Islamic Experiment Can Egypt Make Democracy Work?
One year after the revolution, Egypt may have a parliament, but it still has a long way to go before it can call itself a true democracy. The ultra-conservative Salafists have misgivings about the parliamentary system, while secular politicians worry that the Muslim Brotherhood and the military council are making deals behind the scenes.
On his first day as a member of parliament, Ziad el-Eleimy is standing on Tahrir Square, where it all began. He is wearing a baggy corduroy jacket with the parliamentarian sticker on his lapel, and he is carrying a plastic bag. He slept on the square for almost three weeks during the revolution.
Now el-Eleimy is looking across Tahrir Square as if searching for something, but there is nothing to be found. Traffic is roaring across the asphalt, the air is heavy with exhaust fumes, and the traffic signals haven't been repaired in a year. A Japanese reporter holds a microphone up to his face, and el-Eleimy makes a few random comments about freedom and social justice and the fact that his heart remains in Tahrir Square.
His grandfather was imprisoned under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, his parents were jailed under Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, and el-Eleimy himself spent time behind bars under now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak -- it was only a month, but it was enough time for his captors to give him a broken leg and a broken arm. Three rulers and three generations of oppression are to come to an end on this day, the day el-Eleimy, 31, an attorney, revolutionary and representative of the people, takes his seat in the new parliament. The only problem is that he can't even believe it himself.
One year after the revolution, Egypt has a new parliament, one that was elected more freely and fairly than ever before. More than two-thirds of its members are Islamists, who now hold as many seats as the former state party, the NDP, once held. There are eight women in this parliament, 13 former NDP members and only a handful of young revolutionaries. Together, they are charged with drafting a constitution, and at the end of June, when the president has been elected, the military council is slated to transfer power to a civilian government. That, at least, is the plan.
It is a double experiment, and the outcome will have an impact throughout the entire Arab world. Can a country, and an Islamic one at that, find its way to democracy through free elections alone? Or does it need a second revolution to sweep aside all corrupt institutions, including the police, state-run television and government agencies that still operate according to the old rules?
If the members of parliament join forces, and if, with the support of the people, they exert pressure on the military council, the generals will hardly be able to resist. But if they prefer to push their own agendas and reach an accommodation with the military to that end, the parliament could remain what it always was: a place where representatives of the people have met for 146 years without ever actually representing the people.
The revolution is now in the hands of the delegates. El-Eleimy, a social democrat, is one of them, a man who is conscious of his own power and filled with the desire to bring about change. But there are also men like Khaled Hanafi, 50, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who has waited almost 20 years for a seat in parliament. And then there is the Salafist Ahmed Khalil, 33, who was not allowed to teach at his own private school because of his beard.
They have nothing in common, except for the fact that all three demonstrated on Tahrir Square, and yet they must now define important issues together: What kind of a country do we want? And what do we understand as democracy?
'Do Not Believe that the Parliament Can Protect You'
El-Eleimy, the social democrat, walks from Tahrir Square to the parliament building. He trudges through the sand where protesters ripped out the pavement, past the Mogamma building, the colossus of state bureaucracy, and the Institut d'Egypte, which has been in ruins since December. The parliament is behind it, but a wall of concrete blocks and barbed wire now blocks the street. El-Eleimy has to take a detour.
The building that is to house Egypt's future democracy is located behind a fence with gold-tipped posts. Behind it are rolls of barbed wire and soldiers standing guard. The flower beds in front have been newly planted and the walls are freshly painted. There is no longer any evidence that people were dying here only a month ago, and that soldiers were throwing file holders at the crowd from a building on which, ironically, the words "Democracy Guarantees the Sovereignty of the People" are inscribed.
El-Eleimy was also there on that day. He had already been elected, but that didn't stop the military police from beating him. "Do not believe that the parliament can protect you from us," one of the soldiers said with a sneer. El-Eleimy remembers those words clearly, because they demonstrate to him who still sets the tone in the country. He met with some of the generals on the military council three weeks after Mubarak's overthrow. They wanted the activists to stop protesting. "These men don't negotiate," says el-Eleimy. "And they will certainly not give up power voluntarily."
Then he walks into the parliament and shows the guard his badge, for which he had to wait five hours on the previous day. There are no offices for the delegates in this strange parliament, nor are there any budgets for staff. There is only a dusty library, and a lot of plaster and marble, oil paintings hanging crookedly and chandeliers in hallways with ceilings as high as trees. It is one of the many institutions of the old Egypt that gives people a sense of their own impotence.
Crash Course in Democracy
Meanwhile, the Salafists are celebrating outside. Their Al-Nour party, whose name means "Party of Light," has captured 121 seats, or almost a quarter of the lower house, the People's Assembly. They carry Ahmed Khalil, who is one of their leaders, through the crowd like a soccer player who has just shot a winning goal. Khalil has forced himself into a beige suit for this day. His beard is neatly trimmed and he is carrying a blinking smart phone in his hand. He is the Salafists' model parliamentarian, and yet only his appearance is modern. He refuses to speak with women, and his views are those of an arch-conservative.
Only a week ago, he was sitting in a hotel conference room with the other members of parliament while a political scientist explained to them how the parliament works. It was a crash course in parliamentarianism, covering everything from committees to legislative procedures. Most Salafists know nothing about politics. Until recently, they tended to consider elections to be blasphemous.
Khalil didn't need the workshop. He holds a doctorate in business management and runs a high school in Alexandria. He knows how to control his tongue, which is why journalists are allowed to speak with him. He has worked out two answers for questions about sensitive issues like women and bikinis. The first is that the Salafists do not oppress women but rather protect them. They have already prepared a number of laws, says Khalil, against illiteracy, poverty and injustice. This doesn't make him a feminist, however; he also feels that the headscarf and gender segregation were invented for the benefit of women. He says that he also has nothing against beach tourism, but that the tourism industry shouldn't focus exclusively on beaches. Jeep safaris and skiing on sand dunes, he points out, are also enjoyable forms of recreation.
Standing in front of the parliament on this morning, he says: "Sharia and democracy must be combined," referring to Islamic law. "Then it will be good. That's precisely what is happening now." Of course, he adds, when democratic laws violate Sharia, Islamic law must prevail. The Salafists campaigned primarily on promises to fight corruption, but they also know that it isn't a fight that can be won quickly. What can be achieved quickly is an Islamic constitution.
When the parliamentary session begins, the rows of Salafists look like members of a folk dance group, in their turbans, felt caps, beards and robes, known as jellabiya. Of course, each of them has a prayer bump on his forehead, caused by pressing their foreheads on the ground during daily prayers. It is the sign of the extremely pious.
The first order of business for the first free parliament is that all 508 members must swear an oath to the country, the republic and the constitution, although Egypt doesn't actually have a constitution at the moment. The delegates recite their oath, one after another, a four-hour event broadcast live to the rest of the world.
When el-Eleimy stands up, he adds that he intends to fulfill the demands of the revolutionaries. One Salafist refuses to swear an oath to the republic, but to "Allah's doctrine" instead, while others add that they will only uphold the oath as long as it does not contradict the will of God. It is only an oath, a formality, and yet it reveals the first fault lines.
Then they elect the president of the parliament, and the winner, just as expected, is Mohammed Saad el-Katatny, the secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. It is the most influential position a member of the Muslim Brotherhood has ever held, and Katatny knows whom to thank. "Many thanks to the splendid army and the military council, which has managed to bring about elections," he says.
On the next day, the revolutionary el-Eleimy is sitting, chain-smoking, on a gilt baroque sofa in the parliament's cafeteria. The military council has just lifted the emergency laws that were in place for three decades, and it has released 2,000 prisoners.
El-Eleimy feels that this is progress, but that it isn't enough: "The Muslim Brothers and the military council have made a deal," he says. "In the presidential election, the Muslim Brotherhood will support the military's candidate. This will enable them to rule without holding official responsibility. It's the best thing that could happen to them."
He has just filed a motion to order the interior minister, the justice minister and the defense minister before the parliament for questioning. "And the head of the military council!" he adds. It is a bold move, but he hopes to encourage other delegates to break up the pact between the military and the Islamists.
Drowning Out Other Voices
Tahrir Square is full of people on Wednesday, Jan. 25, the anniversary of the revolution. There are more people there than on the day of Mubarak's overthrow. The Muslim Brotherhood has set up the largest stage, directly across from that of the revolutionary youth movement.
They have installed dozens of loudspeakers, and they are now blaring patriotic songs so loudly that they drown out everything else. Their message is: Celebrate the revolution and leave the politics to us.
Khaled Hanafi, 50, is an ophthalmologist with a scruffy beard and wearing a cardigan. He doesn't look anything like the stereotype of a sinister Islamist. During the revolution, Hanafi cared for the wounded in a field hospital at Tahrir Square, and he was just voted into the parliament with 150,000 votes. He tried running for parliament once before, in 1995, and he later spent a year in prison. He was tortured at first, but the period after that, he says, was the best time of his life. "I've never learned so much. We were all professors and engineers."
Hanafi has displayed his photos from the field hospital in front of the stage. They show him bandaging the wounded and sleeping on the ground. It's all about revolutionary credibility, and Hanafi has plenty. Many believe him when he stands on the stage and says that the revolution is over and that the military council will undoubtedly withdraw from politics on June 30.
Will there be a pact between the military council and the Muslim Brotherhood, as so many claim? A frown crosses his friendly face. Tugging at his pink scarf, he says: No, absolutely not! He calls it a rumor that was started by those who want to bring about chaos.
'We Don't Want an Islamic State!'
The Muslim Brothers don't like the protests, because they are increasingly directed against them. For them, the revolution is in the past, whereas the protesters believe it is in the future. On Wednesday, Jan. 25, hundreds of thousands marched into Tahrir Square from all directions, just as they did a year ago. Tens of thousands protested on Friday, which they declared the "Day of Anger." And now the protesters are not just chanting: "Down with the military council," but also: "We don't want an Islamic state!"
There are tents on Tahrir Square again on Wednesday evening. Many protesters have stayed, including el-Eleimy. He wants to sleep on the square and go to the parliament from there every morning. After all, it isn't far.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan