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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But now in Egypt, a number of Salafi groups – previously demonized and driven underground by Mubarak – have surprisingly mobilized to run in the elections. The metro car preacher is canvassing for one of these hard-core Islamist parties. In many respects, he personifies what for the United States and the Egyptian military have been one of their greatest fears since the ouster of Mubarak: the possibility of Islamic radicals making significant inroads in any postrevolution government.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet his presence may also be a sign of how unfounded that fear really is. Salafis are engaging in the democratic political process – at least for now – not rejecting it. The sect doesn't appear to have enough broad support to capture many votes in the parliamentary elections.
This is even visible on the train. Interlaced with his tirades about Mubarak, corruption, and "Zionist scum" – all of which brought murmurs of assent – the ragged-looking man insists that Egypt should be an Islamic state, that "the sharia should be our constitution."
One frazzled commuter interjects, "Like the Saudis? No way. Religion is a private thing."
Others are less critical. "We need more religion, more morality in government," says a third man. "Look at where we are now."
By the end, the Salafi member has lost his audience. Passengers go back to debating parties and political figures. His pitch becomes subsumed in the democratic din, like the clack of the train wheels below.
If Egypt seems unlikely to put many Muslim extremists in power, this is not to say that more moderate Islamic groups won't have a significant voice in the new government. The Muslim Brotherhood and similar religious groups enjoy broad support. The Brothers, banned but semi-tolerated under Mubarak, have built a network of mosques, charity health clinics, and social services across the country. They're well financed by the membership.
A June survey by Gallup, the American polling firm, found the Muslim Brotherhood to be the most popular political group in the country, with 15 percent backing. (Brotherhood candidates are running under the banner of the newly formed Freedom and Justice Party.)
Yet none of this means the group will dominate at the ballot box. For one thing, more than 50 political parties are now fielding candidates. Egyptians, many of whom clearly embrace Islam, also seem to prefer at least some separation of politics and piety. In the same Gallup poll, 69 percent of Egyptians said that they wanted religious leaders to "advise those in authority," but only 14 percent supported them actually writing the laws.
And even the Brotherhood has been dealing with dissent and disagreement within its ranks. Aboul Fotouh, for instance, broke with the group over its insistence – wary of frightening Egypt's current military rulers and secularists in the electorate – that it wouldn't run a candidate for president, only ones for parliament. Aboul Fotouh also favors a less overtly Islamist approach to politics than many in the Brotherhood. He wants people to live more Islamic lives but suggests they accomplish that through outreach, not legislation.
Other young members of the Brotherhood, who joined hands with secular liberals and socialists at Tahrir Square in January, have broken out on their own as well. Mohammed al-Kasaas, a 30-something film editor who joined the Brotherhood while in college, exemplifies many Egyptians looking for a middle way. Mr. Kasaas was on the ground floor of the Egyptian revolution. In the early years of the last decade, he joined nascent protests against presumed plans to make Mubarak's son Gamal Egypt's next leader. He participated in the anti-Mubarak "Enough" demonstrations in 2005. In 2008, he joined the April 6 Youth Coalition, a free speech and democracy group that started in support of labor action in Mahallah and evolved into a major organizer of the Tahrir Square protests.