The massive protest on May 27 demonstrates that the spirit of the uprising against Mubarak lives on, but so do the challenges of fighting an entrenched regime

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Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

The Democracy ReportCAIRO, Egypt -- The Egyptian uprising that began on January 25 has yet to reach its zenith. Many an acerbic observer has noted that so far it has yielded little more than a personnel change in a military dictatorship. That same cynicism, of course, misled many Egypt-watchers when the protests first began, discount the potential of people power to force change. Oddly, the same demerits summoned then are now cited as proof that Egypt has not really witnessed a revolution or that its revolution is in disarray. The main allegations: the popular movement against the regime lacks a leader and a coherent plant; it relies too much on elites; its criticisms of the military will alienate most Egyptians, who just seek stability; and that the military is more firmly entrenched in power than ever before.

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Consider the significance of Friday, when one of the largest protests in Tahrir in months drew the full, preemptory wrath not only of the military junta, but of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, addressing the multitudes in the traditional intimidating rhetoric of Egypt's ruling class but through the modern vehicle of its Facebook page, warned about "suspicious forces conducting acts that will cause tension between the Egyptian people and the armed forces." Several activists, including a trio of artists, had been arrested the week before while promoting the march, and the military ominously warned it would stay away from Tahrir, and that thugs might run rampant. This last declaration was taken as a hint that the military might be reviving one of the regime's oldest tricks, pulling security off the street and then deploying its own paid baltagaya to beat and harass dissidents.

For its part, the Brotherhood, the only formidable political organization outside the state, has shown itself cynically willing to play footsie with the junta while discrediting its erstwhile revolutionary confreres. "At whom is the anger directed?" the Brotherhood leadership asked in a patronizing statement in which it explained why it would boycott the May 27 Tahrir protest, which it viewed as an unacceptable rebuke toward the military -- or what it considers the unassailable sentiments of the "majority" of the Egyptian people.

These are old tropes, echoing a favored ploy of Mubarak, his predecessors, and many of his surviving colleagues in the fraternity of Arab dictators: if you want stability, behave and do as we tell you -- otherwise, drown in chaos.

The youth leaders who galvanized the May 27 protest are anything but uniform or centrally organized. They included leftists, socialists, nationalists, and Islamists. The only thing they shared in common is a belief that mass protests have proven the only effective tool in winning concessions from the SCAF. Beyond that, their platforms and styles diverge. Leaders of the April 6 youth group are concentrating on a program of public outreach to convince Egyptians that only an end to de facto military rule can save the economy and their livelihoods. Many of the liberals have their eyes on upcoming elections, and are jockeying their newly formed parties for position, or arguing about the correct order for a transition: elections first, then a constitution, as the military suggests? Or vice versa? Muslim Brotherhood youth leaders brought out hundreds of their own members in solidarity and to tell their own leaders that the organization cannot function internally as a dictatorship.

Gaping questions face the revolutionary movement going forward. Can it force the military to back down on current practices that include censoring the media, trying civilians in military courts, drawing the rules for elections and political party formation by fiat, all while allowing the police to stay home and the economy to drift?

The coalition of groups that began assembling in Tahrir Square in January and continues to do so today has chosen not to elevate leaders or concoct a single platform. It is an inherently decentralized and pluralistic movement, with many leaders but not a single king or queen. That ethos is not accidental; organizers believe it is the strength of the Tahrir movement, enabling it to galvanize mass action even in the face of serious official resistance, as it did this past Friday. Hundreds of thousands showed up for a peaceful event that resuscitated some of the good vibes of the early Tahrir protests. Speakers addressed the crowd from five different stages, espousing competing views of the proper way to dismantle the junta's power, build a truly civilian state, and hold elections that for once Egyptians could believe in. Some of the speakers were political candidates, like Amr Hamzawy, or operatives in the camps of presidential contenders like Mohamed ElBaradei. Others were longtime activists in the protest camp, and some, like singer Ramy Essam, popular culture figures.


Brotherhood youth leader Moaz Abdelkareem. By Thanassis Cambanis

This multitude of voices -- some might call it a cacophony -- could ultimately prove Tahrir's Achilles' heel, but there's evidence to the contrary. The guileless patriotic nationalism of the assembly persists in Tahrir, endowing it with the same moral authority that ousted Mubarak. After other large protests in the last three months, the military has backed off from some of its more authoritarian plans and has grudgingly opened the political process by a crack.
So what about the root criticisms of Egyptian people power? Is it too fractious, elitist and naïve, to succeed?

We have good reason to think the answer is no. Elites in Egypt have always played a dominant role; the real question is which elites, and the people in Tahrir (who include working class and peasants as well as college kids) have a much more inclusive view of who should hold power. Of course the average Egyptian might grumble about the fears of chaos, as he's been habituated to do, but remember: millions of Egyptians mouthed similar worries in January and then changed their mind, casting their lot with the revolutionaries rather than their rulers.

It certainly would be nice if this revolutionary movement had a charismatic leader or figurehead, a Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel or even a Jose Ramos Horta. But the pathologies of Mubarak's Egypt left civil society destroyed and charismatic personalities neutered. That's why it required a leaderless movement to overthrow Mubarak -- there was no leader to coopt or imprison or discredit or torture into silence.

On New Year's Day, it took real guts to criticize Mubarak in public. Months later, it has become commonplace to openly deride not only the deposed leader but his cronies and the entire system they built. It's conceivable that, with the right circumstances, Egyptians could go further and break the taboo against criticizing the military, no longer fetishizing stability as defined by unelected generals.

Any change in political culture takes time; once the wheel turns, the previous red lines appear ridiculous in hindsight.

Admittedly, it's also naïve to predict this early in the game that the people will win, or even that they all share any single unifying demand. Egypt's political culture is still in the process of a fissile transformation, which only emerged into the open on January 25 and could burn alternately slow and hot for many years before reaching an end state. May 27 marked another inflection point.

Moaz Abdelkareem, one of the Muslim Brotherhood youth leaders who has been involved with the protests since the beginning and claims many secular activists among his close friends, defied his group's orders not to participate. With his help, hundreds of Brotherhood youth members turned out for May 27.

He described himself as "satisfied" with the turnout, which thronged the entire square from noon prayers until sunset.

"The number was enough. The square is full," Abdelkareem told me. "The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood" - his leaders, officially - "thought they were the only ones who can get people to the streets. Now they realize that the youth, from the Muslim Brotherhood and many other groups, have real power. This will provide the youth with more power and more space."