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It took about nine months for the mainstream of Tahrir protesters (and their counterparts in Egypt’s major cities) to decisively, almost despairingly, realize they had not made a revolution last winter: It was a massive intifada that had led, instead, to a soft coup d’état.
The army leadership’s decision to intervene and oust Mubarak after the state security forces had failed to contain the original Tahrir rebellion through brutality was not an easy decision. Mubarak was one of their own and, in more ways than one, their paymaster. But the younger officers were fraternizing with the protesters, and the conscript rank and file that the young officers led were as much civilians in uniform as they were soldiers.
Of course, if one is a student of modern history with a keen interest in revolutions, it wasn’t that difficult to see in mid-February what Tahrir was and was not. There were the surface artifacts of revolution: the overthrown dictator and his two sons under arrest and eventually facing trial; the trials, too, of some of his closest associates from state security and from the closest of the crony capitalists; schools and municipalities taking the name of the dictator or that of his wife off buildings and renaming them after “the Revolution” or the martyrs of the uprising; the global drumbeat of media honoring Egypt’s democratic revolution. In those first months, delegates from the proliferating youth movements and from political parties both old and new were received courteously by the SCAF.
But underneath this avalanche of procedural change were enduring continuities. No one paid attention when the independent, almost underground, trade union groups were not treated with a similar courtesy. And it was no accident that the first “demonstration” to be broken up by the military after the fall of Mubarak was a labor strike. While politics bubbled, the stark economic conditions that were the Tahrir rebellion’s true ballast remained unchanged.
Now, in a curious way, history is repeating itself. Last January, the left-liberal April 6 Youth Movement that called for a demonstration at Tahrir Square had no expectation it was setting off an uprising. Its leaders hoped for merely a few thousand demonstrators. But Mubarak’s pervasive crony capitalism, corruption and reflexive brutality had reached a tipping point. When the police sought to quash the unexpected tens of thousands who turned out, thousands more from the fed-up middle and working classes flooded the square in response.
It is all happening again. A very small body of protesters, perhaps 50 or so, re-entered Tahrir in November. Standing together, they could occupy the little park at the square’s heart without blocking traffic. Many mainstream protesters were engaged elsewhere as members and cadres of several new political parties.
But the protest occurred just as SCAF was dragging out what little it did deliver: the process of bringing Mubarak and his sons up to Cairo from their Sharm el Sheikh retirement retreat and putting them on trial, for one; setting up a dragged-out election process under which the military would not yield power until June 2012, at the earliest, for another.
Meanwhile, the lack of security has increased greatly. So we have had a replay. On Friday, November 18, all parties participated in a large nonviolent demonstration in Tahrir, demanding implementation of the deferred reforms. After a few hours most went home. But a few hundred joined the 50 or so “rejectionist” protesters who have re-established a small tent camp in Tahrir. The next day, State Security and a special reserve force of the army attacked this encampment. Word spread by satellite TV, mobile phone, Facebook and Twitter, moving thousands to drop what they were doing and rush to the square to confront the security forces. More came on that Sunday, and still more on Monday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, amid clouds of tear gas, the street fighting intensified, and the number of protesters killed in the Tahrir neighborhood and outside Cairo swelled to more than 40.
Those attacked included the prominent Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, one of my former students at the American University in Cairo. Eltahawy was blindfolded, beaten up and sexually assaulted by security forces while covering the troubles at Tahrir Square, then detained at the Interior Ministry for 12 hours. Several other journalists covering the street fighting were also detained, including the amazing Egyptian-American documentary filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, who shot and edited the award-winning 2004 documentary “Control Room.”
The renewed rebellion and repression amid what appears to be two days of credible polling is emblematic of the disjunction that today characterizes Egypt’s unfinished revolution. But for now, Egypt’s masses appear to have concluded that they have little choice but to stay the course.
Contact Abdallah Schleifer at firstname.lastname@example.org