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Revolutionaries During Ramadan

By Alexander Görlach

Egypt has moved beyond the Arab spring. Cairo, Tahrir Square -- it is as if nothing has happened. The traffic is moving slowly, the air is polluted, the roads are dirty. And this year, Ramadan coincides with the hottest time of the year in August. Public life will come to a standstill. On TV, special Ramadan programs will be broadcast. When the sun sets, people gather for a feast and a stroll along the Nile with their families. Who could be bothered with revolution during that time?

Around Tahrir Square, a lot of people proclaim to be revolutionaries who earned their honors on January 25. It is almost as if being a revolutionary has come to be seen as a profession. And in a country with a large youth population, it is something that probably impresses the girls as well. Sure, many Egyptians marched against Mubarak. They say that a million crowded into Tahrir Square and the surrounding areas to protest. And indeed, January 25 proved to be a decisive event in Egypt's recent history. There is a time before "Jan25" and a time after it. And everybody seems to agree that the date was a critical turning point for the revolution: Diplomats, journalists, spectators and -- most importantly -- the Egyptians themselves.

Yet the consequences of that "revolution" are clearly visible in Cairo: The traffic lights aren't working, there are hardly any traffic policemen. Domestic safety has gone down the drain. A colleague who has been living in the country for a long time puts it like this: "The interior ministry has virtually disappeared." At night there are shootings in some districts, they say. People are insecure. They talk how Mubarak and his people tried to destabilize the country by releasing inmates from prison.

And indeed the people of Egypt have reason to be suspicious of the old guard. Former ministers and cadres of the regime are in jail. They are accused of selling properties in corrupt deals, only to make a fortune when they re-sold the land or developed it. Now they have to pay back or stay in jail for the next 30 years. Egypt has moved quickly to put its former leaders on trial. That is not surprising: People still say that the revolution erupted because Mubarak hoarded many millions in offshore bank accounts while the average Egyptians didn't have enough to eat or a job.

But what comes next? In February, the military seized power. They want to hold elections and reform the constitution. They impose curfews and prohibitions on demonstrations. Is it doing this because of the safety in the city or because it wants to prevent further protests?

Nobody knows who exactly "the military" is. Who pulls the strings? Who are the main actors? Still, many agree that the intentions of the military are honest. The generals don't want to govern, they don't want political power. They won't agree to a form of government that minimizes their influence, they won't bite the hand that feeds them. But the generals also will not add extra time to what is essentially a military dictatorship.

But there are two vital things that the military has thus far been unable to guarantee: Safety and bread. No one promises more than the Muslim Brotherhood. They have given themselves a modern image and moved into new headquarters in breezy New Cairo, away from the squeeze and squabble of the city center. They are making an effort to dispel doubts about their qualifications as a political party; they say that they won't advocate any policies that harm the country or the economy.

Still, religion is playing quite a role. Questions about the influence of Islam form an important part of political discourse. The Muslim Brotherhood claims that influential powers want a country without Islam, absolutely secular, without Allah and mosques. Their proposals are far-reaching: Alcohol -- without that no tourists would come -- could be served only in Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh. Take the Egyptian museum out of the city and the tourists with it. Relegate it to a new building close to the airport. Prohibit the selling of alcohol in the city. The Muslim Brothers haven't shown their true colors yet; the poor and uneducated (40 percent of Egyptians are illiterate) fall for it.

In a testament to the complexity of the situation, the influential Al-Azhar mosque, and especially its main imam and the highest Fatwa body, even felt the urge to react to the Brotherhood. They published a binding proclamation that in Islam religion and state can absolutely be separated. A preparation for a democratic society? Al-Azhar wasn't free either in Mubarak's Egypt. The Friday sermons were vetted by the state, important posts were occupied by loyalists of the regime. Maybe this influential Islamic institution wants to protect itself from becoming subjected to the whims of a new government?

Everybody is looking at Syria at the moment. A president orders the security services to kill his own people: Unbelievable and appalling. With the exception of Libya, the future of the Middle East appears to hinge on the situation there. In comparison the Egyptians managed to get their revolution across quite peacefully. But the real work is still ahead. The Arab summer will be a busy one.