Democracy, Egyptian Style

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Thomas Dworzak / Magnum for TIME

Protests on Tahrir Square, April 3, 2011

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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."

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.

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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