstations where a screensaver shows a bloodied protester. But while the blood was real enough, the freedom, Badr says, is an illusion. “Actually, everything you see from outside is true,” he says. “We are turning back to a police regime.”
The only thing that's totally clear is that the country is in yet another transition. But the direction is evident even to visitors. In the current EgyptAir inflight magazine, there in the seat pocket of every flight to and from Cairo, the centerpiece is not a glossy photo spread of a new tourist destination but rather a tribute to "Egypt's greatest modern soldier, General Abdel Moneim Riad," the Six-Day War commander remembered as a martyr. His statue presides over a grubby downtown traffic circle the magazine struggled in vain to make look attractive in a photo, but could not. It just looked like a clumsy attempt to please the new boss.