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In Egypt, real politics is about to begin

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

CAIRO

There's still a glow of liberation here, a week after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Young activists hand out flowers to visitors at the airport, and there is exuberant flag-waving at night in Tahrir Square. But already you can see the political cleavages that will test this young revolution.

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The secret of the Egyptian revolution was that it was inclusive. The street protests brought together rich and poor, secular and religious, Muslim and Christian, socialist and capitalist. Demonstrators and troops embraced in the streets, and even now the crowds in Tahrir are climbing over tanks as if they were in an amusement park.

The uprising that toppled Mubarak was one those Utopian moments that bring a suspension of normal politics. Differences of class, ideology, religion and gender were ignored in pursuit of the common goal of ending a corrupt and arrogant regime. But given human nature, those moments don't last.

Behind the common front in the streets were groups with subtly different agendas. One Facebook organizer was a leftist group known as the 6th of April Youth Movement, named for a 2008 labor strike. Another was the network of prosperous Internet activists, led by Google executive Wael Ghonim, who mobilized the first big protest on Jan. 25. The Muslim Brotherhood, though a latecomer, added a stiff backbone.

The common chant in the streets was "Bread, Freedom, Dignity," which papered over these ideological gaps. And the genius of the organizers was to insist that the protests remain peaceful, no matter what the provocations. This communal spirit spread to spontaneous "popular committees" that protected neighborhoods from looting. But now real politics begins.

I got a sense of how this unified movement is likely to diverge when I met three of Egypt's most gifted young filmmakers, who are collaborating on a documentary called "Tahrir" that they hope to show at the Cannes Film Festival in May. They were in the streets together, but they have different views of where Egypt should go next.

"We need to calm people down a bit. We don't want to rush things and hurt the country," says Amr Salama, a director who is close to Ghonim and is a leading figure in the youth movement.

Mohamed Diab, who directed a prize-winning film about sexual harassment in Egypt, wants to reach out to those who opposed the Tahrir protests: "There are 1.2 million people working for the police. We need them for security. They are 2.8 million people in Mubarak's National Democratic Party. We can't exclude them from what comes next."

But Ahmed Abdallah, the third filmmaker, whose views are similar to the leftist April 6 group, argues that the crimes of the regime and police must be exposed and punished. He explains: "I'm not sure inclusivity should last. It doesn't in any democracy."

A prominent Egyptian venture capitalist who began raising a $100 million fund two weeks before the uprising started says he favors democracy no matter who wins. "We're making a big bet that we're not going socialist," he says. But Dina Sherif, an activist who helps direct a civic-engagement program at the American University in Cairo, cautions that democracy will take time: "We don't know what a political party is supposed to do. We're very green."

The military committee that has been running the country for the past week has been meeting with protest organizers and drafting rules for the transition. But people here wonder whether the military, which has provided every Egyptian leader since 1952, is really willing to give up control. "The army is the question: Is the army prepared to share power with the people?" asks Mustafa El-Gindy, a businessman who is active with the liberal Wafd Party.

Several activists said they hope America will help steady the transition with economic assistance and expertise on organizing elections, rewriting a constitution and other details. President Obama gets high marks here for supporting Mubarak's ouster, despite misgivings from Israel, Saudi Arabia and other allies.

The argument I heard repeatedly was that the world should trust in Egyptian democracy to resolve the disputes that are ahead. Hani Shukrallah, a journalist who was part of a 30-member dialogue group known as the "Wise Men," puts it this way: "Obviously we will not remain one happy family. There is no such thing. But can we remain a viable democracy? Yes. We'll have arguments, and we'll even have riots sometimes. But we accept pluralism in Egypt. We accept that people have different ideas."

davidignatius@washpost.com


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