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Originally published Friday, February 10, 2012 at 3:46 PM

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Egyptians embark on a difficult path to democracy

For Egypt to change, a deeper understanding of the meaning of democracy is necessary, says a first-generation Egyptian American, Suzanne Gaber.

Special to The Times

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AS I sat in Cairo's Tahrir Square in July waiting for videos of the Egyptian revolution to start playing on the screen in front of me, an argument erupted. Two men — one young and wearing Western attire and the other middle-aged with dark straight hair and wearing a gallibea, a body-length shirt worn by many Egyptians — argued over the need for the phrase "Islamic state" to be included as a clause in the constitution.

The debate became a tennis match of quick remarks. As the crowd around them multiplied, I noted an obvious clash of opinions between the generations.

My father and grandfather constantly tell me they left Egypt because the people were never going to demand change. I am happy they were wrong. But as the revolution's anniversary approached, I wondered how much has truly changed since Jan. 25, 2011. Is Egypt on a path to true democracy? Or is it heading back down the same tired road?

For Egypt to change, it will take generations of re-education and a deeper understanding of the meaning of democracy.

For one, many people don't understand the importance of protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority. On the last Friday of my trip last summer, a massive protest happened in Tahrir Square. The protest became known among my friends as the "Brotherhood Convention," as the square filled with large numbers of the Muslim Brotherhood, a strong political organization run on the ideology of Islam. A day intended as the day of peace and cooperation between the political groups turned into a day of Muslim Brotherhood propaganda.

While the Brotherhood at the time seemed less like a majority and more like a scared bully rallying its forces, the recent parliamentary elections in which the party won the most seats have shown the group is a major political force. The Brotherhood's power, however, must be checked, to ensure the transition to full democracy continues.

This is where protection of remaining parties, or the minority, must happen. Especially now, when the new government is set to write the Egyptian constitution, the people must demand fair voice for every party.

Another concept that is misunderstood is the idea of constant protest and questioning of the government, a core pillar of democracy. As I walked through the streets of Cairo, reminiscing about my incredible experiences and the people I met, an amazing smell floated through the air. The smell was from the bakery nearby, so I went there, despite the many pounds I had already gained on my trip.

As we entered, two middle-aged women waiting in line discussed their frustration with the youth in the country. They called the youth reckless and impractical. One woman turned to the other and said, "They need to stop this and go home, they have already gotten what they want. We can't be in a constant state of chaos."

The comment frustrated me almost to the point of interrupting their conversation just to correct them. The whole concept of democracy is based around continual change and protest.

I spent the last day of my trip to Egypt with my cousin in what is the old campus of American University in downtown Cairo. We met with her friends Karim and Mariam. Mariam said something to me that gave me hope that Egyptians will continue on the path to democracy and never let themselves be taken for granted by a leader again. Mariam said: "It might not happen now, or 10 years from now, it might happen when we are dead, but we started something that will change Egypt."

Suzanne Gaber is a first-generation Egyptian American and a senior at Mercer Island High School. She spends her summers in Egypt and will attend American University in Washington, D.C., in the fall.

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