In Egypt’s “January 25 Revolution,” demonstrators packed Tahrir Square and on the eve of the 18th day of protests when they finally drummed President Hosni Mubarak out of power, they did so with a thunderous chant: “The people. The army. One hand.”
On the morning after, as Egyptians celebrated the end of 30-year rule of a brutal autocrat, many climbed up onto the army’s tanks where they waved the Egyptian flag and posed for family photographs with the soldiers they saw as heroes of their revolution.
So what happened? How is it that nine months later, the protesters in the square are taking on the military in violent confrontations that have resulted in the deaths of more than 30 people and injury to more than 2,000? And how is it that so many Egyptians, even those in the silent majority who stay far away from the tear gas and the chaos, fear that the uprisings that toppled Mubarak were not so much a revolution as they were a popularly supported military coup?
Yesterday the military named a new civilian prime minister, apparently in a bid to quell the protests. But 78-year-old Kamal Ganzouri is hardly a fresh face; he’s a former prime minister under Mubarak. His appointment by the generals will be unlikely to satisfy a movement set on achieving a democratically elected government.
For the protest movement—from the Muslim Brotherhood with its working-class muscle to the secular elite with its online activism—the bloody demonstrations of the last week in the run-up to Monday’s parliamentary election are a physical expression of opposition to the military’s clumsy and increasingly brutal exertions of power in recent months. They are a reaction to a fear that the military will not relinquish power and that Egypt will be left with the same old regime in place.
The most egregious example came earlier this month when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) tried to push through a constitutional provision that would allow the military to avoid civilian oversight, particularly of its budget. That is widely viewed as the single act that acted as the catalyst to reignite the protest movement.
And so these protesters have come together once again in the square to demand that the generals live up to their promise to relinquish the power that was trusted to them in the transition as long as they allowed Egypt for the first time in many decades to hold free and fair elections. On the eve of the Nov. 28 election, which begins a three-phase process to elect a new Parliament, the demonstrators are turning up the volume. They want the military to hear loud and clear that the country will no longer tolerate having a military that exists as a state within a state and that does not answer to a popularly elected, civilian government.
For the protest movement, the violent street demonstrations of the last week are the second phase of the revolution.
Back on Feb. 10 and 11 when Mubarak stepped down, Mohammed Abbas, a 25-year-old who grew up in the ethos of the Muslim Brotherhood and became a member of the Revolutionary Youth Council, took the microphone on a stage in Tahrir Square and singlehandedly led a crowd of some 200,000 people in the chant of “The people. The Army. One hand.”
Now Abbas, who has left the Muslim Brotherhood and joined a small, centrist party that seeks to combine Islamic religious beliefs with the ideals of a more secular government, is back on the streets protesting against the military.
“The Army has betrayed us,” Abbas told me in a long interview in October, when I was in Cairo reporting.
As he went about doing the final procedural work on preparing his candidacy for a seat in the lower house of parliament, Abbas said, “If we are going to make this revolution work, we will have to stand up to the military. Otherwise, we have done nothing and it is just the same old regime running things.”
That sense of losing the revolution was pervasive in Cairo this fall when I worked with GlobalPost to lead a group of 16 young Egyptian and American journalists in a reporting project to examine the state of the revolution. The reporters uncovered excesses of the military that were refueling the fire of the opposition, including; the military’s widespread practice of putting civilians in front of military tribunals where in just the last nine months rights to due process are being denied to some 12,000 defendants; the military’s medieval practice of "virginity tests" in the processing of female protesters, one of whom is now in court charging that these "virginity tests" are tantamount to rape; the military’s brutal crackdown of a protest by minority Coptic Christians last month, which resulted in the killing of 27 Christians who had gathered to speak out against the burning of a church.
But despite the outrages of the military, having the military in charge is the only reality the country has known for 60 years. For many Egyptians the military is a comforting albeit patriarchal and often brutal expression of leadership. Not everyone is so quick to be rid of the generals, particularly in the more agrarian reaches of Upper Egypt and in the anonymous housing blocks of Cairo’s urban sprawl. A rival demonstration to Friday’s anti-military protesters in Tahrir Square was held by those publicly supporting the military.
You can hear this pro-military sentiment expressed with genuine conviction in the officers' clubs where the retired generals gather. There, such sentiments, of course, are as predictable as they are hollow, particularly since many of these officers have made a generous living off of the largely U.S.-funded economic largesse that the military doles out to its own. But what is worth noting is that some of these retired generals are now also siding with the protesters and this is perhaps one of the better barometers of where Egypt may be heading.
On an afternoon in mid-October, I went to speak with Mohammed Okasha, a retired Air Force general.
Okasha was a bomber squadron leader in the Six Day War against Israel in 1967 and the October Sixth War of 1973, also against Israel. During the “January 25 Revolution” in Tahrir Square, he came with a banner that read, “The fighters of October 6 are right behind the fighters of January 25.”
“It was the people’s trust of the military, that was why the revolution stopped so quickly and we didn’t have a bloodbath,” said Okasha.
In an apartment decorated with medals for valor in combat, Okasha added, “The people are expecting a lot, and I think we are right to exert more pressure to be sure the military fulfills their promise. The military owes it to Egypt to get this right.”