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"New Egypt" Feature: When Idealism Meets Reality (Fadel)

A Town in the Nile DeltaLeila Fadel reports for The Washington Post:

On his first political foray beyond cosmopolitan Cairo, Shady Ghazali Harb, a British-educated surgeon, hoped to find support for his effort to build a political party.

What he found instead, here [in Buzoor] in the Nile Delta, was uncertainty about the new crop of politicians emerging from Egypt’s revolution. Farmers who had gathered in a dirt yard to hear Harb speak stared blankly as the 32-year-old idealist in jeans, a purple dress shirt and Adidas sneakers spoke of his desire to set up shop “where people hang out.’’

“People don’t go to coffee shops here,” Karam el-Hadi Mohammed, 55, a merchant and farmer, told him. “They work hard and go to bed early.’’

Harb was among the thousands of young activists who raised their voices in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as part of the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Now the surgeon is attempting what he sees as the logical next step: to run for parliament under the banner of his newly founded Free Awareness Party.

But the party has only about 50 members. Harb has gathered only 1,000 of the 5,000 signatures required on a petition to make his group official. And he faces competition from dozens of other post-revolutionary political parties among whom the differences are so slight that even the candidates sometimes seem confused.

Egyptians are unsure who to vote for, who is running and what all these groups stand for.

The result has been a kind of paralysis. While Mubarak’s National Democratic Party is no longer on the scene, only a few alternatives have gained official status, and two of them — the Muslim Brotherhood and a moderate Islamist party called al-Wasat — have been around for years.

As for the new political groups, only three secular parties have submitted papers and are awaiting licenses. But time is not on their side. Egypt’s parliamentary elections are scheduled for September, although some activists and officials, including interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, have called for the vote to be postponed.

In the past, parliamentary elections in Egypt were essentially a sham, swept by Mubarak’s party, whose candidates traded favors for votes and passed out free chicken dinners. For aspiring politicians such as Harb, the biggest challenge could be finding a way to translate the revolutionary spirit that took hold in urbanized Cairo, Alexandria and Suez in a way that appeals to the masses.

The majority of Egypt’s 82 million people live outside Cairo, many in rural areas such as this group of 25 villages in the district of Abu el-Matamir, northwest of the capital.

“The challenge we’re facing now is much more difficult than the revolution days,” Harb said on the more than two-hour drive to the district in al-Buhayra province. The military rules the country now, and Harb worries that the ideals of the revolution --- social justice, human rights and freedom of expression --- could be beaten down if the wrong people assume power over the new Egypt.  

“We’re a revolution that did not come to rule,” he said. “But we do have the tools now to guarantee a truly representative state.”

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