KABUL, Afghanistan -- They're grappling for microphones and raising voices. They're tossing out robust opinions and casting ballots to chart their future. They're making demands -- and expecting results. "We are," declares one Afghan, "finally having our say."
What has taken place during the past week in a big tent erected on a university's soccer field is a scene unlike anything in Afghanistan for generations -- something that genuinely looks, sounds and smells like democracy emerging. But is it?
Long absent from politics during Afghanistan's epoch of war, democracy is making its tentative return not only in the fits and starts of the loya jirga grand council but as a frame of mind. In recent days, it has become a word tossed around Kabul both as ideal and as birthright.
The trouble is, Afghanistan also has another, competing mantra in these jumbled post-conflict days: unity. It, too, is a pivotal ideal for a nation whose conflicts have been aggravated by divisiveness and ancient hatreds, both political and ethnic.
So when unity, which is difficult without consensus, collides with democracy, which is supposed to be messy and fragmented and contentious -- at least while debate is under way -- the results can be confusing.
"It's a difficult balance for this country," acknowledges Ashraf Ghani, senior adviser to newly selected president, Hamid Karzai.
But despite calls for unity, he says, there is hardly a danger that people will just go along with the crowd. "These delegates do not just take a suggested agenda and simply accept it," he says.
There are more than 1,600 of them, and they're anything but reticent. They have been queuing up by the dozens at speakers' microphones for days, turning the loya jirga into something of a national eruption of raw political expression, the underpinning of any democracy.
One man from the east spent 10 minutes castigating delegates for their partisan applause. Arguments raged over the use of the word "Islamic" in the new government's name. A delegate from northern Faryab province wanted key ministries to be elected, not appointed. A woman from Kabul spoke for 10 minutes -- five longer than allotted -- before her microphone was muted. She kept talking anyway.
"We heard a lot from our leaders in the past few years. Now they should hear from us," thundered Sher Mohammed Bador, a delegate from Kabul.
Then there was Ali Alizoder of Ghazni in central Afghanistan. Launching into a five-minute tirade on warlords and wealth Friday, he summarized the democratic premise: "I have some suggestions," he declared, smiling.
Maintaining order and moving the agenda forward has been a challenge for the loya jirga chairman, Ismail Qasim Yar, himself no slouch when it comes to stringing words together. He's had to bark from the chair repeatedly: "Your time is finished. Please sit down!"
"People really fought to get here. But when they arrived, they found a lot of decisions had been made in advance. So when they do get a chance to speak, they're really taking hold of it," says Alexander Thier, Kabul representative for the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization based in Belgium.
Not that the loya jirga is democracy unfettered. The complaints of intimidation and harassment that plagued the delegates' selection process have continued into the council itself, and some delegates say they feel threatened to speak their minds about controversial issues. There have been reports of scuffles on the floor -- but, to the relief of all, no gunfire.
"I'm sure the loya jirga commission had to give in to all sorts of pressures. But I'm pleasantly surprised by the amount of successful resistance put by the people of Afghanistan to ensure they were represented fairly," says Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan.
"Yes, there are complaints," he said ."But there is also the expression of a great deal of satisfaction by a great many people. ... and in the end, that's what's important."
Many Afghans agree. Despite the bumps, they've been saying for weeks that this burst of roughhewn democracy -- and having, finally, a stake in their own future -- is the most promising development they've seen in years.
"Of course, in an ideal situation you would have had more choice. I want full democracy and pluralism," said Habibullah, a delegate from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. "But this special situation requires something like this loya jirga. It's not perfect, but it's the best we've got right now."