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Democracy, Egyptian Style

9 minute read
Abigail Hauslohner / Cairo

To listen to Kamal Habib extol the democratic ideal is to slip into a parallel universe where down is up and black is white. This is, after all, the co-founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who was jailed for years — some of them alongside his classmate from university Ayman al-Zawahiri, now al-Qaeda’s No. 2 — for allegedly helping organize the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. His democratic credentials are, at best, slim. And yet here’s Habib, on the fourth floor of Cairo’s Journalists’ Union, along with a few dozen men sporting long beards and Islamic garb, to discuss plans for a political party. “Most of these men are jihadists who were detained and tortured,” he says. Habib himself was released 20 years ago, and he has renounced the armed struggle. Now they all want to get into politics.

Habib, 53, and his followers are Salafists, adherents of a particularly fundamentalist strain of Islam, and until recently they regarded democracy as un-Islamic. That changed, he says, when the Tahrir Square demonstrations brought down President Hosni Mubarak: “What we’d been trying to achieve for 40 years by force, the people managed to do in 18 days without the use of force.”

(See pictures of the drama on Tahrir Square.)

It’s tempting to view Habib’s embrace of peaceful, participatory politics as a triumph of democracy. On balance, it’s a good thing that he’s part of the process rather than outside it. For a relative newbie in politics, he’s already quite good in the art of the sound bite, and he has a catchy label for himself: “a modernist Salafist.”

But the values he preaches sound anything but modern. He envisions an Egyptian society governed by a strict Islamic code, in which women stay at home, only a Muslim can be President and punishments are meted out in accordance with Islamic law. The gathering at the Journalists’ Union is “sort of a relaunch or revival of the Islamic Jihad movement,” Habib says. “From a closed ideological movement to a political force.”

(See pictures of Mubarak: The Man Who Stayed Too Long.)

That kind of language sends shivers down the spine of many a Tahrir Square revolutionary. Egyptians know too well the brute intolerance preached in Salafist schools across the Islamic world. There have already been reports of Salafist-inspired violence since Mubarak’s exit: women have been harassed in the street; shrines deemed heretical have been burned; extremists in rural central Egypt severed the ear of a Christian teacher they accused of renting an apartment to prostitutes. The Salafists, says Hisham Kassem, a prominent opposition newspaper publisher in the Mubarak era, “are being obnoxious in every way.”

Better get used to it. In the political carnival that is post-Mubarak Egypt, the Salafists are just one of several groups with questionable backgrounds and murky ambitions that aspire to shape Egypt’s future. Their chances of making that happen are not great: with general elections expected in September, to be followed by a presidential contest in November, most of these parties simply don’t have enough time to create a grass-roots organization and win the seats necessary to change anything. But extremist groups have already demonstrated that joining the political process doesn’t mean they will curb their violent and disruptive behavior; how they will respond to failure at the ballot box is anybody’s guess.

(See TIME’s graphic of Rage Across the Region.)

Other, more formidable groups are maneuvering ahead of the elections. The Islamists who make up the Muslim Brotherhood, moderate in comparison with the Salafists, are already in full campaign mode and are widely expected to be the largest group in parliament. Many believe that Egypt’s military, running the country until the election, will not cede all its power and privileges afterward.

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And all this in a society with little exposure to multiparty democracy and much given to rumors and conspiracy theories. That means the high hopes raised by Mubarak’s ouster are accompanied by high anxiety: the gnawing feeling that something — or someone — will take back all the freedoms won in Tahrir Square. “We want to feel that we’re going into democracy,” says Shadi al-Ghazali Harb, a member of a youth coalition formed since the revolution. “And until now, we don’t have this feeling.”

The Brotherhood Wins One
Nothing worries Egyptian liberals — the young Facebook revolutionaries as well as some of the older, secular figures — like the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamists, repressed for decades under the Mubarak regime, trod cautiously at the start of the protests in late January, joining only when the dictator began to wobble. Since his fall, however, the Brotherhood has put its disciplined political organization into high gear. It is holding large meetings and conferences out in the open for the first time and will soon move its Cairo headquarters to a more spacious venue. Mohamed Morsy, a Brotherhood spokesman, says the Islamists are energized and optimistic. “It’s a new era, a new climate. It’s freedom,” he says. “We are taking a deep breath … getting more oxygen.”

(See TIME’s exclusive photos of the uprising in Cairo.)

Unable to muster comparable organizing skills, many liberals have taken to complaining that the Islamists are hijacking their revolution. Al-Ghazali Harb subscribes to a widely believed conspiracy theory that the Brotherhood is in cahoots with the military administration and that “in the end, this will probably result in a parliament with a majority of Islamists.”

The first political test of wits between the Brotherhood and the liberals was over a March 19 referendum in which a military-appointed constitutional committee asked Egyptians to vote yes or no on a collection of 10 amendments, including presidential term limits, rules making it harder for future leaders to declare a state of emergency and fewer barriers for independents to run for office. Many parties believed a yes vote would allow general elections to be held soon, whereas a no vote would send the constitutional committee back to the drawing board and postpone the elections. The Brotherhood, confident that it could quickly mount an election campaign, backed a yes vote; a number of liberal parties, needing more time to get their operations going, backed the no vote.

(Watch Egyptians celebrating Mubarak’s ouster.)

The Brotherhood, just as many had feared, played the religion card: a yes vote, it told supporters, would be a yes for Islam. The referendum passed in a landslide, with a record turnout of 41% of eligible voters.

The liberals’ cause was not helped by their lack of unity before the referendum. Some of the young leaders of the Tahrir Square demonstrations would have preferred the military administration to introduce comprehensive, rather than piecemeal, constitutional reform. They’d also have preferred the military to focus on purging regime loyalists from administrative positions and bringing many of them — possibly Mubarak himself — to a speedy trial. Others, like publisher Kassem, felt that delaying the election would carry the attendant risk of a temporary military leadership’s growing more entrenched.

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The Generals Have a Say
The divisions within the liberals illustrate how far the revolutionaries have come since the heady days of Tahrir Square, when they almost unanimously saw the military as being on their side. Many ordinary Egyptians still hold the men in uniform in high regard and are confident that they will return to their barracks once a new civilian government is in place. Moaz Abdel Karim, a young pharmacist and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, sees the military as “an institution we can turn to — to protect our state institutions and to protect Egyptians.”

But others worry that too much power is now in the hands of the Supreme Military Council, headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a longtime Mubarak ally. Such suspicions have not been allayed by the announcement that Magdi Hatata, the former armed forces chief of staff, will run for President. “That’s really worrying,” says al-Ghazali Harb. “It’s just a remaking of the Mubarak regime.”

(See TIME’s special report “The Middle East in Revolt.”)

Many complain that the military has shown no inclination to give up its old ways: its business interests, ranging from clothing factories to fertilizer plants, are worth billions of dollars. The armed forces remain an informational black hole, and local media continue to toe the red line set by Mubarak in reporting about the military. “I think a big branch of the [military] is still loyal to the old regime, or what it stood for, because they gained a lot from it,” says Mona Seif, a human-rights activist.

Criticizing the men in uniform is a dangerous proposition. In the past two months, the military has arrested thousands of people — many of them protesters who questioned the military’s behavior, including the supreme council’s proposed ban on protests — and tried them before secret military courts, says Seif, who along with human-rights lawyers and volunteers has documented their testimonies. In nearly every case, Seif says, the detainees have been tortured, including 18 women detained on March 9 who were subjected to forced “virginity tests.” The military denies charges of torture.

(See TIME’s photo gallery of the mass demonstrations in Egypt.)

If the generals are not held account-able, say activists like Seif, Egypt could see a repeat of the horrors inflicted during the Mubarak era, during which thousands of people were subjected to arbitrary arrest, torture and imprisonment under the country’s broadly enforced emergency law. That draconian legislation has not been repealed, even though that has been a key demand of the protesters from the start.

Not enough change, and too slow, or too much too soon — the complaints of Egyptians are commonplace in democratic societies everywhere. But just as the revolution, with its slogans and songs, had a distinctly Egyptian flavor, so too will whatever form of democracy that emerges from it. It might be one that can accommodate anxious Facebook liberals and well-organized Islamists — and even the odd “modernist Salafist” running for parliament.
— with reporting by Shahira Amin / Cairo

This article originally appeared in the April 18, 2011 issue of TIME Europe.

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