In a country where 40 percent of the population is illiterate, a college degree should guarantee a good-paying job, but that is not the case. Even relatively robust economic growth can't keep up with this country's population explosion. Each year, 700,000 Egyptians earn college diplomas and then scramble for 200,000 jobs, and it is a grim joke that Cairo has some of the best educated taxi drivers in the world. Even upper-middle class freshman students are pessimistic about a change for the better.
"Because every aspect of our life here in Egypt is corrupt," says Kismet Waked, sitting in a computer lab lined with shiny new Apple desktops. "We're not given the chance to speak freely. I personally would like to go abroad and see things from different perspectives and learn new things so I can bring them back here and try and improve."
Egypt counts the United States among its allies, and President George W. Bush often points to Egypt as a commendable model of democracy in a region dominated by authoritarian rule. But for nearly 30 years, President Hosni Mubarak has run this country like a modern pharaoh, clinging to power through police brutality, media censorship and rigged elections. Zanaty and her friends are hesitant to criticize their government on the record, and like the vast majority of Egyptians, they do not bother to vote.
"I don't see how that would affect me," she says. "Recently, I guess they are trying their hardest to open up [elections to opposition candidates]. I stress 'recently.'"
But while she has developed a relatively liberal world view in Cairo, political oppression and economic turmoil have driven millions of her peers to become more religious … some to the extreme. Mosque construction has boomed and Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood have grown stronger, managing to win a small percentage of seats in parliament despite Mubarak's crackdowns. But Zanaty doesn't see her country slipping toward more theocratic rule.
"It's not what the people want."
And she says she and her peers have nothing but disdain for Egyptians like Ayman al Zawahiri and Mohammed Atta, two of the most famous names in al Qaeda. "They are not us. You get radicals in absolutely everywhere and absolutely every religion. I mean, come on, don't tell me you don't have cults or radical thinkers in the States."
When asked for her impressions of America, she smiles wryly and stirs her tea.
"It's a country that should practice what it preaches," she says. "And with the amount of preaching it's doing, it has a lot of practicing to catch up on: Absolute total disregard for state sovereignty. I mean, come on. I'm sorry, but who do you think you are? In the past, if the States was a strong country, it was because it had thinkers. It had amazing scientists, amazing programs, but right now it's like a jock. Very powerful, very athletic, but in a couple of years it will burn out and what's left is a totally useless nation. I don't think it's what the American people want."
She says she hopes to move to Italy soon, but would consider living in America. "If me being there would change even one person's point of view about Muslims and the Arab world, then I'd live there for my entire life."