Democracy, Egyptian Style

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Thomas Dworzak / Magnum for TIME

Protests on Tahrir Square, April 3, 2011

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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."

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.

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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