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Is real democracy an option in Egypt?

January 28, 2011 | 12:57 pm

Egypt As cable news dishes out scenes of tear-gassings, burning buildings and tanks rolling through the streets of Cairo, I'm reminded of a story my father-in-law, who was born and raised in that city, used to tell. He was a young man in 1952 when army leaders deposed King Farouk in a coup d'etat and Egypt found itself suddenly ruled by Egyptians for the first time since the days of the pharoahs (the biblical pharoahs, that is; even Cleopatra was actually a Macedonian). He talked about pandemonium in the streets, a breakdown of law and order; when he shouted at an old man who was going the wrong way down a one-way street with a donkey cart, snarling traffic horribly, the man shouted back, "It's democracy! I do what I want!"

That experience seems to have permanently soured my father-in-law on the prospects of genuine democracy in the Arab world, which may explain why, when he moved to Los Angeles to attend USC film school, he never went back. Of course, what might have seemed like a democratic outbreak for a short time in 1952 turned out to be nothing of the sort. The generals put a convenient figurehead, Gen. Mohammed Neguib, in charge, but it wasn't long before the real leader of the coup, Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, had taken over. He ruled as a dictator until his death in 1970.

My father-in-law suspected that most democratic movements in the Middle East would ultimately end either with the emergence of a strongman ruler or a Muslim theocracy (he was himself Greek Catholic -- about 10% of the population is Christian). Tunisians, Egyptians and even Yemenis will in the coming months demonstrate whether he was right. I'm less cynical than my father-in-law, who died in 2009. The last 60 years have brought profound changes to Egypt and other Arab countries; in the era of Facebook and Google, there's reason to think young Egyptians have a much more sophisticated notion of the meaning of democracy than they did in 1952. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, who stands to gain politically from the protests, is no Muslim fundamentalist, and the Muslim Brotherhood is comparatively moderate as Islamic movements go.

Then again, today's protests are happening against the backdrop of horrifying attacks in recent weeks targeting Coptic Christians, with a bombing at an Alexandria church New Year's Day that killed 25 people followed by a shooting rampage by an off-duty policeman that killed a Christian train passenger and wounded five others. The government blamed the bombing on a foreign offshoot of Al Qaeda, but didn't present evidence to prove it. If Islamic extremists are flexing their muscles, it's a bad time for the ruling regime to be vulnerable.

We heard Friday morning from my wife's cousin, who is locked inside her apartment in central Cairo, listening to the shouts and bangs in the street below while history is being written outside her window. Like many middle-class Egyptians, she just wants it to be over so she can get on with her life. But it looks very much as if things are going to get worse before they get better.

RELATED:

Egyptian tanks roll as protesters defy curfew

Editorial: Cairo's restless streets

-- Dan Turner

Photo: Demonstrators in Cairo. Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated Press

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