Tiny Tunisia in the far Arab west may be easy to ignore. Oil-rich and fairly homogenous Libya, if all goes well in its transition, could be dismissed as a solitary example of a country aided by its vast wealth. But what happens in Egypt – where popular aspirations are matched by vast economic problems, where Islamist and secular visions of the future are competing to determine the notion of modern "Egyptianness" – will shape the direction and geopolitics of the region more than what happens in any other country.
"People paid attention to Tunisia, but Bahrainis and Syrians and even Libyans didn't take to the streets until Mubarak was gone, or it looked like he'd be gone," says Toby Craig Jones, a Middle East historian at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "That was the moment people believed. Egypt's longstanding position of influencing regional culture and language and politics – the legacy of Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood – mean that what happens in Egypt will matter."
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Up close, it's boisterously clear that Egypt is a country in the grip of trying to form a new nation. Endless political debates reverberate about what the nation needs and how to fix it. On talk shows, in cafes, in sports clubs and offices, political alliances form and then, under the strain of personalities and competing ideologies, break apart within weeks. Everywhere you can see Egyptians excitedly discussing the new world of possibilities.
This is evident on a long subway ride across Cairo. From the recently renamed Martyrs' (formerly Mubarak) Metro Station downtown, a packed car slithers through subterranean Cairo and eventually climbs above ground. Outside, as the train moves closer to the edge of the city, the revolutionary graffiti on walls gives way to the profane scrawls of schoolboys, and smoldering piles of garbage in abandoned lots grow larger as the red-brick apartment buildings shrink.