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Some Egyptians Worry About Election Time Frame

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman (center back)  meets with leaders of Egyptian parties and the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo on Feb. 6.
Soliman Oteifi
Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman (center back) meets with leaders of Egyptian parties and the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo on Feb. 6.

The toppling of the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has released a pent-up flood of Egyptian political diversity.

New parties are being formed left and right — some of them brand new and others long denied legitimacy by the former regime.

It used to be that politics was a topic that required little discussion, other than the darkly humorous jokes Egyptians love to tell about the political class. But since the upheaval known as the "January 25th Revolution," you can hardly get a word in edgewise.

Tahrir Square is alive with retail-level politics. All manner of issues, grievances and ideas are under discussion at any hour of the day or night. Salah Abdel-Saleem, a tall man with an engaging smile and no political experience to speak of, is practicing his stump speech.

"The largest and strongest party on the scene right now is the January 25th Party," says Abdel-Saleem, practicing. "We are the only party that represents the young people of Egypt who made all this freedom possible. And I am their presidential candidate."

There are a few catches though. Besides having neither a budget nor campaign-savvy staff, the January 25th Party has yet to be approved to participate in the elections, which could be coming in less than six months.

This is a problem facing any number of parties; there's a labor-based party, the Democratic Freedom Party, an offshoot of the old left-wing Tagammu Party, and others. Many have little experience, while two groups — the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party — have a lot.

Publisher and democracy advocate Hisham Kassem says that while he commends the Egyptian military for wanting to relinquish political power sooner rather than later, he worries six months is too soon for these new parties to get on their feet.

"The important thing for me in the next election is that no single current dominates — and specifically the Muslim Brotherhood," Kassem says. "My estimate is they'll get between 10 to 20 percent maximum, but their rightful share is 10 percent. They're simply an organized minority who still operated under Mubarak because they operated from the mosque, as opposed to us who had no place to operate from — and Mubarak couldn't close down the mosques."

The very first new party approved in the wake of Mubarak's demise is setting out to prove Kassem's hunch that the brotherhood's popularity will fade now that voters have other options.

Al-Wasat, or the Center Party, was formed in a part by brotherhood members who rebelled against the old guard's insistence on mixing religion and politics and on discriminating against women.

They were denied a party license for 15 years by Mubarak's government. Analysts say the regime was anxious to keep the focus on the brotherhood, which it employed as an extremist threat to worry the West.

But now Wasat can compete. Chairman Abou Elela Mady says the difference between Wasat and the Muslim Brotherhood is simple: The brotherhood emphasizes Islam in every facet of life, while Wasat wants to keep religion separate from politics.

"So Wasat [is] very different from Muslim Brotherhood," Mady says. "First of all, you know Muslim Brotherhood is still a religious group. They have a job, [a] preaching job, and also they have a political wing. I think this is very dangerous in a society like Egyptian or Arab world. So we separated between the two jobs. We only specialize in the political activities, politics."

Mady also says his party gives full equality to women and has no problem upholding Egypt's international agreements, including the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty with Israel.

Wasat's supporters believe the party could appeal to a broad cross section of voters, but not if they have less than six months to prepare and run a nationwide campaign. That's why Mady and others are asking the military supreme council to delay the elections by at least another six months.

In these heady days, anything seems possible. Optimists envision an Egyptian electorate, eager to embrace a democratic, secular government that will see its first task as drafting a new constitution to enshrine equal opportunity and freedom of expression.

But others wonder if the wealthy families that used to steer huge numbers of rural votes to Mubarak's regime will continue to support a reinvented version of the former ruling party. Likewise, the superior organizational skills of the Muslim Brotherhood could vault them ahead of many of these new parties with the paint sill drying on their office walls.

For the moment, however, Egyptians are reveling in a cacophony of political expression, uncorked at last and spraying joyously in all directions at once.

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Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.