IN LATE NOVEMBER, as fierce battles raged in multiple flashpoints surrounding Tahrir Square – the epicenter of the Egyptian revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak at the start of 2011 – I ran into Mohamed Ghoneim, a secular activist who, earlier last year, formed a coalition called The Positive Movement to counter Egypt’s ascendant Islamist political forces. Tahrir was in turmoil again; an attempt by police and army troops to violently clear the latest sit-in there resulted in a massive street backlash. Now thousands of angry youths were battling security forces through clouds of tear gas and waves of buckshot that had already cost several protesters their eyes.
I had recently seen Ghoneim on a national television talk show, wearing a suit and calmly debating politics and the upcoming elections with a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now he was livid. A gas mask dangled from his neck, his eyes red and streaming. The elections were seemingly the furthest thing from his mind. “Right now, there are no elections,” he shouted. “We’re back to square one and anyone who doesn’t see this doesn’t know these people.”
READ DISPATCHES FROM TAHRIR, ASHRAF KHALIL'S ACCOUNT OF THE EGYPTIAN REVOLUTION AS IT HAPPENED, HERE
A few days later on November 28th and maybe a 10-minute walk away down Qasr al-Aini street – a primary traffic artery that feeds straight into Tahrir – it seemed like none of that madness had ever happened. The streets were calm and a long line of women wound down the sidewalk outside a local school, waiting patiently for their chance to vote in Egypt’s first post-revolution parliamentary elections. The mood was cordial and optimistic; voters grumbled about the long lines but proudly held up ink-stained index fingers upon emerging from the polling station.
At the time of writing, in late December, that same stretch of Qasr al-Aini Street where hundreds of women lined up peacefully to vote is a barren no-man’s land. Rubble litters the streets – the results of a new set of street clashes that erupted around the parliament building just outside Tahrir, starting on December 15th. There is no longer any traffic on Qasr al-Aini; the army erected a makeshift concrete barrier there, completely blocking off the street and horribly complicating Cairo’s already chronically bad traffic flow.
As Egypt approaches the one-year anniversary of the landmark 18-day uprising that forced Mubarak from power, the country seems to be holding a successful election and a raging second revolution all at the same time. The end result is confusing, surreal and deeply exhausting for most citizens here. But it’s also a fitting analogy for just how badly the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – the ruling collection of senior generals that has run the country since forcing Mubarak out on February 11th – has mismanaged the post-revolutionary landscape.
EGYPTIANS CAN’T HELP BUT NOTICE that Tunisia’s post-revolutionary period seems to be going much smoother, and part of the reason is that the Tunisian army (who, like their Egyptian counterparts, refused to fire on their people during the initial uprising) willingly returned to their barracks once dictator Zein al Abidine Ben Ali was forced into exile. The Tunisian generals, instead of seizing executive power for themselves and micro-managing the transition, left the civilians to hash out their future – which they’ve done, with a few expected missteps.
Egypt’s inspiring Arab Spring triumph gave way almost immediately to an extended summer of discontent, as the SCAF managed to gradually alienate just about every force in the Egyptian political landscape. Hailed as heroes of the revolution for their refusal to attack protestors, feelings towards the SCAF – especially among the activist forces – have curdled badly. The generals have proven themselves to be arrogant, tone-deaf, paranoid, cranky and unable to deal with any sort of public criticism.
Alaa Al Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building and one of the founders of the Kefaya [Enough!] movement, theorizes that the career military men who constitute the SCAF simply didn’t have the background or mindset to handle being thrust into a raucous newly democratic situation like post-Mubarak Egypt.
“You’re talking about a military mentality. It’s the first time anyone has tried to discuss anything with them,” Al Aswany tells Rolling Stone. “A normal military general, he’s either giving orders or receiving orders and carrying them out. The idea that we can sit down together and I can tell them, ‘This decision was wrong,’ is outside of their culture.”
The universally demanded purge and overhaul of the Interior Ministry has proven to be shallow and cosmetic. The trials of Mubarak and his senior lieutenants have been chaotic and, in the eyes of many, insincere. An estimated 12,000 Egyptian civilians have been sentenced before non-transparent military trials since Mubarak’s departure. Prominent activists such as Alaa Abdel Fatah have faced charges simply for speaking out against the SCAF’s performance. Military censors began monitoring state television and newspapers to ensure the SCAF was treated “respectfully.”
In many ways, the SCAF’s strategy for handling problems and criticism has been taken straight from Mubarak’s playbook. There are extralegal arrests and detentions, intimidation of the media and a tendency to blame all problems on a vague cocktail of shadowy conspirators and complicit media provocateurs. It all seems very familiar.
But what’s changed this time is the Egyptian people themselves. They are no longer the demoralized and downtrodden population that Mubarak ruled. The SCAF’s tactics have repeatedly met a fierce “Never Again” sort of backlash. When military censors attempted to enforce new red lines on the media, the journalists simply turned around and embarrassed them. In the fall, several prominent newspaper columnists simultaneously ran blank spaces in place of their columns as a protest against censorship attempts. Well-known public affairs talk-show host Yousri Foda did the same thing when the military attempted to influence his choice of guests; he simply took his show off the air for a few weeks and publicly announced the reason why.
On a street level, the backlash has been even more pronounced. Several times over the last six months of 2011, the soldiers violently dealt with some sort of street action – only to find themselves caught up in an unexpected war as thousands of fresh protestors rallied to the cause. The most recent set of December clashes started that way. When army officers allegedly beat up one of the activists who had been camping out for weeks outside of the parliament building, the response was an immediate escalation to a street battle. Each new set of clashes seems to produce a hardening of wills on each side. The army soldiers and the street protestors now seem to genuinely hate each other.
That hatred was fully on display on December 15th and 16th, when troops brutally cleared Tahrir Square and the area around the parliament building. The end result was a mountain of photographic and video evidence that essentially amounts to a dozen different Rodney King videos. Soldiers were videotaped firing handguns at protestors, throwing rocks onto the crowds from rooftops and inflicting savage group beat-downs on unarmed civilians who were either curled up in fetal positions or had long-since gone limp. The most notorious bit of footage shows a young woman being repeatedly beaten with sticks and dragged down the pavement. Her black abaya is pulled up over her head, exposing her bra and bare stomach while a soldier stomps down hard on her chest. The fallout from those incidents was so bad that the SCAF called a press conference to address the allegations of unjustifiable brutality. But instead of contrition, SCAF member General Adel Emara offered only defiance and stonewalling. All allegations of unnecessary force were under investigation, he said, and we would be informed of the results in due time. In the meantime, Emara repeatedly praised the performance of his troops and actually hailed the “self-restraint” shown by Egyptian soldiers in the course of their duties.
“The armed forces does not use violence systematically,” Emara said. “We exercise a level of self-restraint that others envy. We do not do that out of weakness but out of concern for national interests.”
AMONG THE HARDCORE PROTESTORS, there’s an acknowledgement that the Egyptian revolution is only half-finished. What started as a genuine popular uprising on January 25th last year actually ended 18 days later in a palace coup – with the regime’s military wing tossing the suddenly non-viable Mubarak cabal overboard in order to preserve the rest of the system. Now the protesters seek to press the reset button on the entire endeavor.
In late November, the SCAF offered a new concession: Instead of its original plan to stay in power through early 2013, it would cede executive control of the country in June 2012, after presidential elections are held. That timeline might actually be acceptable to the majority of Egyptians, but many activists – and an increasing number of prominent politicians and public figures – continue to push for an earlier SCAF departure and an accelerated shift to civilian authority.
There is a growing belief that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces must be dealt with exactly as Hosni Mubarak was: forced immediately from power with no exceptions and no grace period. Egyptian novelist and activist Ahdaf Soueif captured this sentiment best in a column in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, describing the current fight as a final showdown with the unreformed heart of the Mubarak machine. “Now our revolution is in an endgame struggle with the old regime and the military,” Soueif wrote. “The message is: everything you rose up against is here, is worse. Don’t put your hopes in the revolution or parliament. We are the regime and we’re back.”
And then there are the elections, which somehow seem to be going reasonably well alongside all the unrest. It’s as if the two phenomena were taking place in two completely different countries. As of press time, the second of three regional voting rounds was just finishing with the entire endeavor – which started on November 28th – scheduled to wrap up in early January. The reason for the extended election cycle was to ensure that an Egyptian judge could be present inside of every polling station – a fact that has probably contributed to the low number of allegations of electoral violations.
Voter turnout has been healthy and enthusiastic; people seem genuinely excited at the idea of voting in an election where their voice actually matters. As expected, Islamist parties have done extremely well – prompting waves of slightly hysterical handwringing among the country’s liberal and secular political forces. According to preliminary results, the Muslim Brotherhood – which was banned for decades under Mubarak from even forming an official party – will capture around 40 per cent of the new parliament. That performance is within range of the pre-election expectations for the Brotherhood. But the second place finisher so far has been the real shock: the Nour Party – Salafist Muslim fundamentalists who make the Brotherhood look like moderates. The Egyptian Bloc, the largest non-religious coalition, looks set to finish a distant third.
Exactly how Egypt’s new Islamist-heavy parliament will perform is one of about a dozen open questions on the table. There remains the formation of a committee to draft a new constitution and the looming question of whether the SCAF will ever fully submit to elected civilian authority. One indication of just how murky and mismanaged the process has been: as of halfway through the elections, it was still a topic of public debate just how much power this new parliament will actually possess.
The high voter turnout in elections should not be taken as a sign of approval of the SCAF’s performance. Indeed, in many cases the opposite might be true. Egyptians are deeply weary of a solid year of unrest and uncertainty; many are desperately clinging to the idea of elections and the SCAF’s promise to cede executive power in June 2012 as the fastest way back to something resembling normality.
As one female voter (who declined to give her name) told me as she waited in line to vote in the city of Suez: “I just want to return to stability. It has just been too much. The country needs to rest.”