Egypt's revolutionaries see little progress a year after revolt

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 24, 2012 

CAIRO — A year ago, Tahrir Square was a carnival of unity — Egyptian protesters stood Christian with Muslim, Islamist with leftist, women with men, rich with poor — for the common cause of bringing down Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime.

Now, Mubarak is gone, and so is the show of solidarity that ended his regime and galvanized other Arab Spring rebellions. The revolutionary movement has fragmented into rival blocs overseen by an all-powerful military council. The square itself is a bullet-pocked battleground where a small, perpetual demonstration snarls traffic and chokes downtown Cairo businesses.

Within this mosaic, Islamists have emerged as Egypt's dominant new political force, much to the dismay of liberal protesters, whose Western-style demands sometimes run counter to strict religious teachings. As the competing groups bicker over parliamentary posts and the ruling Mubarak-era generals wield their authority, revolutionary activists say their dreams of speedy democratic reforms and civil liberties seem as distant as ever.

"We didn't win," said Mohamed Abla, a well-known painter and vocal critic of the military council. "The revolution has moved into another stage now, and it seems we still have to fight and fight and fight."

After a bloody and difficult transitional year, Egyptians are expected to stream back to Tahrir Square by the thousands Wednesday, though there's no clear revolutionary agenda for the commemoration of the first protests last Jan. 25. Some groups call for a renewed uprising to bring down the military council; others want a somber remembrance of the "martyrs," the estimated 1,000 protesters who were killed in the past year's uprising and many subsequent spasms of political violence.

Liberal blocs are worried that Islamists will turn the event into a victory rally after winning more than 70 percent of parliamentary seats in the first post-Mubarak election. The Muslim Brotherhood and the literalist Salafist factions, meanwhile, are nervous that the gathering will lead to clashes with government security forces, forcing Islamists yet again to choose between supporting fellow protesters or staying in the good graces of the powerful generals.

The discord surrounding the anniversary mirrors the frank talks going on in closed political negotiations, with the newly emboldened Brotherhood pulled in at least three different directions: left toward established liberal parties, right toward the ultraconservative Salafists or into a risky partnership with the status-quo generals.

Women, Coptic Christians and the revolutionary youth barely register in power-sharing negotiations, those groups complain.

"The euphoria of their stunning victory and upsurge might result in miscalculations, particularly if they seek to appease the military at the expense of the revolutionary objectives of other forces," said Khalil al Anani, a professor at the United Kingdom's Durham University who's written extensively on the Brotherhood. "It's an uncertain game that might lead to unintended outcomes."

The military has unveiled plans for its own commemoration of Jan. 25, which it's declared a national holiday. Plans include a nationwide air show, including flyovers by warplanes, that an Egyptian military spokesman quoted in the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm said would be at least as large as the ones that marked the anniversaries of the 1952 coup that first brought the generals to power. Officers will be decorated for their roles in the protests, the newspaper said, quoting Maj. Gen. Ismail Etman, the officer in charge of military morale.

If the relationship between the army and the revolutionaries were still as cozy as it was last year, when soldiers were hailed as heroes for siding with protesters in the square, such a grand overture from the military might've been welcomed. Instead, activists say, it only seems ironic after a year of escalating violence against protesters.

In Tahrir Square, outside the Cabinet building and Interior Ministry and in front of the state TV building, cameras have recorded shocking scenes of police and military brutality against protesters over the past several months. At least 100 protesters have been killed in clashes since Mubarak resigned, prompting calls for the generals to face the same murder charges for which the deposed president is standing trial.

In the past 11 months, the military has sent more civilians to military trial than Mubarak's regime did in 30 years, human rights groups say. Female protesters have undergone forced "virginity tests," and nonprofit groups saw their offices raided on suspicion of receiving "foreign funds," code for U.S. support for democratic initiatives. The notorious emergency law, which allows for arbitrary arrests, is still in place.

Anyone who raises such issues publicly is subject to harsh retaliation in state media, which regularly depict revolutionaries as foreign agents or liken them to unruly children. The disparate protest groups are unable to respond to such attacks with a unified front; meetings to form a representative umbrella group fell apart amid shouting matches and grandstanding.

"The first biggest mistake we made was leaving the square when Mubarak resigned," said Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6 Youth Movement and a driving force behind the uprising who's since fallen out with some other liberal factions. "The second is that we still can't form an organizing committee of the revolutionaries. There's just no coordination."

Activists of all backgrounds agree that the revolution remains unfinished as long as the generals are in place, but they argue over how and when to wrest control of the Arab world's most populous nation from the entrenched military brass. How easily Egypt moves to civilian rule will set the pace for domestic reform and serve as an example — whether good or bad — for other pro-democracy revolts that spread throughout the region last year.

Facing unprecedented public criticism after the recent violence, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces pledged to hand over power to an elected government after presidential polls in June, a sped-up timetable approved by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Islamists are under intense pressure to live up to their campaign promises, and they want to avoid a total system breakdown that could detract from their parliamentary priorities. At the same time, however, they're resistant to prolonged military rule and members have said bluntly that they'd move to curb the council's broad powers, a swing that would realign them with a key demand of the other revolutionary factions.

Liberals and youth groups are still pushing for an immediate transfer of power to a caretaker government, though so far they haven't been able to draw crowds big enough to imperil the military rulers. They'll try again on the anniversary Wednesday, they vowed, but this year there's no guarantee that millions of protest-weary Egyptians will join them.

"The military council has outfoxed all of us," said Maher, of the April 6 group. "They are still here and yet they've never fulfilled any promise of reform or met any demands of the revolution."

(McClatchy special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed to this article from Cairo.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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