Inside Tahrir Square, glimpses of what Egypt might face
Over the last two weeks, Cairo's Tahrir Square has turned into an enclave of regime opponents - an alternative view of what a post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt might look like. Part fairground, part battleground, it is a place where political theory has been hammered out, religious sects coexist and women make their voices heard.
Last night, as speculation that Mr Mubarak was preparing to hand over power to the army was joyously received by the crowds, certain events from the past week appeared to highlight the main issues that will face the country in the next few weeks and months.
One of those moments came on Sunday. After repelling days of attacks by pro-regime thugs, the square's defenders opened it up to thousands of ordinary Cairenes as a semblance of normality returned. After two weeks of protests and a steady state media diet slandering those inside the square as Iranian or western puppets fuelled by fistfuls of euros and American fast food, the curious newcomers ventured into what had been a no-go zone for all but the most steely nerved. They came to make up their minds about its inhabitants.
There was a celebratory atmosphere and a sense of relief for the protesters still holding onto the square. Suddenly, a woman who appeared to be a local resident seized the microphone at one of the stages and gave voice to the widely-held sentiment in Egyptian society that the anti-regime movement was creating instability and hurting local businesses. As she launched into her argument there was a crackling of static followed by silence. The sound system had been disconnected, terminating the woman's unpopular sentiments. For a few seconds the crowd stared at each other mutely. There was an awkward silence: everyone realised what had transpired but was unwilling to speak out.
Then, one of the leaders on the stage started a well-worn chant: "The people want the regime to fall!" and, relieved by the repetition, the crowd took it up. I took this vignette as a worrying portent of this revolution's future.
Many fear that Islamists will seek to capitalise on the moment and achieve something they have been fighting for since the 1930s. Despite the protests originally being organised by young, Facebook-savvy youths, the Muslim Brotherhood has gained some momentum, organising the square's defence, providing security, searching those coming in, and spearheading much of the fighting against regime loyalists seeking to retake it. More recently, they organised PR stunts such as the wedding of two revolutionaries and a mass where devout Muslims made a protective chain around praying Christians.
The outward face of the Muslim Brotherhood so far has been tolerance and smiles. Those shouting Islamist slogans are shouted down by the majority and the Brotherhood's most famous slogan, "Islam is the solution", has been absent. Seemingly championing parliamentary democracy, Brotherhood leaders have not only avoided splitting the movement, they have declared that they will not field a presidential candidate in the next elections or even seek a parliamentary majority.
But the calculation guiding them, aside from an innate caution under the secularist army's watchful eye, appears to be that they can emulate the Shiites of Iraq and, after mobilising their powerful grassroots networks to allay fears, attain power at the ballot box at a later stage.
"It's like a model society being created out there," said Marwa Kassem, 33, a human resources trainer resident who lives in Switzerland who returned to Egypt to participate in the revolution. "The Muslim Brotherhood sit alongside Christian girls singing together. There are girls smoking, which is a big issue in a country where many girls smoke in the bathroom."
But another visitor to the square, a bearded secularist, had a different experience. After lighting a cigarette, he was accosted by a Brotherhood organiser waving his finger disapprovingly in a reminder that smoking is considered a sin.
"He was fooled by my appearance into thinking I'm one of them," the man commented later, recalling how humbly the man apologised to him when he realised his error. But his takeaway was the revelation that a two-track system exists, separating those inside the Brotherhood from those outside.
Should the revolution be successful and a new post-Mubarak state emerge, then its new ministers, generals and heroes will be drawn from the crowds that swarmed the square during these weeks of protest. Future generations in a new Egyptian republic will be taught of the heroes of Tahrir Square in hushed tones, and the square itself will achieve mythical dimensions, imprinted in the minds of the young as a utopia where free speech and debate thrived.
Before getting to that stage, the Tahrir Square of today is hardly a crucible of tolerance or a Speaker's Corner for the Arab world. One protester with the appearance of a devout Muslim very frankly told me that "democracy does not suit Muslims. For too long we have been humiliated and forced to beg benefits from the West". Although he didn't call for a caliphate, his implications were clear.
Then, there is the suspiciously familiar line about "free and fair elections" that every Muslim Brotherhood supporter repeats about the future Egypt they wanted to see. Those inside the square know that journalists shape public opinion in their countries, that America can affect this revolution, and that its greatest fear is the rise of an anti-western Islamist government.
Ultimately, it may come down to the same Catch 22: the majority of Egyptians are not only Muslim, but devout Muslims as well. They follow rules of the faith that do not always correspond with western priorities. Given the chance to exercise their democratic rights, they may elect representatives who will implement laws backed by the majority of society - laws that might restrict the rights of women and minorities, or conflict with Israeli and US interests.
If the West is genuine about its commitment to democracy, this is a possibility that it must accept.
Iason Athanasiadis is a freelance writer and photographer
Updated: February 11, 2011 04:00 AM