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Egypt’s Young Revolutionaries See Fight for the ‘Soul’ of a Nation

September 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Seven months after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarack, a new Egyptian government is taking shape and young political activists are trying to find their way in an uncertain future. Margaret Warner reports from Cairo.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, Margaret Warner continues her reporting from post-revolutionary Egypt.

Tonight — tonight, she talks with political activists trying to find their way in an uncertain future.

MARGARET WARNER: The road from Tahrir Square to a new Egypt winds through modest neighborhoods like Imbaba in Cairo. And last night, volunteers from the new Al-Adl, or Justice Party, descended on this coffee shop with good cheer and resolve, bearing brochures and campaign videos, trying to coax an audience from their cars in the streets and from their games of backgammon indoors.

But the young organizers found that, in the brand-new game of Egyptian retail politics, it’s a buyer’s market.

MAN (through translator): I think, in a couple of years, these parties will be filtered and you can determine who is good or not. Then, I can make a choice. Right now, I can’t decide.

MARGARET WARNER: But time is what the dozens of new political parties in Egypt don’t have. Parliamentary elections are just around the corner, yet the ruling Military Council hasn’t set a firm date or campaign laws.

It’s a far cry from the clarity of the heady revolution last winter that began with protests in Tahrir Square and ended with toppling President Hosni Mubarak 18 days later. The challenge now, building a democratic Egypt in Mubarak’s place.

MOHAMED GABR, Justice Party: It is going to be a decades fight to fight over the soul of this nation.

MARGARET WARNER: Twenty-nine-year-old lawyer Mohamed Gabr and 36-year-old businessman Ahmed el-Sherif are among the Justice Party’s co-founders. Neither had been interested in politics before the revolution. Why are they getting involved now?

MOHAMED GABR: Because this country is on the brink of either starting to move towards a much better future with a lot more democracy, a lot more justice, or it’s going to be a dark, bleak scenario where things will deteriorate very fast.

AHMED EL-SHERIF, Justice Party: Hope. I think that that is the main reason I got involved. Before the 25th of January, I had no hope.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet this young construction executive, now the party’s finance director, understands hope is not a plan.

AHMED EL-SHERIF: At the end of the day, you know, we can talk all we want, you can plan all we want, have the best political messages in the world. If we can’t finance these operations, we’re not going to get anywhere.

MARGARET WARNER: This is typical of the Justice Party’s businesslike approach. It managed to qualify for the elections just behind the seasoned Muslim Brotherhood’s new party and a more conservative Islamist group. But Gabr and el-Sherif understand the challenge posed by Islamists so well rooted in their communities. The Justice Party is calling for a middle ground when it comes to Islam’s role in the new Egyptian government.

MOHAMED GABR: Islam is very important for Egyptians, and we want to maintain that. However, we do not want to take this a step further. We don’t want to change the country into a theocracy. So we don’t think that opening this Pandora’s box at this stage is something that Egyptian society can tolerate.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, the Justice Party welcomes Islamists who share this vision of a non-theocratic state, despite many secular Egyptians’ fears of Islamist overreach.

AHMED EL-SHERIF: I think when you lock somebody up in a room for 30 years and slap them every time they say something, the minute you open the door and let them out, they’re going to come out yelling and just saying everything they have been keeping inside for 30 years. You need to let time go. You need to let them get everything that they’re saying out, and you need to talk. You can not just say, listen, hey, you’re crazy. Your ideas are crazy.

MOHAMED GABR: While most of the members of the party are hard-core revolutionaries, they believe in moderation. And they are trying to approach a very difficult situation with a lot of attention to not breaking the country or destroying the social contract that this country was built on.

MARGARET WARNER: The party’s trying to recruit up to 100 revolution- minded candidates to run for parliament’s 504 seats.

AHMED EL-SHERIF: If they can be the leaders in 10 years, then the revolution, to me, has succeeded. If they’re not around, then we have failed.

MARGARET WARNER: But their big hurdle is that too many of those who protested in Tahrir are staying out of politics now.

AHMED EL-SHERIF: Oh, actually, the majority of friends are not getting involved. They don’t want to even hear about politics. They don’t see political parties as being a platform that can achieve what this country wants. We have been so alienated from politics for 50-plus years, not just 30 years, that: It’s just something that, OK, that path is not going to work. We don’t want to do this. It’s never worked before.

MARGARET WARNER: Ragia Omran is one Tahrir Square veteran who is staying out of politics. The 38-year-old human rights lawyer was on the front lines of the uprising. But sitting in a cafe on the square last night, she said she can do more outside the political arena.

RAGIA OMRAN, human rights lawyer: The current situation, especially with the mass arrests and the human rights abuses, I think that’s a very pressing matter. And I feel I can do something more there. And I think there aren’t enough people doing that, you know? So, I think that I am more useful there than just being a member of a political party.

MARGARET WARNER: The Bryn Mawr-educated Omran represents civilians subjected to military trials, and helped organize last Friday’s rally against the practice. But though political parties joined the rally, she’s not persuaded they are ready for prime time.

RAGIA OMRAN: They are forming themselves, and they have to be — they have to go through the elections, and they really haven’t had the time to spread out and to have a real well-thought-out program. And they are not really like in the street. They are not with the people.

MARGARET WARNER: We have talked to people who are involved in parties who said, in the end, revolutionaries have to be in the Parliament.

RAGIA OMRAN: I definitely agree that many people have to run, but some people — I think also that it’s good to have people like me who are independent who are kind of out, because, when you’re not the legislator, but you’re — you know, you’re the one who kind of has to deal with enforcing, you have a different perspective on how — how things get really done in the real life.

MARGARET WARNER: Real life here still includes elements of the old regime, symbolized by the torched, burned-out hulk of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters behind me. While the young revolutionaries debate how and whether to get engaged, old NDP figures are forming new political parties to compete against them in the elections.

Veteran opposition figure Gameela Ismail knows what it’s like to fight the old regime. She spent years protesting the jailing of dissidents. Now a parliamentary candidate, she got a rock star’s welcome at last Friday’s rally.

GAMEELA ISMAIL, Al-Nahar: I’m here today to be together with those hundreds of thousands of people who want to remind the Egyptian people that the revolution is not over.

MARGARET WARNER: We spoke again after her late-night talk show at a new private TV channel, Al-Nahar. She knows old NDP figures are trying to stage a comeback, but insists it doesn’t worry her.

GAMEELA ISMAIL: You can’t just throw away 50 years, and you can’t just get rid of millions of Egyptians. You can’t do this. And it’s not fair. It’s not fair. So, I think they will be represented between 20 to 25, maybe 30 percent. However and again, they are not going to be able to take as much freedom as that away from Egyptians.

MARGARET WARNER: Ismail has run and lost for Parliament twice before in rigged elections, and has no illusions that conditions will be ideal this time either.

GAMEELA ISMAIL: We won’t have a free and fair elections from the first election after the revolution. I think it’s just going to be a start.

MARGARET WARNER: But she says that’s exactly why the Tahrir Square revolutionaries have to get engaged in politics now, or risk leaving the field to the old forces.

GAMEELA ISMAIL: I think that, without us being there, with the majority of Islamists there or the residues of the old regime trying again to be there, it’s very important for us to be there.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s like the age-old Egyptian wedding day tradition. Friends celebrate the new couple in the streets as their home gets filled with furniture. The excitement comes first, but the real work lies ahead.

RAY SUAREZ: In her next report, Margaret examines Egypt’s sinking economy.