“This is not what we hoped for, when we marched to Tahrir Square and occupied it for three weeks,” young female journalist Abir Salim told me as we stood in front of a police station which was being hastily turned into a voting centre in downtown Cairo.
It seemed ironic to Abir that the elections were being held in police stations - the perfect symbol of the authoritarian regime the demonstrators had fought to bring down. But that was not the most worrying sign. Having personally spent most of three weeks reporting from Tahrir Square when it was the centre of excitement during Egypt’s revolution, I found it hard to disagree with her.
“Did we do all that so the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra orthodox Salafists could come into power?” Many others all across the Middle East are anxiously echoing Abir’s question. But unfortunately, the results of the first truly democratic elections in Egypt and Tunisia seem to prove beyond doubt that they don't form anyway near a majority.
A year after the euphoria of the Arab Spring, it is time for everyone - both in the Middle East and elsewhere - to come to terms with the new reality. It is time to accept and deal with political Islam emerging in the region, not as defiant opposition movements, but as democratically elected legitimate ruling parties.
It goes without saying that building a genuine functioning democracy is a much more complicated and painstaking process than simply deposing an authoritarian regime. Establishing an effective system of checks and balances is a long-term process and it will take time for an accountable government to settle.
The emerging political Islam must now start rebuilding modern national states which meet the expectations of the people, as well as tackling the rotten legacy of decades of dictatorships.
But on a simple, practical level, millions of individuals like Abir fear that the Islamists may not leave them to simply live their lives as they wish, dressing as they like and doing what they want. To take but a single issue, what the Salafists have said about women rights so far is not very promising.
A state that forcefully imposes its perception of moral values and its own interpretation of righteous Islam on its people can never be a democractic one with respect for human rights. Let alone a nation that offers progress and prosperity to its own citizens.
My home country is Sudan where the Islamists have ruled for more than two decades. From my own experience there, I can alas only confirm that Abir’s worries are more than justified.