x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

In the middle of a revolution: Egypt remains divided and insecure

Looking back, Egypt in 2011 The masses that congregated at Tahrir Square became a worldwide symbol of freedom. The razor wire and walls now surrounding it tell another story.

Egyptian anti-government protesters gathered at Tahrir Square in on February 4 during
Egyptian anti-government protesters gathered at Tahrir Square in on February 4 during "departure day" demonstrations to force out President Hosni Mubarak.

CAIRO // Stacked on tables in a small office in downtown Cairo are enough images to define an epoch - let alone the three short weeks in 2011 that saw Egyptians rise up and throw off a dictator who most people assumed would rule for life and be succeeded by his son.

Contained on the more than six terabytes of video being catalogued by a group of young men and women are portraits seared into the minds of Egyptians as one of the most tumultuous years in its long history draws to a close: men praying on Qasr Al Nil bridge as police spray them with water cannons, the gunshot that felled one of more than 846 people who died in the first round of fighting, and the teeming mass of hundreds of thousands of people chanting against the regime in Tahrir Square.

Omar Hamilton, a filmmaker and co-founder of Mosireen, the media collective indexing the footage, makes no bones about the fact the photo and video archive, like the revolution it documents, is incomplete.

"Egypt is definitely in the middle of a revolution," Mr Hamilton says. "You don't have a revolution in a day or a week or a month. It's a repositioning of ideas and behaviour. It's definitely an ongoing thing."

At the beginning, it seemed it might be simpler.

Tunisia's revolution inspired and boosted the confidence of Egypt's young political reformers. The brutal killing of Khaled Said in Alexandria focused the long-running rage of many Egyptians at the Mubarak regime and gave rise to a Facebook page that helped bring thousands to Tahrir Square in January 25. Eighteen dizzying days later, Mr Mubarak stepped down from the presidency he had held for nearly three decades.

For some older Egyptians, Mr Mubarak's resignation and the demonstrations that led up to it stand out as the most important events in the country's history since the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, which saw Israel's army redraw the map of the Middle East and the golden era of President Gamal Abdel Nasser end.

Before the uprising, Egypt had reached a point where a "break in the system was imminent", says Tarek Harb, 60, an engineer in Cairo. "Most of us were afraid that it would come as a tsunami from the poor areas. But it came from everywhere, from all walks of life."

While the energy, anger and hope of tens of thousands of Egyptians forced Mr Mubarak from office, to their growing dismay they have not removed the system he built and oversaw.

Revolutions have always followed a crooked path, with the toppling of an old order giving way only haltingly and painfully to a new one. Egypt's revolution - if that is what indeed it turns out to be - is proving no different.

After the Egyptian military took control of the government under the umbrella of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), the sense of common purpose that had deposed Mr Mubarak and seen stunningly few people killed in the street fighting quickly dissolved.

Protesters began clashing with police on March 29, not three weeks after the government collapsed. More confrontations took place throughout the summer and autumn, and as 2011 draws to a close, Egypt is divided and insecure.

Time and again, the military has missed its own deadlines for transition to civilian rule and displayed a tin ear to the requirements of political parties and other civilian institutions.

Nowhere is its clumsiness more in evidence than in Tahrir Square. It has turned a worldwide symbol of freedom into a garrison, erecting concrete walls adorned with razor wire at three of its entrances.

Once regarded as the guardians of Egypt's fledgling revolution, the military has become, in the view of many of its former supporters, the chief obstacle to real change.

In the minds of many Egyptians, the military - notwithstanding its brief bout of independence in the spring - is once again an inseparable appendage of the disgraced and discredited Mr Mubarak. In a damning illustration of the military's plummeting credibility, a front page of the daily Tahrirnewspaper last week showed an old photograph of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council, with Mr Mubarak.

"Who is running Egypt, Tantawi or his boss?", the headline read.

"I thought it would take much longer to realise that Scaf and Mubarak are one and the same thing," said Joseph Rizk, an activist and the founder of a public policy group called New Republic. "On the other side, I didn't expect the opportunism, disunity and fractured political powers that are in Egypt now."

Mr Rizk, echoing the view of many young protesters, describes the machinations of Egyptian politics as "regime-engineered violence, regime-manufactured security".

Besides the widening gap between the military and pro-reform forces, 2011 comes to a close in Egypt with other rumbling fault lines.

Results from two of three rounds of voting show the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, the Salafist Al Nour Party and the moderate Islamist Al Wasat have won up to 70 per cent of seats, according to unofficial results released by election observers and the parties.

Their victory has left the youth groups that were the first to take a stand in Tahrir Square feeling left behind. The Revolution Continues, a coalition of the mostly hard-line and leftist groups, won just seven seats out of 504. The Egypt Bloc of liberal and secular groups has so far won only about 20 per cent of seats.

Like many of the young activists and members of liberal groups, Mr Rizk fears the Islamist domination of the parliamentary elections will further close Egyptian society at a time when more openness is desperately needed.

"That's my fear of the Islamists - that they will take us back and not forward," he said.

For almost everyone in Egypt, it seems, the honeymoon is over.

The military is falling into disrepute, the secularist-Islamist divide is growing and according to Mr Harb, young people demand things Egypt's faltering economy and rickety institutions cannot deliver. Yet Mr Harb and other Egyptians remain optimistic. To them, the glow of those days in January and February, when Tahrir Square was not only a symbol of liberation but a venue for it, has not faded.

The Egyptians he sees every day at work, in the cafes and on the streets have forever lost their tolerance and appetite for authoritarian rule, he said. "People have got more courage and this is very important and the real achievement of this revolution," he said. "Something very deep inside people has changed. They know now that they can go demonstrate and fight. They felt their power. This is what shall remain."

bhope@thenational.ae