Demonstrators fearful that the tide of revolution is on the ebb in Egypt staged a mass protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo last Friday to demand that a less authoritarian form of government be introduced.
The protesters appeared to sense that political power is drifting away from them and the old system is reasserting itself as they gathered after Friday prayers beside the blackened hulk of the old headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
“I am worried that there are so many forces against the revolution, mainly in the army,” said Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engineer and coordinator of the 6 April Movement, a group that played a crucial role in organizing the street protests that ended the rule of President Hosni Mubarak. He added: “By demonstrating, we are showing our anger at what is happening.”
Egypt’s revolution is uncertain of its identity, or even if it really was a revolution. Maher would prefer radical change but does not expect it. “I realize the revolution will not bring a new Egypt,” he says. “We will have better people in charge and perhaps less corruption, but not a different system.”
Maher, who was jailed five times and tortured severely under the old regime, does not seem too downcast at present frustrations. The shadowy Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had failed to invite any of the radical groups to a dialogue, but he thought the political situation was fluid and the army would give ground under pressure. He said: “They don’t want a clash with us.”
There is a tug of war between the army and protesters over the degree to which the old authoritarian state should be dismantled.
The army promises that the old Emergency Law will be abolished but not yet. Thousands of prisoners have been freed but nobody knows how many are still in jail. There are still 10-minute trials by military tribunals handing out long sentences. The media may be more free, but criticism of the military for torturing suspects remains a red line.
After all, it was the army commanders, not protesters, who forced President Mubarak to stand down. “What began as a revolution ended up as a military coup,” says one foreign observer. “The generals sacrificed the regime to save the state.”
One change that may be irreversible is that Egyptians, certainly in Cairo, are now politicized where they were once apathetic. Officials are no longer entirely above the law, nor are police officers who are accused of killing or injuring protesters.
The self-confidence of the protesters is waning but they recall they forced the army to move against the sclerotic regime of President Mubarak. The chant in Tahrir Square then was: “The army and people are one!”
Many are now beginning to doubt this and recall that the army provided the three dictators who have ruled Egypt since 1952.
The groups demonstrating in Tahrir Square lack leaders and a political agenda. At the height of the protests, they received crucial reinforcements from the well-organized militants of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition grouping. But the Brotherhood, having got its members out of jail and wanting to maintain good relations with the army, is limiting its cooperation with its former allies. One of its leaders said: “We are not going to be extras in anybody else’s movie.”
The Brotherhood is itself divided on whether it should remain a secretive and highly ideological movement of militants and how far it should transform itself into a mildly Islamic party like the ruling AKP party in Turkey.
Maher says he expects that the Muslim Brotherhood will get 40 per of the vote in a parliamentary election and the next President will be Amr Moussa, the current head of the Arab League, though he has long played a leading role in the old regime. He recalls that Moussa made contact with him during the protests and advised compromise as the protesters fought to hold Tahrir Square.
“We broke off contact with him,” Maher says, “but later he rang us up and said he had been wrong.”
Many protesters would prefer Mohammed El-Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as candidate to be the next president. But they are irritated by his lack of political experience in Egypt and say he is too used to living in France or Vienna.
The political players in post-Mubarak Egypt are unable, as yet, to measure their own strength or that of their rivals. The groups that organized the mass protests know they lack organization, money, and support in the countryside where most of the 80 million Egyptians live.
They say that 25 million Egyptians have access to computers and believe, perhaps optimistically, they can quickly organize their sympathizers.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq