WASHINGTON -- For the last 60 years of Egyptian dictatorships, several questions have dominated the bedeviling "democracy" debate there.
If there were truly free elections, would not the worst strait-laced Islamists simply take over? Would not the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which at one point burned down a third of Cairo, really rule? Would elections not simply put back in power some dyspeptic military despot, or a member of the old classes that formerly ruled Egypt either as monarchs or military leaders?
Those were, indeed, the predominant questions last year when a new Parliament was elected, giving the Muslim Brotherhood 70 percent of the seats. Everyone expected them to be the same questions at this week's first round of presidential elections, which will not be finished until mid-June.
But as the initial elections progressed over this exciting week in Egypt, it became clear that an amazing process was moving across the country. Egyptians from the impoverished villages of Upper Egypt to the fancy clubs of the capital were overjoyed, even to wait hours to take part in real elections that recognized the people's importance. An accountant in Cairo was quoted by The New York Times as saying, "It is like honey to my heart." And a businessman cried, "Egyptians feel like we were born again today."
This carnival atmosphere, moreover, was backed by new trends that were not foreseen in the parliamentary elections last year. Egyptians seemed to be carefully sifting out the true intent of the six major parties and voting for nuanced platforms. They were using different criteria in voting for a president than in voting for a parliament member. They wanted an Islamic state, even with Sharia law, but they wanted it in liberalized and modernized terms. Before the elections commenced, none of the Islamic candidates were in the top two.
Above all, the people seemed to be over their rage of last winter, when every night brought violent charades in Tahrir (Liberty) Square, and were now ready to make choices like a serious democratic people.
One of the most respected windows on the Egyptian world is University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, who holds the Anwar Sadat Chair there. He and his colleagues at the university and at JZ Analytics did a major poll of Egyptian society just before the elections, and recently published on Politico.com their amazing findings.
In "What do Egyptians want?" they found the moderate candidates doing the best, led by Islamist Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh (32 percent) and former head of the Arab League Amr Moussa (28 percent). This is interesting because Moussa, a tall and commanding man who once served disgraced former President Hosni Mubarak, and Fotouh, formerly a member of the Brotherhood, now promise a liberalized Islamic state. In fact, asked what state or model they would most like to emulate, Egyptians chose the original liberalized Islamic state, Turkey, by 54 percent.
The poll found that the Muslim Brotherhood and its party would remain a powerful force "for years to come -- but the polls indicate that something has changed."
The populace seemed to be judging the Brotherhood, with its hard-line take on Islam, according to new attitudes that involve transparency and moral distinctions in politics. Seventy-one percent of those polled, for instance, said that the Brotherhood made a mistake by fielding its own presidential candidate after pledging not to. Egyptians indicated that personal trust in the presidential candidate is the most important factor (31 percent) in choosing a candidate, followed by the economy (22 percent), and record and experience (19 percent).
The old religion problem seems to have been resolved in many voters' minds and hearts by drawing interesting lines between religion and politics. Only 8 percent of respondents, for instance, listed religion as the most important issue of candidate selection, a very low percentage.
Two-thirds of the people (66 percent) said they support making Islam's often brutal Sharia law the basis of Egyptian law. But only 17 percent say that they prefer applying Sharia literally, with the penal code that calls for stoning women accused of adultery, while 83 percent say they prefer applying the spirit of Sharia "but with adaptation to modern times." This is an astonishing change.
If these changes, perceived by these experts and their polls (and many other indicators) come into being, the Middle East in its entirety will be changed. Egypt, a tragically overcrowded, land-poor country of 84 million (a figure that must be controlled if the country is to make progress), is the heart and mind of the region. With Egypt, the growing number of other liberalized Islamic countries (Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, probably Libya, most of the Gulf states, Jordan, Kuwait and probably Iraq) would soon form a solid majority.
As professor Telhami says: "The good fortune of Egypt so far is that, despite an amazing revolution in a country of 80-some million, there has been only limited violence and the contestation has been primarily political. The challenge for Egypt is to keep it that way as Egyptians move to define their country and their future."