Egyptian revolution, Part 2: Now, to build a nation
Egypt must shift the passion of a revolution to the hard task of birthing a free nation. As national elections loom, the question persists: Will the military relinquish control?
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This, of course, is how the military has behaved in Egypt stretching back to the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser a half century ago. But now, with the first round of elections looming on Nov. 28, questions about the military's true intentions, the popularity of Islam, whether democracy can actually take root in Egypt, are poised to be answered. And those answers will reverberate well beyond Cairo and the dusty streets of Minya al-Qamh.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Egypt's Next Step
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The Arab Spring may have started in Tunisia, which passed its first post-dictator test with fairly clean elections in October. But Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, the ideological home for both Arab nationalism and modern Islamist political movements, remains the ultimate trophy for democracy proponents in the region.
A triumphant end to Egypt's revolution could show what's possible for other restive countries across the Middle East. If Egypt creates a government accountable to its people, it will likely embolden those standing up to autocrats like Syria's Bashar al-Assad or Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. If it fails – if the military manages to maintain control of vast portions of Egyptian life – then the Syrias, the Bahrains, the Jordans, and other regimes will find it easier to preserve their old ways of doing things.
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.
Finally, at one stop, a heavily bearded man in plastic sandals steps aboard. Passengers sigh and smirk as he launches into what everyone takes to be a standard Salafi sermon – about hell, wickedness, obeying God. The Salafis are members of a rigid Muslim sect that generally opposes most forms of modern government. The Islamic Jihad, an Egyptian terrorist group founded by current Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and now mostly disbanded, drew from their ranks.